An internationally acclaimed novelist and journalist movingly chronicles her childhood in Rome during World War II, providing a rare account by a Catholic of Jewish persecution and Papal responsibility
In 1937, Rosetta Loy was a privileged five-year-old growing up in the heart of the well-to-do Catholic intelligentsia of Rome. But her childhood world of velvet and lace, airy apartments, indulgent nannies, and summers in the mountains was also the world of Mussolini's fascist regime and the increasing oppression of Italian Jews. Loy interweaves the two Italys of her early years, shifting with powerful effect from a lyrical evocation of the many comforts of her class to the accumulation of laws stipulating where Jews were forbidden to travel and what they were not allowed to buy, eat, wear, and read. She reveals the willful ignorance of her own family as one by one their neighbors disappeared, and indicts journalists and intellectuals for their blindness and passivity. And with hard-won clarity, she presents a dispassionate record of the role of the Vatican and the Catholic leadership in the devastation of Italy's Jews.
Written in crystalline prose, First Words offers an uncommon perspective on the Holocaust. In the process, Loy reveals one writer's struggle to reconcile her memories of a happy childhood with her adult knowledge that, hidden from her young eyes, one of the world's most horrifying tragedies was unfolding.
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About the Author
Born in Rome in 1931, Rosetta Loy is one of Italy's leading novelists and journalists. She has written seven novels and been honored with every major Italian literary award. In 1996 she received the prestigious European Prize for literature. Her work has been translated into eleven languages.
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A Childhood in Fascist Italy
By Rosetta Loy, Gregory Conti
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 Rosetta Loy
All rights reserved.
IF I GO BACK IN TIME and think of when I first heard the word Jew, I see myself sitting on a little blue chair in the nursery, a room with flowery peach-colored wallpaper showing the marks of children's scribbles. It is late spring and the high window facing the stone terrace is wide open. I can look into the apartment on the other side of the street and see the curtains there swinging in the breeze. Inside there's a party going on; I can watch the people coming and going. Just a few days ago, the family had a new baby and the party is for him. I turn to the woman sitting beside me, also on a small chair, her body wrapped up like a ball.
"Is it a baptism?" I ask her.
"Certainly not," she says. She is Annemarie, my German nanny, my fräulein. "They are Jews," she adds, gesturing toward the window with her chin. "They don't baptize their babies, they circumcise them," she explains, using the German, beschneiden, with a grimace of disgust. I haven't learned the word, but I know part of it, schneiden, to cut.
"What?" I say, not believing her.
"Yes, they cut off a piece of the flesh," she tells me matter of factly.
"With scissors?" I picture the blood, a sea of red washing over the bassinet. Annemarie's explanation is vague but chilling. She indicates some part of the body as she peers out the window with a severe look on her face, but I don't understand her gesture. "Yes," she says, "really, with scissors."
Inside the apartment across the street I can see little girls with bows in their hair just like mine, and ladies wearing pearl necklaces, draped in soft knit dresses like the ones my mother wears.
"They are Jews," Annemarie says again, and her beautiful sky-blue eyes turn harsh as her gaze rests on a maid walking through the room with a tray in her hands. Perhaps there among the teacups is the piece that was cut off the new baby, a lump of skin or even a whole finger.
Our neighbor, Signora Della Seta, is also Jewish. She lives next door and is old, or at least she seems old to me. One day when I'm sick she comes to visit. I have a fever and am lying in my mother's room in the huge double bed, where my body is all but swallowed up. Signora Della Seta's gray hair is rolled up in a net. She has a present for me, a little basket lined with blue satin; inside is a baby doll held in place by elastic strips sewn into the satin. Another strip holds a tiny baby's bottle with a red tip. I think it's a beautiful present; there's also a doll-sized pair of underpants and a sweater. I love Signora Della Seta, even though she's Jewish.
Our upstairs neighbors are the Levis. They are noisy. Sometimes I can hear them playing the piano. Their mother has very dark bright eyes. The Levis are not kind like Signora Della Seta and we see them only on the stairs or in the elevator. They don't bring me presents. Annemarie says they are Jewish as well. Every so often Giorgio Levi rings our doorbell and asks my brother to play soccer with him in the Villa Borghese. Giorgio is a year older than my brother. He has dark wavy hair and the cheerful face of a boy who lives to race down the stairs to play outside with his friends. After the game, my brother comes back and washes his feet in the bidet. He complains that Giorgio is bossy and if he doesn't pass him the ball fast enough, Giorgio elbows him in the side.
At kindergarten, Mother Gregoria shows us the color illustrations in the Bible. She has round red cheeks. She's small and she, too, sits in a little chair, the folds of her long white wool dress spread out on the floor. Embroidered over her breast is a pierced red heart worn in memory of the Passion of Christ. In her chubby little hands she holds up a picture of Abraham raising his sword over Isaac, his son. Luckily an angel comes in time to stop him from killing Isaac. Abraham and Isaac are Jews also; they chose to die in the flames rather than deny God. In those days God had no heart, then luckily Christ came down to earth. Unlike God, Christ is beautiful and good. He has long chestnut hair and blue eyes. Every morning when I go to kindergarten he is there waiting for me. His pink plaster hand points to the heart exposed on his chest, which has little drops of blood dripping from it. The heart is where love is. Christ loves us.
We are Christians — I was baptized in Saint Peter's and my godmother is Signora Basile. She's old like Signora Della Seta but she's a lot skinnier; her long neck and small head make her look like an ostrich. One time when she came to visit, my brother opened the door to the living room, where she was sitting, and said, "Signora Basile has a mustache," then ran away. It's true — the bristly gray hairs above her lip scratch my cheek when she leans down to kiss me. But she has very gentle round eyes, and she didn't even get angry when my brother was rude to her. He was trying to be tough. For my baptism she gave me a gold chain with the Madonna of Pompeii on a medallion that I suck on when I'm in bed in the dark. Every year at Christmas Signora Basile organizes a charity raffle for the poor people of the parish. Pilate was Roman and the Pharisees and the scribes were Jews. Herod was a Jew and so was Cain. And Barabbas. They were all Jews, except the centurions.
* * *
ON THE DAYS when I don't go to kindergarten, Annemarie takes me to the Villa Giulia to a little park tucked away beside the National Gallery of Modern Art. I'm always wrapped up in a hat and scarf because I'm not as strong as my sister Teresa. There's hardly ever anyone else in the park, but then I'm not supposed to play with other children in case I catch something from them. Sometimes there's another little girl on her own, crouched near the benches, stirring the gravel around with a colored shovel. I can see her underpants, the large white kind we call petit bateau, just like the ones Annemarie slips on me every morning. I squat on the gravel as well and look at her. She is blond and her wavy hair falls down around her very fair skin. I'd like to have her shovel. Around her neck she wears a gold star. Annemarie calls to me. She's talking to the other girl's nanny. They say that the girl is very rich. Maybe I can play with her. I turn back to look at her as she stirs the gravel and am fascinated by her star as it dangles in the sun, reflecting sparks of light. I ask her whether I can touch it. "No, you can't," she says. She doesn't want me to come too close. As we walk home, I ask Annemarie about the star. "It's the Star of David," she tells me. Mother Gregoria has shown us a picture of David slinging stones at Goliath. Annemarie explains that the girl wears a six-pointed star instead of a Blessed Mother medallion or one of baby Jesus. I don't know how, but I understand that the girl is Jewish without Annemarie's telling me. "Did they cut her, too?" I say. "What do you mean? Cut what?" Annemarie is speaking German. I have to speak German as well, otherwise she won't answer me. Now the star seems full of mystery. I'm jealous of the girl who can wear that instead of my plain old medallion.
I have a book about the adventures of a little Catholic boy kidnapped by unbelievers who want him to renounce Jesus. In the book there are some Freemasons who are very wicked. The boy is taken to a ship where there is a Jew, and he's very wicked, too. They all want to take away the boy's faith but he prays to the Blessed Mother and resists. At a certain point he is almost blinded. I don't like that book, it's cruel and stupid. I like the book about the sandman who sprinkles silver dust on the eyelids of sleeping children and carries them off to the Land of Dreams. I also like the book where you see the Befana at night, struggling to make her way through the snow and sliding down the chimney into the houses. I believe in the Befana, even though it never snows in Rome and we don't have a chimney.
* * *
THAT'S ME in the winter of 1936. But before I go back to the little girl on the blue chair looking intently out the window, I want for a moment to step back even further, to 1931, the year IX of the Fascist era, when that little girl is born in our house at 21 via Flaminia in the red room, named for its wine-colored carpet. A few days after her birth, as raindrops slither down the windows of the family car, the girl is taken to the Saint Peter's Basilica to be baptized. She is accompanied by her brother and two sisters, along with their nannies and governess (the brother is four, the youngest sister just fifteen months). At the baptismal font she is given the name Pia, together with several other names, in honor of Pius XI, the reigning pope.
In November of that year, the Ministry of Public Affairs issues a circular requiring university professors to swear an oath of loyalty to Fascism. Of 1,200 professors, 1,188 agree to take the oath and pledge to teach according to the principles of Fascist doctrine; only 12 professors prefer to give up their positions.
Also in that year, Giovanni Papini, a well-known and respected writer, publishes a new novel. Papini is a Florentine, a talented man of letters with a powerful intellect; in the early years of the century he was denounced as a heretic. Following his public conversion to Catholicism in 1921, he wrote Storia di Cristo, a fictionalized biography based on the legend of the Wandering Jew, who is embodied in Buttadeo, an immortal man condemned to wander the world for all eternity. To Papini, Buttadeo represents the fate of the Jews, who will forever bear the stain of Christ's blood. Despite the punishment of their exile and their isolation from mankind, the people who killed the son of God obstinately refuse to convert. Papini claims that the eternal wanderer has in fact found a refuge, a homeland "in gold." Other members of the tribe, those from "the ghettos of Slavia," are described as "filthy and oily." It is they who represent the original Buttadeo. Storia di Cristo provoked a great controversy when published, but it nonetheless sold seventy thousand copies in its first year and was translated into French, English, German, Polish, Spanish, Romanian, Dutch, and Finnish.
Papini's new novel, Gog, is a series of fictional interviews conducted by a wealthy and eccentric American businessman — the eponymous Gog — who wants to discover the hidden diseases infecting contemporary society. Gog interviews Mahatma Gandhi, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Edison, George Bernard Shaw, and a whole series of celebrated twentieth-century figures. At some point in the book, the reader encounters Benrubi, Gog's secretary and a Jewish prototype. He is described as "a short young man with slightly curved shoulders, concave cheeks, sunken eyes, his hair showing the first signs of gray, his skin the greenish color of swamp mud ... and with the facial expression of a dog who is afraid of being beaten but who nonetheless knows that he is necessary." Answering his employer's questions about the cowardliness of the Jews, Benrubi begins a lengthy explanation of his people's preoccupation with money:
Unable to take up iron, the Jews protected themselves with gold. ... Having become a capitalist in self-defense, the Jew, by way of the moral and mystical decadence of Europe, has become one of the rulers of the world, ... dominating rich and poor alike. ... Spat on and kicked around by his enemies, how was the Jew to exact his revenge? By degrading the Gentiles, by humiliating them, unmasking and destroying their ideals, ruining the values by which Christianity claims to live. If you look closely, over the last century, Jewish intelligence has done nothing but undermine and defile your dearest beliefs. ... Since the moment Jews were allowed to write freely your spiritual scaffolding has been threatening to collapse.
Benrubi goes on to recite a list of personalities, such as Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, and Cesare Lombroso, who have destroyed Christian values. He concludes:
Born among different peoples, engaged in various fields of research, German, French, Italian, and Polish, poets and mathematicians, anthropologists and philosophers, all of [the Jews] share a common character and a common goal: to cast doubt on that which we know as truth, to debase that which is lofty, to dirty that which is pure, to question that which seems solid, to vilify that which is respected.
Twelve years later, in 1943, Gog will feature in Radio Vichy's propaganda and the Italian Republic of Salo will adopt the book for use in a course on anti-Semitism at the officers' training school.
Although Papini is highly regarded by my family, and Storia di Cristo and Gog have their place on the bookshelf alongside the biography of Napoleon and novels by Paul Bourget and Antonio Fogazzaro, my family is neither Fascist nor even racist. There are a few books that might suggest otherwise, such as those by the priest Ugo Mioni, which, despite their evident anti-Semitic inspiration, are read aloud to us children. But the respect given these books is certainly based on religious considerations.
My father went to a boarding school run by the Barnabite monks of Lodi; he entered at age ten and left eight years later, his only break twenty days of vacation each year spent with his family. His stories about his school years thrill us and leave us feeling vaguely anxious at the same time. He conjures up pictures of boys lined up on their dormitory beds, waiting for the servants to pull off their black boots. The servants pull so hard that the boys slide off their beds onto the floor, and it always feels like their feet are being pulled off along with their boots. He recalls washing in the mornings with a pitcher of water, a layer of ice frozen across the surface. He tells of playing cops and robbers, a game permitted only so long as the boys don't touch one another: touching is forbidden. In the game they are allowed to tap one another with a stiff rope that has been put out to freeze in the courtyard; the rope, which becomes hard as a cane, is used savagely by the bigger boys to beat their younger schoolmates. He talks of the eternal wait for his mother's monthly visit and of the cold and darkness of foggy mornings that make him feel so sad he claims to be sick and spends the day without eating, all alone in the infirmary.
He was an irreverent and undisciplined boy who played hooky from school to go swimming in the River Po. But before long he was transformed into a model student. At his graduation he received an honorable mention, a distinction that involved having his portrait in oil hung in the school gallery. Then it was on to the Polytechnic Institute in Turin, to his passion for engineering and his discovery of politics. Almost immediately, he and his best friend, Fioravanti, joined the anti-Fascist Catholic Popular Party, led by Father Luigi Sturzo. Fortunately, my father was exempt from military service on medical grounds.
He was allergic to Fascism from its inception. By 1919, when Benito Mussolini founded the National Fascist Party, he was a licensed engineer who had already made a name for himself constructing houses, bridges, and roads. He optimistically believed that Fascism would turn out to be a mere brushfire. Even after Mussolini's appointment as prime minister in 1922, even after Giacomo Matteotti, his Socialist deputy, was assassinated by Fascist thugs, my father still hoped Mussolini would soon fall. Instead, the Fascists only became stronger. To put a stop to the interminable chatter of the Fascist enthusiasts who came to his office he put up a sign in the waiting room that said, "In this office we do not talk politics." He married late; my mother is thirteen years younger than he.
Eventually, like the vast majority of Italians, he had to register as a member of the National Fascist Party in order to be able to continue working; now he wears the party symbol in his jacket lapel. However, he doesn't own a single uniform. On those rare occasions when he has to put on a black shirt for the official opening of a construction site or for a dignitary's visit to some road or bridge, we children watch in delight as he stands in front of the mirror mimicking the gestures and attitudes of the Fascists. Fioravanti, his friend from Turin Polytechnic, prefers to work abroad rather than sign up with the party.
One of my mother's best friends is married to a Jew, Baron Castelnuovo, and Signora Della Seta, our neighbor, is often in the living room taking tea, sitting in the armchair usually occupied by my godmother, Signora Basile. Mama happily shops in stores with names like Coen and Schostal, which is one of her favorites. And our pediatrician is Dr. Luzzatti, physician to the royal family and a full-blooded Jew, or Volljude, as Hitler would say.
For Italian Jews, the first step on the road to tragedy is in 1933 with Hitler's rise to power, when a profound shift occurs in the minds of Italy's forty million citizens. With his appointment to the chancellery, the emblems of Italian Fascism, its discipline and fervor, are conflated with the deathly racial program of the Nazi swastika, and religiously inspired anti-Semitism (which in all probability would have died down over time) is now bolstered by quasi-utopian hatred and fanaticism.
Excerpted from First Words by Rosetta Loy, Gregory Conti. Copyright © 1998 Rosetta Loy. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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