- Memories of Jewish Life: From Italy to Jerusalem, 1918-1960
North American readers especially should welcome this latest addition to the growing collection of materials on Italian Jewry. Although the English translation comes nearly twenty years after the publication of the Italian original Memorie di vita ebraica (Rome: Bonacci Ed., 1979), this volume proves to be well worth the wait as it renders accessible to the English-speaking world the important memoirs of Augusto Segre, Italian by birth, Israeli citizen by choice.
Translated by Steve Siporin, professor of folklore at Utah State University, the book includes a moving foreword by Segre's children, Tamar and Daniel, who characterize the memories "as witnesses from the past" which "will open a unique window on the unknown world of Italian Jewry, as it was lived in small Communities during tragic and difficult times."
The memoirs are preceded by an insightful and important introduction by the translator, who well recognizes the need to situate the memoirs in the larger context of the history of Italian Jews, their unique culture and their "italianità"—from the details of language ("Italian Jews, except in a few instances, never spoke Yiddish, the language often taken to be the universal touchstone of traditional Jewish culture") through the emancipation of the Jews during the period of Italian Unification ("Jewish citizenship became incorporated in the laws of the nascent Italian state") to the patriotism exhibited during World War I ("Italian Jews were encouraged by their religious leaders to be patriotic Italians even more than to be observant Jews. In fact, they sacrificed themselves as soldiers in disproportionately high numbers").
Prof. Siporin justly notes that "the discord between tradition and assimilation, as an intracommunity conflict, is at the heart of Segre's memoir," and while rightfully assigning Segre a place among the best-known Italian authors of Jewish ancestry—Primo Levi, Giorgio Bassani, Carlo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, Alberto Moravia, and Italo Svevo—he dutifully notes that while the others were "assimilated and nonobservant," "Jewish identity, religion, and culture form the soul of Augusto Segre's memoir."
As Segre had intended his memoirs for an Italian public, Siporin rightly acknowledges the need for annotation and historical introduction for the non-Italian [End Page 175] reader and generously provides for this in the introduction and copious footnotes to the chapters. He also includes, in an appendix, a glossary of terms in Jewish Italian dialect and Hebrew that Segre had compiled for his Italian readers.
It is Segre's constant vigilance against the dangers of assimilation, his unwavering support of the growing Zionist movement in Italy, his indefatigable efforts to help refugees escape to Israel, and his own emigration to Israel in 1979 which mark a strident contrast between these writings and those of the other better known Italian Jewish authors.
What Segre does share with the others, Bassani in particular, is the gift of hindsight in his writing—that dual level of historical awareness which allows him to reflect on the pro-fascist sympathies of many of his coreligionists with the full knowledge of the ultimate fate they were later to meet at the hands of the Nazi-fascists. In relating the adherence to fascist doctrine and the anti-Zionist stance of Ettore Ovazza, for example, Segre's disclosing of his ultimate fate heightens the ironies ("But when, after the war, I learned of the horrible end that Ovazza and his family came to—butchered by the Nazis and burned in the furnace of the heating system in the school at Gressoney—a sense of pity always prompted me to place a veil over them, as well as over the other fascist coreligionists who met the same tragic end . . .").
Similarly he shows the futility of total assimilation, as the most zealous proponents, the young, are not spared the ultimate tragic fate:
Young people maintained, above all, that the 'old ones' had already had their time, as had their ideas, which were altogether old and obsolete. What mattered now was the...