IMAGINE ELIZABETH BETTINA'S SURPRISE when she discovered that her grandmother's village had a secret: over a half century ago, many of Campagna's residents defied the Nazis and risked their lives to shelter and save hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. What followed her discovery became an adventure as she uncovered fascinating untold stories of Jews in Italy during World War II and the many Italians who risked everything to save them. "Finally, somebody made known the courage and the empathy of the majority of the Italian people toward us Jews at a time of great danger." --Nino Asocoli
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!
The problem with this book is that it doesn't
Oh, we do get personal stories of survivors, and the clear difference between being in a camp in Italy and a camp anywhere else in Europe. (Many survivors said that living in a prison camp in Italy was like being in "a hotel"). As I said, it's a wonderful, upbeat story of WWII -- and a story we haven't heard before, which is a shame.
However, this book is mainly about the author, Elizabeth Bettina, and her experiences after she dug up this story and helped a few of the survivors go back to Italy to visit the people who helped them survive. And that's the problem with this book! It's only partly about those incidents during WWII. It's mostly about Elizabeth Bettina and the coincidences she encountered and good times she had.
When a book pertains to be about an incident during WWII, it should be about that, and not about someone finding out about that. I felt that instead of being titled It Happened in Italy, it should have been titled, "My Adventures In And Around What Happened In Italy." (Less succinct, but more precise.) In fact, this has been a problem with a number of recent non-fiction books I've read lately; they didn't need to be in first person, and in fact could have benefited by not being in first-person. She comes off as just a touch self-congratulatory. And because the book focuses on her, and she's presumably going to go on locating and helping survivors, it doesn't really have a big finish -- it just ends.
However, as I said, the book does make some good points and presents us with formerly untold stories; something any WWII buff would be interested to find out about. It IS important that these stories get told. I simply wish they had been told on their own.
This book is the story of her search for the real story and when she found people who had been saved by Italians she collected and recorded their stories. She enlisted the assistance of the Catholic Church right up to meeting the Pope to recognize what the Italian people had done to save and protect 1000's of Jews from the German death camps.
She also wished to record before it was lost, the evidence that Italian internment camps were nothing like German concentration camps. Jews could marry, practice their religion and work under the table even though they were technically detained. Even police officers protected them by warning them of an impending raid by the German soldiers. This is a fascinating story that is well worth studying for it is part of the Holocaust history that is not well known.
The text language is extremely accessible, with a nice presentation in and out of the book. The book, for introducing us new analysis of a history event established in a canonic view for historians, appears as a riveting, important source as well as theoretical foundation for present or future researches about the analyzed theme. So much the better because it is essentially constituted of veridical material. Photographs are another important resource used to recreate in fragments a piece of our history and taking us to the event portrayed in the book, where feelings and emotions in the survivors’ faces tell us more than words. I thank Thomas Nelson Publishers for the opportunity of reading this book as well as Elizabeth Bettina for the excellent book and research.