Cinque Storie Ferraresi, by Giorgio Bassani
Italian Jews Under Fascism
Cinque Storie Ferraresi (Five Ferrarese Stories).
by Giorgio Bassani.
Einaudi Publishers (Torino, Italy, 1956). 1200 Italian lire.
Jews have always been a very small minority in Italy, but in the past hundred years or so they have played an important part in the country’s cultural, scientific, and political life. Fictional descriptions of Italian Jewish life, however, remain rare. Except in the old ghetto of Rome, Italian Jews have belonged mainly to the educated middle class. As thinkers, writers, or artists, they have contributed to Italian rather than to specifically Jewish movements. The painter Amedeo Modigliani was typical of this liberal assimilationist trend; in spite of the apparently Jewish morbidezza of his temperament, he never painted a single picture which can be defined as recognizably Jewish. Nor was Modigliani the only Italian Jewish painter of distinction; of others—Vito d’Ancona, Serafino da Tivoli, Roberto Melli, or Sadun—one generally forgets they were Jews.
Among contemporary Italian novelists, there have also been outstanding writers of Jewish origin: Italo Svevo, whose stories describe the Italian-speaking upper bourgeoisie of Austro-Hungarian Trieste without ever mentioning that any of his recognizably Jewish characters are Jews; Alberto Moravia, who likewise refrains, even when describing his own family, from proclaiming the hideous secret of his ancestry; and Carlo Levi, the author of Christ Stopped at Eboli. Giorgio Bassani’s Cinque storie ferraresi, a collection of five stories mainly about relations between Jews and Gentiles in Ferrara during the yean that preceded Fascism, in the Fascist era, and since the Liberation, are exceptional in that they state their problem explicitly and even present a few characters who still use occasional words of the dialect of the old Italian ghettos, a kind of Italian analogue of Ladino or of Yiddish that was once spoken in Rome, Livorno, Ferrara, Venice, Ancona, and a few smaller cities.
The Jewish community of Ferrara has an ancient history. When Ferrara was ruled by the enlightened Este princes, its ghetto was a great center of Jewish learning. Even in our age, many Ferrarese Jewish families bore obviously local names, those of neighboring cities where Jews had been allowed to reside ever since the Middle Ages: Fano, Ravenna, Pesaro, Camerino, Veneziani, Bassani. With few exceptions, these Jews belonged, until Fascist measures upset the structure of the community, to the more prosperous local bourgeoisie of professional men and merchants. Many of them had been active patriots at the time of the Italian Risorgimento, in the 19th century; after 1920, many had even been Fascists and had participated in the movement’s campaigns against Communism and Socialism. Suddenly, these Jews found themselves, in 1938, deprived of their rights as Italian citizens. Under the shortlived Fascist Republic, toward the end of World War II, nearly two hundred Ferrarese Jews, practically half the community, were rounded up and deported to extermination camps in Germany and Poland. Very few survivors returned from this ordeal.
One of Bassani’s stories1 deals with the unwelcome return of a lone survivor to a postwar Ferrara where everyone is intent on forgetting the past. At first, nobody recognizes Geo Josz, a disconcertingly grotesque Jewish Banquo’s ghost who has become, as a consequence of hunger and deprivations, quite monstrously obese. His half-crazed behavior causes universal embarrassment, even to his own surviving relatives, whether they had been conformists and good Fascists and thus managed to escape deportation by assuring themselves the protection of Fascist friends, or active anti-Fascists who had joined the underground movement and fought among the Partisans. In pressing his claims for restitution of his murdered father’s home and business firm, Geo Josz is tactless and arouses all sorts of hostilities. He is a stuffed shirt, begins to dress conspicuously well, tries to behave as if the clock would simply be set back a few years, and makes tactless remarks about the beards of the former Partisans who, having been unable to shave regularly when they were living in the maquis, now flaunt their rugged appearance as a mark of distinction. Geo Josz is indeed a problem to all, until, for some mysterious reason, his pose breaks down, and the pent-up bitterness within him suddenly boils over and he slaps the face of a former Fascist in public. After this scandal, Geo Josz is seen for a while wearing again, every day, the shocking rags in which he had returned from deportation. He sits around all day in a café, recounting endlessly the macabre details of his family’s extermination. Then he disappears for good, as mysteriously as he had returned, abandoning his home, his business, and everything that he had regained.
The four other stories in Bassani’s book all present equally inadequate Jewish characters. It is as if the author, one of postwar Italy’s most remarkable poets and the editor of the Italian section of American-born Princess Gaetani de Bassiano’s Botteghe Oscure, were intent on pointing out that the burden a Jew must bear is too heavy for any ordinary human being. The four hundred Jews of Ferrara seem to have been lonely souls, misunderstood by their more numerous Christian neighbors, puzzling to their Gentile wives or mistresses, unable even to understand themselves. Only one or two elderly characters, in these stories, continue to dwell like living anachronisms in the old ghetto, speak its special jargon, remain true to their ancestral faith and traditions, and seem content.
Bassani describes for us, with great sensitivity and an unusual gift for significant psychological and political detail, the death throes of a dying community. We feel that it was doomed to disappear, even if Fascism had not so brutally hastened its dissolution. In discussing the absurdities and crimes of his Jewish or Gentile characters, Bassani explains their motives but never condemns. His understanding of human cowardice and folly are indeed remarkable. Though he reduces tragedy to the proportions of petty local scandal, he views with infinite compassion this whole tiny doomed world. Nor is his realism, in this respect, different from that of other Italian storytellers. A verista writing in the same tradition as Verga, Pirandello, and Silone, he remains a regionalist whose special milieu, instead of being that of the peasants of Sicily or of the Abbruzzi, is the Jewish middle class of Ferrara that produced learned rabbis a couple of centuries ago, many distinguished professional men in the past hundred years, and, if rumor can be trusted, Fascist Air Marshal Italo Balbo in our own age.
1 To be published in COMMENTARY in the near future.—Ed.