The Civilization of the Holocaust in Italy: Poets, Artists, Anti-Semites

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A Discussion with Wiley Feinstein

Why are people overlooking the impact of the anti-Semitic culture that developed in Europe for centuries?

I think that there are two principal reasons that cultural aspects of anti-Semitism are overlooked. The first is that historians and other humanist scholars who study the Middle Ages and Renaissance typically assume the point of view of the creators of culture - poets, artists, saints - and wind up identifying with a fundamentally Christian perspective on Jews. The other reason is that the way that the Shoah (Holocaust) has been studied as a barbaric violation of cultural norms and that Holocaust study has typically focused on physical acts of barbarism rather than on the longstanding cultural perceptions that throughout Europe led to great popular support for anti-Semitic policies and anti-Semitic legislation that preceded the actual physical violence.

What promotes the view that Italy did not participate in the Holocaust?

The view that Italy did not really participate in the Holocaust began to be developed in the period immediately following World War II. Italians in general refused to acknowledge that Mussolini had enjoyed overwhelming popular support and specifically historians did not want to acknowledge or remember the support for the Italian anti-Semitic policies that had been greatly encouraging to Hitler. Italian Jews, too, in their writings (including Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz) tended to emphasize German barbarity rather than Italian cultural complicity in pursuing vehement anti-Semitic policies. When in 1961 Renzo De Felice wrote his influential long and thorough study on Jews during the fascist period, he was not in anyway inclined to view Italy's anti-Semitic culture and legislation as significant in a larger historical reckoning.

You discuss Leviís Survival at Auschwitz, in which he describes Italy as a safe haven. What made Levi think of Italy in this way?

Levi does not exactly describe Italy as a safe haven - but he does emphasize that Italian culture promotes universal values that should make it a safe haven for all. Levi acquired this view of Italian culture from his high school studies and from his readings. It is interesting that his view of Italy seems somewhat more negative in his The Periodic Table, written almost 30 years after Survival.

Why do historians conclude that because there was a low death rate of Italian Jews during the Holocaust that Italy must have not been connected with the German extremist anti-Semitism?

I think that it is mostly the overall number- about 7000 - that has been part of the logic behind the tendency to disassociate Italy from German. 7000 victims simply does not seem a very large number by general Holocaust standards. But the Jewish population was (and is) extremely small and the actual death rate is not really such a low death rate- since the number amounts to about 20% of the prewar Jewish population of Italy. The refusal to discuss Italian anti-Semitism as in any way related to extremist anti-Semitism in Germany has developed both because of general way of viewing Germans as from Mars and Italians as from Venus and because, as I have stated above, of reticence to discuss cultural bases for violent anti-Semitism.

Why do people connect the death rate with a countryís amount of participation in the Holocaust? Why are other elements of life disregarded, as if they are almost just inconveniences for the Jewish people, rather than life altering events?

I think there is a kind of natural tendency to start from quantative analysis and to assume that countries in which the number of deaths seem "manageably" small must be countries that are not important to study in mapping out a history of the Holocaust. Part of the reason for disregarding other elements of life and the quality of persecution is that those who suffered often did not wish to report how they felt and how debilitating the persecution was. In studying Italy, I found especially disturbing the war on the Jewish religion and on Zionism that was carried out ferociously from 1937 on. And unfortunately the situation today in Italy is also disturbing. In his recent (September 18, 2005) pre-Rosh HaShanah address to the Jews of Italy, the president of Jewish community spoke of "a new anti-Semitism in Europe that is rearing its ugly head" and speaks of widespread ignorance of Jewish history, tradition and culture and a great tendency to hold distorted ideas about Jews and Judaism.

--Lorna Marie McManus

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