- This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz
Ann Goldstein's translation of Questo è stato (This Has Happened) by Piera Sonnino arrives on the American literary scene as a valuable addition to both Jewish and Italian historical and cultural studies. Sonnino's book also positions itself within the literature of memory. This is understood not as purely individual remembrance, but mainly as an analysis of the sites of both personal and collective memory.
For 42 years, Piera Sonnino's text existed only as a personal autobiography. In May 2002 it was her daughters who sent the 60 typewritten pages to the editorial office of Diario, which had invited readers to tell their family stories as part of a "long-term memory" project. It is unclear whether the manuscript was simply a first draft or if it represented the last of numerous revisions, or if Sonnino originally typed the text herself. Diario published the [End Page 221] text in a special issue dedicated to "Memory" on January 24, 2002. The book was officially published in 2004 by Il Saggiatore.
While skimming through This Has Happened, the reader's gaze immediately rests on the photographs that complement Sonnino's account of her family's murder at Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, and Braunschweig. Surely, photographs give greater consistency to a biographical work, and many authors consider them essential visual documents. In This Has Happened, however, photographs are a key textual element since, beyond reproducing an authentic portrait of the characters involved, they strongly affirm the life of the people who disappeared for reasons that Sonnino both expounds and condemns. The images not only express "the way we were," but force the viewer to ask, "Why have we gone?" The book's subtitle is immediately explicative: An Italian Family in Auschwitz. Even before reading, one imagines the family's extermination and, while observing the photographs, wonders who survived.
One picture, dated Napoli 18 luglio 1911, is particularly striking, since its caption is handwritten by Piera's parents, Giorgina and Ettore, and addressed to their families following their marriage: Vogliamo che ci vediate nel colmo della nostra eleganza—We want you to see us at the height of our elegance. Husband and wife, in fact, appear dressed in the style of the times: Ettore wearing a straw hat, bowtie, handkerchief in pocket and carnation in his buttonhole, pocket watch, gloves and parasol; Giorgina in a white blouse and long, straight skirt, holding a fan and purse, wearing a large sun-hat fresh out of the milliner's shop. The newlyweds are happy and self-confident, conscious of their social status but especially of their elegance. Piera narrates: "Their wedding, celebrated in a Jewish ceremony in Rome in 1910, was lavish, in keeping with the social position of both families" (p. 23). Referring to another photograph, in which her father appears holding one of her sisters, Sonnino describes him as having "the look of an elegant, turn-of-the-century gentleman, with a somewhat arrogant air" (p. 24).
The idea of elegance accompanies, delineates, and structures the Sonninos' catastrophic journey, painfully recalled by the sole survivor Piera, in which decorum and dignity are gutted and ultimately obliterated in the fate of each family member. Piera states that her father, "for his entire life, in spite of his physical decline and the atrocious humiliations he endured, . . . maintained, up until the final long night of Auschwitz, a natural refinement" (p. 1). Piera also remembers her usually quiet, composed mother who nevertheless breaks down during the "long night in the transit shed of Auschwitz" with the "continuous, uninterrupted weeping of a woman in anguish."
The memory of extermination immediately replaces the elegance and sophistication that originally characterizes the author's family, in such a way that [End Page 222] the process of remembrance cannot follow a consistent narrative. The ineluctable memory of the concentration camp is so strongly fixed in Piera's mind that each happy moment at once gives way to a recollection of suffering and death. Sonnino's use of...