Saturday, May 9, 2009
It Happened In Italy
I’ve wanted to learn more about the Holocaust ever since I read Leon Uris’s Exodus, so I requested Elizabeth Bettina’s It Happened in Italy to review. This book documents the stories of many Italians who sheltered Jews from the Nazis, and balances the past with the present by including the testimony of several of those Jews, some of whom survived internment camps in Italy.
My first impression is of a very feel-good book that focuses on people’s positive experiences. The author stresses, over and over again, that the Jews were happy and safe in the low-security camps set up in this particular part of Italy, where they basically played soccer, socialized and attended synagogue.
I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Bettina backs this up with many photographs to show people enjoying themselves, but it seems too good to be true. This is the theme of the book: that even in an Axis-friendly country, some people did all they could not just to save lives but to give their fellow human beings a better quality of life. It’s still difficult to believe, though, since what’s depicted here is a concerted effort involving everyone in the village of Campagna and thousands of others besides, and It Happened in Italy provides two unconvincing reasons as to why.
All the survivors we interviewed said the same thing: it was in the Italian character to help.
…the most educated group of people in the world created the Holocaust and the “Final Solution”. Yet it many cases, it was the simple people, the “uneducated” people who saved the Jews. Simple goodness triumphed over sophisticated evil.
I looked Hitler, Himmler and Goring up on the Internet but did not find any evidence that they made up “the most educated group of people in the world”. By the way, Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Amazing how all his readin’ and writin’ didn’t corrupt him to the point where he persecuted Jews in England.
In other words, there’s no insight into why this story happened as it did, why no one in the Italian village seems to have even tried to sell out the Jews (such as what happened to the Czech paratroopers who carried out Operation Anthropoid). This book is too focused on telling the stories to do anything more than simply tell them.
Which may be enough for other readers. As well as the photographs, Bettina includes copies of documents and maps, giving the book a very visual feel as she traces interweaving paths back to the past. But for me it was repetitive, especially the scenes where a survivor tells Bettina his story, then repeats the story to a Vatican official, then tells it once more to the Italians when they’re reunited. I’m glad that so many people survived the Holocaust and have good memories of Italy, but I didn’t enjoy reading this book.