Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Book 78: It Happened in Italy

 
This is probably more of a rant than a review but I was just so disappointed with the book this was compared to the book I thought it was going to be.  Maybe I shouldn't judge a book just on my expectations, but I also believe the title was misleading so the publishers or author created those same expectations.
 
What kind of book should one expect with that title?  I was expecting a oral history, or a non-fiction historical account of the people that survived the Holocaust while living in Italy, the Italians that helped them, and some chapters explaining the political situation in Italy and why it may have been different.  Unfortunately, there was very little of that.  Instead, I got to read about Elizabeth Bettina and how she discovered that there was once a concentration camp near the village that her grandmother was from, that a larger percentage of Italy's Jewish population survived the Holocaust than those of other European countries (with the exception of Denmark), and how it inspired her to do research and make people aware of this story.  This book is less her sharing the story of the Holocaust and more her sharing her journey of discovery.  And while that journey very well may have its place, such as in an introduction and/or afterword, or the first and last chapters of the book I described, that's really not what I thought this book would be.
 
I agree that this would be a great story to tell, but she is not the one to tell it.  The first hundred pages are basically all about her (and I honestly don't get the impression that she is purposely self-absorbed but it doesn't negate the fact that the book is more about her than the "untold story" she claims to tell, or at least her part in it).  There are two or three chapters that specifically focus on survivor stories but even these are told more conversationally with her quoting them rather than letting her subjects speak for themselves and tell of their experiences.  I absolutely believe that Bettina did a lot of work compiling their stories and tracking down the survivors, but I wish she would have shared the results in this book, not the work.  She mentions that she is working on a documentary and I wonder if that documentary would show more of this story.
 
Bettina also describes the various trips back to Italy that she organized for the survivors and how she arranged meetings with the Vatican, and eventually even the Pope.  Again, I think that would have been a great epilogue or afterword to the Holocaust story but instead it was the center of the story.  Maybe if I was Catholic or gave a shit about religion, that would have been fascinating.  As it was, I didn't really care.  Considering that the subtitle is "how people of Italy defied the horrors of the Holocaust" I would much rather be hearing from elderly Italians or Jews.
 
The other thing is that the book lacks nuisance as a result of her focus on the modern day.  She paints a very rosy picture of how things were in Italy, focusing on the fact that 80% of the Jewish population survived.  That still leaves 20% dead, and while that is a much better number than from a country like Poland, it doesn't mean that she can argue that Italians were just such good Catholic people.  Last I checked the Poles were Catholic, too.  There are a variety of factors that caused that number, and I can only guess at the intricacies involved, including the different relationships Germany had with Poland and Italy, those countries' histories, and pre-existing anti-semitic attitudes, among many other things.  Before this, the only thing I'd read that focused on Italy and the Holocaust was Mary Doria Russell's amazing novel A Thread of Grace, and not all Italians came off as great humanitarians.  Some were, some weren't.  I'm not denying that there is a difference, and there should definitely more exploration of the topic but I'm sure it is more complicated than Bettina's "Italians are awesome" analysis in this book. Plus, being more humane than the Nazis still doesn't mean that policies weren't racist.
 
My one other complaint about this book, besides her focus on the wrong part of the story, is her writing style.  It felt like every sentence should have ended with an exclamation point because she! was! so! excited!  "Oh my god, you were at the same camp as this other survivor I've been talking to?!  How crazy and awesome and amazing!"  It's called statistics, woman!  There are only so many camps and so many survivors.
 
Having said all that, I think the stories alluded to would be fascinating, and if this documentary is ever released, I hope it would focus on the interviews, because in that case the documentary could be very good.  Bettina also talks about filming these interviews, so at least this part of history is now preserved for posterity so I will applaud Bettina for that.  I just wish the history had made up more of this book.

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