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.


Angela Ackerman said...

I agree-sounds a bit too slanted to believe. I've never heard this before, so I guess I would want to read a few more accounts. It's pretty weasy to discard interviews of negative experiences to spin something.

Marian Perera said...

I actually felt a bit guilty for not liking this book (it's so "happy happy joy joy") until I read the anti-education bit towards the end.

And I wonder, if it's in the Italian character to be kind to the less fortunate, how does the author explain people like Mussolini and the Borgias? Or did they just not exist in this perfect-Italy world?

Theresa said...

I am reading the book now and I think the problem is the writer is too chatty and loses focus. This is a very interesting story to tell but she should let the people tell it, instead of her experiences uncovering the evidence.

I am only half way through but it is disappointing to read brief survivors accounts followed by pages of the authors experience uncovering the story. The balance should be the opposite.

Someone should follow up, I believe the story is true and would be an excellent read from someone with stronger writing skills, perhaps.

Good on the Author for Her efforts tho.

Anonymous said...

I think the most significant point in regards to the book is that "aren't we fortunate that someone told the story before the survivors all died".
So there was a Mussolini, that doesn't take away from all the GOOD the Italians did for the Jews.
Thank you Ms. Bettina for your passion and determination to follow the story.

Jasha Levi said...

For three years (1941-1944) I was interned in Italy as a civilian prisoner of war. Witn my family and other 60 Yugoslav Jews, we lived among the most humane people in the small town of Asolo in the Province of Treviso. We were able to ran a school for our children, and every year matriculated them in the Venice Ghetto.

I described that period, among other adventures of my 89 years as student/rebel, soldier and journalist across Continents, in my memoir: The Last Exile - Tapestry of a life.

To me, Italy became the adopted Motherland on the periphery of the Holocaust. Spiritually, it remains my preferred country in the whole world.

Jasha M. Levi

Janis said...

You should check out -- it indeed was a huge thing in Italy, and it happened and has been documented, from Mussolini on down. It does strain belief ... but it happened.

Anonymous said...

As a survivor saved by many brave and kind every-day people, farmers and the like, I can attest that these stories are factual.......80% of the Jews in Italy were saved by such Italian sacrifices.

Anonymous said...

My name is Lynn, and I can confirm that these stories are true. This past semester while I studied in Italy, I met Elizabeth Bettina and had the honor of going back with her to Campagna, the village where this wonder occurred. There she introduced me to the villagers and her family, taking me to the very steps of the convent that she mentions in her book. It was wondrous to see these stories come to life. I had the pleasure of spending 2 weeks travelling through southern Italy with her and can honestly say she is a true inspiration and a real friend to me. Blessings on you Elizabeth.