The Arty Semite

Star-Gazing, Optimism and Courage From Italy’s Jewish Partisans

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy Salone Internazionale del Libro di Torino
Alessandra Chiappano

Isacco Levi, who turned 87 in July, a distant relative of Primo Levi who fought as a wartime anti-Nazi partisan, is the sole survivor of a family of thirteen from Saluzzo in northwest Italy; the rest were murdered in Auschwitz. In 2005, a Berlin war claims conference bizarrely denied Levi any compensation for this loss because he was a member of the Italian Resistance.

As Levi continues to protest this decision, (his story is told in 2005’s “The Levis of Spielberg Street: Isacco Levi Between Fascism and Nazism” by Alessio Ghisolfi from Clavilux Edizioni), other Italian Jewish partisans are being heeded, at least within Italy. “Voices of the Italian Jewish Resistance” edited by Alessandra Chiappano appeared earlier this year from Casa editrice Le Château. Chiappano, author of last year’s “Luciana Nissim Momigliano: a Life” from La casa editrice La Giuntina, the story of an Italian partisan and Auschwitz survivor, knows heroism when she sees it.

“Voices of the Italian Jewish Resistance” assembles previously unpublished or little-known texts by such writers as the architect Eugenio Gentili Tedeschi). Among Gentili Tedeschi’s postwar projects were to rebuild Milan’s Central Synagogue on the via Guastalla and the Hebrew school on via Sally Mayer; he was also a captivating writer.

In a previously unpublished 1988 essay, “Stardust,” Gentili Tedeschi describes how, as his group of Jewish partisans marched in the countryside, they would whistle the melody of the Hoagy Carmichael pop standard “Stardust,” with one combatant starting and the others picking it up in unison, “just as would be seen many years later in the film, ‘Bridge on the River Kwai.’” This unusual choice of martial music, Gentili Tedeschi explains, was inspired by his generation’s deep involvement in a “bunch of symbols, the America of filmdom and jazz, the New Deal as filtered through the movies of Frank Capra…”

For these youngsters, whistling “Stardust” was a “radiantly optimistic rendition, our salute to humanity pledged to oppose the universe of hatred constructed by the Fascists and German violence.” Other writings, first published in “Ha Keillah,” a bi-monthly produced by Turin’s Jewish community, include “A Dream” a 1978 essay by the author and educator Ada Della Torre, another cousin of Primo Levi who recalls how in the years 1942-3, while bombs were falling in Milan, the unruffled Levi would teach her about “Freud and astronomy… pointing to the sky and saying, ‘See? It’s Capella [the brightest star in the constellation Auriga]…’” These bright stars deserve to be remembered.

Watch a video inspired by exhibits curated by Alessandra Chiappano about the wartime experience of Italy’s Jews.

dettaglio: La montagna from vinicio bordin on Vimeo.


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