Wednesday, May 6, 2009

It Happened in Italy

30. It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust, by Elizabeth Bettina

Elizabeth Bettina is an Italian-American Catholic who spent her childhood summers with relatives in Campagna, Italy. During one visit as an adult, she discovered that Jews had been interned in Campagna during the war. She was fascinated by this, wondered why it wasn't talked about, and proceeded to become deeply involved in finding people who had been interned, telling their story and taking them back to the places where they had been. This should have been an absolutely riveting book. It's not. It's dreadful.

I finished reading this book for one reason, and one reason only: I got it through the Amazon Vine™ program and owed them a review. I cannot count the number of times I wanted to throw it against the wall or gritted my teeth in frustration and irritation. It is one of the worst books I have ever read.

And that is sad. Because there is a story to be told here, a story about how and why some Italians helped their Jewish neighbors. But, oh lord, Bettina hasn't got a clue about how to tell it.

She cannot write a straight-forward narrative. She hops, skips and jumps all over the place, repeats herself, and talks about people who haven't been introduced yet. Her language is repetitious. Every phone call requires the recipient to sit down. Everything is a surprise, unbelieveable, "unimaginable". If she described a sindaco's (mayor's) badge of office as a "Miss America sash" one more time, I'd have screamed.

And that's another thing! She constantly throws in Italian words and phrases for no reason or any reason. It's bad enough when she's quoting, because why pick out a few words in the quotation to put in Italian and translate? But "[t]the people . . . took note of the two stranieri, foreigners." "I [was] imagining the fogli, pieces of paper . . ." It's not only annoying; it's pretentious.

Worse, it's all about her. Everything is presented through her reactions, how she felt, what she did. The survivors are mere stick figures. One has no sense of them as individuals. Even when she is quoting them (and she was taping and filming so the dialogue is presumably accurate), there is no emotion. I don't know if that's due to her editing or if she simply hasn't got a clue about interviewing people. (If you want to know how to do oral history, read Studs Terkel!) We barely meet the "good" Italians she is so proud of. But we get Bettina, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

More disturbing to me was the substance of this book, or, should I say, it's lack of substance. There is absolutely no attempt at any analysis of why Italy was different (if it was). I( compare this to another book I've read, Trudy Alexy's The Mezuzah in the Madonna's Foot: Marranos and other secret Jews, which at least tries to answer the perhaps unanswerable question: why did Fascist Spain open its borders to Jewish refugees from the Holocaust?) It seems as though it never occurs to Bettina to ask the question.

Nor does Bettina make any effort to contextualize her story. Look. I know that the concentration camps in Italy were not death camps. I know that conditions were better there than elsewhere (though to say that is rather like Berlusconi telling the survivors of the L'Aquila earthquake to treat the experience like a camping weekend). I know that some Italians did their best to save Jewish lives. And I know that this book is focused on a sliver of Holocaust history. But do not toss a glance at the racial laws, at the anti-Semitic policies that prevented Jews from attending school or practicing their professions, and act as though that was nothing. It wasn't nothing! Do not ignore the effect of the profound, historic anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church! Do not ignore the murder of 15% of Italy's Jewish population! Do not ignore the failure of the Pope to speak out! Acknowledge these things!

Now perhaps someone will go out and write a good book on this subject.


  1. It's too bad that a book with such a promising subject proved so unsatisfactory. Was this her first book?

  2. Yes, it was. She works in marketing.