Book Essay - Spring 2011

An Italian Tragedy

Discovering a World War II tale that mesmerizes, then horrifies

By Janna Malamud Smith | March 2, 2011

Never judge one by its cover is the rule I violated last spring when, in a bookstore in Italy, I purchased a small paperback almost solely on the basis of same, which was dark blue with a matte finish, quiet and inviting. The volume was well produced with folded flaps, and it was partly the obvious care given to the object that drew me to it. Below the author’s name, which is Lorenza Mazzetti, and the title, Il Cielo Cade (The Sky Is Falling), the space is filled by a square, formal portrait of a somber young boy dressed in white tights, white ballet slippers, a leotard top, and a pair of red shorts. He stands next to a drum and holds a single drumstick. Beside him sits a slightly older, very poised girl with shortish, well-coiffured black hair, dark eyes, red lips. A discreet red flower is pinned on her white, short-sleeved, knee-length dress. She, too, wears white tights and white ballet slippers; her feet are crossed and one hand rests in her lap. The two, whom we assume are siblings, do not engage with each other, but stare straight ahead. I have since read that the portraitist, Antonio Donghi (1897–1963), was in his day a well-known neoclassical painter in Italy, whose life overlapped the era of the book. His work, according to a short piece in Wikipedia, is characterized by “a gravity and an archaic stiffness” that is completely true of this portrait; also, the anonymous biographer opines, a sense of humor, which is less visible here. The children’s costumes imply that they could be circus workers, but theirs is a look of wealth. Or perhaps I superimposed one after making out enough text on the flap to learn that Mazzetti, born in 1927 and orphaned early in childhood, went to Tuscany to live with her uncle and aunt as the Second World War was approaching. Mazzetti’s uncle, Roberto Einstein, Albert Einstein’s cousin, owned a villa and a farm near Florence, and, in that old Italian fashion, seems to have been a padrone of sorts, looking after his contadini, who tilled his hectares and in turn looked after him.

Aside from the cover, my purchase was secured by additional characteristics: the book was thin and compact; the type was largish with nice space between lines and roomy margins; the Italian seemed straightforward; the chapters were only a few pages each; and it cost a mere eight Euros—so buying it would not have constituted a large mistake had the appeal of the cover in fact deceived me, which it did not.

To say that I am not a gifted learner of foreign languages is to vastly understate a discouraging truth, brought home by a lifetime of frustration watching my efforts to master French stall at an imperfect reading knowledge, almost no aural comprehension, and a hapless stuttering of basic phrases. My more recent decision to learn Italian proceeds so slowly that now, more than six years into weekly classes, I believe I might survive a second-year college course. My teacher has the patience of a saint, and manages never to humiliate me no matter how often I reveal that I’ve forgotten the lesson in pronouns, verb forms, or even simple noun gender, hard won just weeks earlier. She also knows French; so on the many occasions I reach for an Italian noun and retrieve a French one, she simply laughs and corrects me. When she is tired, her laugh gets a little thin, but she is always gracious. Whatever impatience I inspire in my three classmates, who gather with me around our teacher’s dining-room table each week, I assume they are also relieved that my errors are not theirs. We are beginning to read books together, so buying and reading one on my own while in Italy seemed plausible, even as I felt too much at sea to choose save by a cover.

The large irony in my ignorance is that I was said to have become fluent in Italian during a year (1956–1957) of my childhood when my family lived in Rome. I attended an Italian Montessori kindergarten run by nuns and, the only foreigner in the classroom, I was apparently a quick study. My father used to claim that he would have me, barely five, come to his aid and translate if a stranger knocked on the door while my mother was out. (My mother was born in the United States, but her family had recently emigrated from Naples, and she was raised bilingually.) I’m fairly certain that as a young boy in Brooklyn my father had had to translate for his frightened Yiddish-speaking mother, so perhaps he misremembered who was doing what when. Or perhaps he was simply struck by a parallel that amused him. He’s been dead for 25 years, so I can only speculate. I know he liked Italian and tried to learn a little, and that he entertained himself by Italianizing English words, the famous family example being his frequent dinner-time requests for a “slee-chay” (slice) of bread.

For my part, I have little memory of being able to speak or really comprehend the language during our time in Rome, but I do recall stubbornly refusing to say another word in it once we returned home. I remember having dreams in Italian occasionally until I was 10 or so, but what made them noteworthy was my inability to understand what the speakers were saying. This cry for subtitles captures my childhood sense of exclusion encountering the alien Roman world. Several bits of Italian linger now from age 5, but nothing fluid or extensive. Most are fragments of my mother’s emotions toward me when she was irritated, “Come sei noiosa. Tu sei seccante.” (Roughly, “How tiresome you are. You are pesky.”) Or, when she was fond, “Tesoro mio . . . ” (My treasure . . . )

I decided to relearn the language when I realized that my mother was getting ready to die. Although I had never had an easy closeness with her, much about her values and tastes impressed me, and she had passed along a pleasure in things Italian. I felt that somehow, if I learned her native tongue, it might provide a fond way to keep her with me. Family legend has it that relatives of hers once owned the land in the middle of the city on which the Neapolitans built the elegant, glass-domed Galleria Umberto, with its grand mosaic floor and arcades, a 19th-century antecedent to our shopping malls. And I think I was looking for a way to join her there, not quite arm in arm, since she tended to dislike touch that she did not initiate, but perhaps walking beside her, feeling the sun through the glass, enjoying the shops and the sights. My mother was less materially focused than many people; she liked to read, cook, talk with friends. She did not dress particularly well. Yet she took great pleasure in examining fine objects of all sorts, a lapis necklace, a hand-painted ceramic, a Renaissance painting, a fancy pastry. So a walk through the Galleria would have pleased and enlivened her. When young, she’d been a great walker in cities particularly, but she developed multiple sclerosis as she aged, and spent her last few years in a wheelchair, unable to use her legs at all. I suppose I also wished to learn Italian as a way to restore her to a younger, more vital self, the one before her neurons began demyelinating, and her body ceased obeying her brain’s commands; and, when I think of it now, the one I, as a child, had doggedly worked to love.

The four times we’d traveled to Italy together (the last of which she used a cane, but could still manage small distances on foot) my mother had served as my guide and translator. She’d brought me around to lunch with cousins and old family friends, attempted to teach me the names of kin, and generally sought to pull up the shade on this other, parallel, world of hers. Not only did her fluency force her into a competency that at home she often disavowed, but being in her ancestral land made her eager to enumerate its delights. I remember her once leading me on foot across torrid summertime Rome to a particularly fine pasticceria just so I could taste a granita di caffé, the intensely strong, sweet frozen espresso that is shaved into glasses and topped with whipped cream. She longed for me to understand her; she hoped that if she showed me how she fit into the landscape from which her family had been uprooted, and if she revealed its worth to me, I would finally somehow catch on. I must still share that wish, and likely it is another part of why I labor to memorize the verbs she used fluently without thinking. Perhaps the rote repetitions, parlo, parli, parla, offer not only a small soothing penance in their cadence, but also some variant of what I once heard the psychoanalyst Martha Stark in a lecture refer to as “relentless hope”—the relational vestige from early childhood; the refusal to give up on the other, or at least to accept her emotional limitations, even when it might be wiser if one could.

Whatever else, I did not want to lose Italy when I lost her; or more precisely, I did not want to lose the way that Italy slightly belonged to me through her. Immigration is a knife slicing a limb. As a nation of immigrants, we seek to take it for granted, but really it is a radical severing that—however life saving, however much people subsequently prosper, however great the relief of getting away—heals only over generations. You graft the branch to another tree, but the scar lingers. Not only does one lose a language, one loses the landscape, the shared sense of place, the proximity of kin and old friends, and all that is held within communal witness. My mother left two notebooks filled with details about her Italian genealogy. Although I have not yet read every page, I am grateful to her, especially since nothing similar exists for my father’s Ukrainian Jewish family. If I never understand my mother as fully as she desired, I can perhaps sustain a postmortem closeness channeled through her birth language, and the frescoes of Giotto; the taste of escarole cooked with raisins, garlic, lemon and black olives; the brutal cacophony of jammed Neapolitan streets.

I found Il Cielo Cade while browsing in a bookstore in Lucca, where my husband and I had traveled in March, the third anniversary of my mother’s death, to attend Italian school for a week. I thought time in the classroom might provide a novel way to visit the country and that it might boost my linguistic effort. In the late afternoons and early evenings, after the morning’s classes had ended at one, and after we had spent hours exploring the pristine, elegant, walled town with its ochre buildings and white magnolia trees in full bloom, but when it was still too early to dine, we would sit on the bed in our small hotel room, and I would slowly read the book.

From the first page, Mazzetti’s story, a fictionalized autobiography published in 1961, caught me up, and satisfied me as a reader in a way few books have done in years, perhaps since childhood. It took me a month and a half to inch my way through the 166 pages, dictionary always in hand. But on a Saturday afternoon long since back home and seated in our small library, I did not want it to end. Like the glass-covered Galleria, the novel-cum-memoir created a world unto itself, so compelling it kept me reading even as I struggled to ascertain what I thought I had decoded and understood.

Mazzetti unfolds her tale, a war story, through a child’s eyes, and I cannot tell you how much of the book’s success is owed to her style and narration, how much to the semiconscious kinship I felt with her, and how much to the scrim created by my linguistic ignorance. But she drew me in, and she mesmerized me, and, perhaps most remarkably, she made me feel her war years as something particular and fresh even as the narration references so much that I, and any reader of my age, already think we know too well.

The book opens with the protagonist in her grade-school classroom writing a short essay. Her musings orient the reader to the little girl’s sensibility, her confusions, and her efforts to make sense of upended circumstances. She lives on a farm and attends the local school; she is being raised as a Catholic; her uncle is Jewish; Mussolini is in power, and the war is coming. She is doing her best to fit in, but life is not smooth. She is struggling to create mental order.

Here are two bits of text from the first chapter that offer the feel of her story:


Oggi a scuola il Duce ha parlato e ci ha detto di fare la ginnastica per diventare forti, educati e pronti ad una sua chiamata per difendere la nostra grande Italia, perché c’è la guerra.
(Today at school the Duce told us to do gymnastics to become strong, educated, and ready for his call to defend our grand Italy because there is war.)

The second bit:

I ask myself if I can love my sister Baby more than the Duce. Yet I love Baby the way I love Jesus. Just like Jesus, and I love Jesus a bit more than I love God, and I love God the way I love Mussolini, and Italy and my country less than God, but more than my yellow bear.

When asked in class about her dreams, the narrator admits she has dreamt about the Ma­donna naked, a revelation that earns her a sharp slap from her teacher. She is trying to get with the local program, but she missteps frequently.

Another brief entry:

My neighbor on the school bench smells of cheese. My little sister Baby is in another class. She does not reek of cheese or of sheep. Neither do I, who am called Penny, reek of cheese, but when I play with Pasquetta, Pierino, Zeffirino, and Lea, [like them] I too stink like a stable. Pasquetta, my neighbor on the bench, often smells of salami when she eats her mother’s sandwiches, but she has her own permanent natural smell. All the children smell of hay and of sheep.

The chapter ends with the priest admonishing Penny to say many prayers to try to save her uncle, because he is a nonbelieving Jew, so when he dies he will find himself in Satan’s hands. Penny frets and schemes throughout the book on how to create safety for lo Zio (the uncle), whom she loves as a father.

A Jew in Italy during the Second World War. Even a small acquaintance with history texts, or old newsreels, or Primo Levi, or Giorgio Bassani’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis (published a year after Il Cielo Cade), has taught us we must worry, if not always about the Italians—who could be cruel or kind but never fully signed on to genocide—at least about their efficient Nazi allies and de facto occupiers. I have read that of 50,000 Jews who lived in Italy when the war started, 42,000 survived, an extraordinary percentage compared to most other European countries. Still, the Nazis did their best, and since German soldiers eventually occupy Penny’s uncle’s villa and “share” it with their family, threat looms everywhere in her story. And it is threat made sorer by the children’s earlier loss. At the beginning of the second chapter, Penny tells us that her mother and father no longer exist on earth. They are in heaven, and “they look down to make certain that Baby and I are obedient and respectful to those who care about us. The chauffeur says that Baby and I are two poor orphans and he pities us though I do not know why.”

The first German the reader meets is an officer who knocks on the villa door to ask permission to play the uncle’s piano, which he has heard from a distance. When it is grudgingly granted, he comes every day and plays Beethoven sonatas. The uncle warns the family that although the soldier may use the piano, no one in the house is allowed to speak to him. Penny and Baby, and their cousin, Marie, all await his visits eagerly; and as Penny observes the lonely lieutenant courting Marie and bringing her flowers, she too becomes enamored of him.

Indeed, Penny and Baby are delighted when a group of German soldiers moves into the villa. (“They have blond hair and celestial eyes. How different they are from us. We Italians are all black. It is very entertaining to have so many new neighbors in the villa.”) Meanwhile, the uncle’s feelings are unspoken but observed. (“After he has given permission to the general to occupy the guest rooms, Uncle retreats into his study with an ever gloomier face, while the soldiers take over the barn and the olive press.”) The Germans are polite and correct, asking permission for whatever they requisition, signaling at once that the uncle is in charge and that he is powerless. Between the lines, you as reader grasp that the aunt and uncle are terrified, and that the family’s safety is tenuous at best. The children sense the threat, too, as their nightmares hint. This tension between daytime play and subliminal knowledge pulls you along.

My own first instruction about Nazis, or the first I recall, came one night when my father was tucking me into bed. I must have been seven or eight; I’m not certain. He reminded me that he was a Jew, and that I was half-Jewish. Something led him to tell me that had we lived in Germany during World War II, he would have been killed by the Nazis, and my brother and I would have been too. I don’t know what he hoped to convey, but the exchange offered me a frightening, unforgettable, thought. I imagine I also noted that he and I shared something from which my mother, raised Catholic and lapsed, was excluded. When I finally, years after his death, tried to uncover more about his family past, I discovered that his father’s village in Ukraine had been destroyed by the Nazis and Stalin during the war, and bulldozed over.

As the war continues, in Il Cielo Cade, the children are being children. They squabble and fantasize, create mythologies to explain the inexplicable. Their young minds warp and torque the realities of bombs and death. One day, playing in the woods, they spot a ragged man in a tree, who they are certain from their Catholic lessons is John the Baptist. We as readers grasp that he is a partisan trying to make secret contact with their uncle. Unaware of his peril or significance, but still eager to report the sighting, the children announce at dinner that they have met John the Baptist, a claim that obfuscates, irritates, and is only gradually untangled.

My efforts to date to learn the language have led me to possess what I call “carapace” Italian. I can ask for a room at a hotel, order in a restaurant, sort out which train to take. I can negotiate surfaces and do a tourist’s business. I can even chat a little, especially if a hotel clerk is patient. But I cannot break through the hard outer shell, nor eavesdrop well, nor follow conversations when I do not know the subject, nor keep pace decoding the flow of everyday talk, movies, or television news. There is something about the way my ignorance denies me entrance into the collective knowledge, into the tacit understandings, shared assumptions, and sophisticated innuendoes of the culture that has the effect of rendering me as reader quite a bit like a child. I become like Penny, missing larger “adult” references. As I play with and rearrange the words to deduce meaning, I reenact a portion of the same excluded innocence that Mazzetti portrays, the same propensity to muddle. Confusing a partisan for John the Baptist is exactly what I do continually. I create and then respond to misunderstandings. I decode individual words, but frequently my concrete successes are inadequate to the real task of meaning. Perhaps in the process I sample a bit of what my mother would have wished me to know about her own struggle, and even more about her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences, and the way their dislocation and immigrant ineptitudes helped to form her.

When I read, I use a dictionary, even though I have been told that I must begin to think in Italian, and I will only do so when I give up translating. That contradiction baffles my obsessive nature and my wish to know a word’s or sentence’s exact meaning. But I mention this practice because it underscores my suspicion that I was so deeply delighted and moved by Il Cielo Cade in part because of my deficiencies in Italian. As well as re-creating Penny’s predicament, my limited knowledge forced me to read without irony. It pushed me out of my “too so­phisticated” self, so that I approached the text naïvely, like a child or some other innocent, without critical bias or pretense. Stripped of these armors, I became more open to sense and feeling, more subliminally in touch with my own youth. So it’s hardly a surprise that when I finally shut the book, my cheeks were tear-streaked.

As the tale careens through its final pages, the end at first looks like it might be a happy one. The family has been spared. The Germans are retreating, and they depart from the villa. Three days later, the partisans arrive, and the uncle slips away with them into the woods. The aunt hugs the children, telling them the war is over; she weeps with joy. But, moments later, just as the family is breathing a sigh—and just as the reader is—a car carrying Germans in different uniforms arrives. They rush into the villa and begin a horrific, murderous rampage.

The soldiers destroy everything in the home—they break windows and mirrors, graffiti the walls, smash furniture, slash the art, and trash all the family possessions. They herd the family into a room.

They pushed us into the mirrored room and my feet stumbled on my uncle’s books, the paintings were all cut up. It was half dark and behind a table was the commandant, to the right of the smashed-up piano. . . . The commandant was good and he had a smile. A true and proper process would be conducted; all a formality. He asked to be hugely forgiven, and said that we would be interrogated one at a time, after which he would let us go right away.

The Nazi soldiers separate Penny and Baby from the others, reassuring all that they will be fine. Then they murder the aunt and her daughters. They set the villa on fire and speed away.

Penny and Baby are spared because of their non-Jewish last names. The frantic contadini come running. Soon, the uncle and the partisans rush in from the forest. The flame-lit night is filled with screams of horror and of grief. Much later—time has become indistinct—but after Penny and Baby have finally settled into the uncle’s arms, he leaves them sleeping, slips off beyond his compadres’ protective eyes, and shoots himself. When Baby asks the priest presiding over the uncle’s burial if he is going to go to hell (“Andrà all’inferno lo zio?”), he sacrifices his Catholic orthodoxy in an effort to console her, “L’inferno, non esiste che per i cattivi” (Hell exists only for the wicked).

According to an entry in the Italian Wikipedia, the massacre and conflagration of August 3, 1944, is now known as the “strage della famiglia Einstein” or “massacre of the Einstein family.” Opinion has it that Roberto Einstein was particularly sought out because Hitler was enraged, and no doubt humiliated, that a German as famous and esteemed as Albert Einstein would denounce the Nazi cause, depart his homeland, and assist the Americans. So he took revenge on the kin within reach. In real life, Roberto Einstein apparently struggled along for a year before he killed himself. Lorenza Mazzetti seems to have had two sisters, not one. She grew up to make films in England and Italy (including a film version of Il Cielo Cade) and to write books. She is 83.

When we read about devastating events, we are being spared an incalculable distress even while we suffer with the characters. Reading allows us a dual experience of proximity and distance. It carries us through cover and carapace and lets us witness what is beyond our purview. It suggests the full extent of a horror, but, by the very fact of language and print and, of course, time, it shields us. It muffles and tempers, and creates a bearable propinquity to what is, in the moment, utterly unbearable. That gift of witness is the large one the writer offers when she attempts to describe her devastation, when she lets us understand some part of what has happened to her. However lacerated we feel, we know we have been spared. I cannot fully feel Penny’s suffering, Lorenza’s if you will, no matter how great my empathy or how evocative a writer Mazzetti may be. This truth is a basic one. I am not a real witness in real time. And the foreign language creates a further screen even as it provides access. Thinking this through allows me to grasp suddenly, indirectly, the relief my parents must each have felt during World War II to be in America, speaking English, not trapped in their ravished homelands. They are the ones who got away.

And now, even the genocide of the Second World War is beginning to fade. How could it become past? In its own indifferent fashion, time makes us all immigrants, carried along, away from what has formed us; and the view back is also obscured now for this must-be-remembered event. The distance baffles my sorrow; it is gentle even as it is stirred by something not gentle, but horrid, something with an evocative cover, at once fresh and old.

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