"There was a Pole in Sainte-Gisele," the older man recalls uncertainly. "Jakub Landau. Ebreo, but--" He waves his hand around his head. "Very blond, like an Aryan. He said... crazy things. He told us, 'They have factories for killing Jews in Poland.' He was such a strange man! Maybe they shoot people for some infraction? For working too slowly, perhaps, or damaging a machine."
Pierino Lovera rubs the stump of his aching arm, and says no more. History will break your heart, he thinks, but I won't wield the hammer.
In her third novel, Mary Doria Russell - author of the entirely sublime SF tale of faith and first contact, The Sparrow, and its slightly disappointing sequel, Children of God - leaves behind the space travel and Jesuits, turning instead to the war-torn 1940s Italy. She retains, however, her preoccupation with humanity placed under inhuman pressure, and the ways in which religious belief shapes response to great suffering.
A Thread of Grace (2005) examines the experiences of Jews - both Italians and refugees from elsewhere in Europe - and their would-be protectors in Italy during WWII, beginning with the country's surrender to the Allies in September 1943 and continuing until the end of the war. While Italy was certainly not the only place where people both ordinary and powerful worked to obstruct the persecution of Jews, the effort there seems to have been a great deal more extensive and successful there than anywhere else. The Jewish community in Italy had the highest survival rate in occupied Europe (only around 20% of the community died, most of those once the country was annexed by the Nazis, and a puppet regime established in the north, after its surrender).
Russell seeks to understand why this was. Her approach to the subject is based on (as she herself puts it, in a short interview included at the back of this edition) "constructing a fictional building with real bricks". Her characters are fictional, but aspects of their backgrounds and situations are drawn from the testimonies (published memoirs, personal interviews) of people who lived through these events. Certain locations are real, but the main centres of the plot are invented towns and villages. The issues explored are factual, all events within the bounds of the real; only the vehicles for their exploration are imaginary. (This, for reasons discussed here before, appeals to me: no real people were harmed - or interpreted/(re)constructed/imaginatively altered during the production of this literary picture ;-)).
The world that she creates is a characterful one, full of distinctive personalities and a lively sense of place and community, as can be seen in this description of the Basilica di San Giovanni Battista, a church in one of the fictional towns; though it is viewed here through the eyes of a drunken, embittered German deserter, Werner Schramm, there's still something helplessly endearing about it:
San Giobatta, the locals call this place, as though John the Baptist were a neighbourhood boy, poor and charmless but held in great affection. Squatting on a granite platform, the dumpy little church shares its modest courtyard with an equally unimpressive rectory and convent, their builder's architectural ambition visibly tempered by parsimony. Broad stripes of cheap black sandstone alternate with grudgingly thin layers of white Carrara marble. The zebra effect is regrettable.
Ineffective sandbags surround the church, its southeast corner freshly crumpled and blackened by an Allied incendiary bomb. A mob of pigeons waddle through the rubble, crapping and cooing.
The cast of characters (listed in the opening pages - though, oddly, with some spoilers included) encompasses Italian Jews, their Catholic friends and neighbours, Jewish refugees, and a number of Germans. They are soldiers, traders, nuns, farmers, scholars, priests and rabbis; adults and children, men and women; people risking their lives, trying to survive, fighting back. For all the frequently grim nature of the story being told, there is a great deal of humour and happiness on offer:
"God does not expect you to come to Mass if you're sick. You missed Mass for the good of others--"
"But I felt fine on Sunday morning. So it was a sin."
"No, figlia mia, it wasn't."
"Yes, Padre, it was!"
"Look, this is not a debate. I am the priest, and I say you didn't commit a sin when you missed Mass last Sunday."
"Padre, I know it's a sin!" Rina insists more loudly.
"And what seminary did you attend?" Osvaldo demands.
A patrician chuckle issues from another confessional a few meters away. "Surrender, Tomitz."
(Osvaldo has rather less patience with genuine sinners, as a confessional exchange - between the priest and an inveterate adulterer, who confesses every week without ever repenting, or stopping - shortly after this illustrates).
Inevitably, given the size of the cast and the amount of ground to cover, some characters get more attention, some emerge more vividly than others: the priest Osvaldo, whose convictions lead him to risk everything in order to operate, and protect, a network of Jewish hiding-places; Schramm, a scientist whose experiences carrying out experiments on Jews have left him a haunted deserter; Maria Avoni, a brutalised Catholic girl who joins the partisans (hardly a main character, but her story is moving for all its brief page-count; moreover, she stands for the large number of women who fought for the resistance); and Renzo Leoni, an Italian Jew who cultivates an aura of fecklessness while he tirelessly risks his life helping people escape the Naziz - and who has (to me) shades of Lymond about him:
"You're drunk!" Iacopo accuses.
Convicted by his own helpless laughter, Leoni leans against a wall and slides toward the marble floor. "I am not," he allows, "at my best. That, however, is not the topic I wish to discuss. Mirella sent me--"
"You went to my home? You spoke to my wife in this condition?"
"My dear Rabbino Soncini," Leoni says, summoning fluid formality from an unwilling tongue, "as a matter of strict fact, I was looking for you. And permit me to observe that if you'd been at home, with your wife, instead of spending your evening with Don Osvaldo here, Mirella would not have been forced to dispatch a reprobate like me to inform you that she is in labour."
The rabbi stares. "She can't be. It's too soon."
"I'm inclined to accept the lady's authority on such matters."
[Then, after Soncini has gone:]
Osvaldo lowers his gaze to his companion. "You're not drunk."
"Regrettably: no." Leoni's heavy-lidded attention remains fixed on the heavens. "Iacopo works very hard for the Jewish community. Who am I to deprive such a man of the deeply satisfying pleasures of sanctimony? Besides," he adds, "it was a fair assumption. My intemperance is notorious."
(In fact, his unsteadiness comes from the fact that he has been awake for two days' straight, disguised as a milkman in order to transport Jewish refugees to hiding places across the region).
All of these characters suffer greatly; most lose everything; many meet with tragic ends. Whatever their individual fates, all are arbitrary victims of an enemy much bigger than they are - that enemy being chance just as much as it is the Nazi forces or their collaborators. In the interview at the end of the book, Russell comments on how she decided who would live, and who would die:
So many survivors tell us it was blind, dumb luck, not courage or decision that got them through the war. I wanted that element of chance in the story, so I maed a list of the characters, and my son flipped a coin. Heads, the character lived. Tails, the character died. How and why and when - that was up to me as a storyteller.
When it comes to exploring the motives of those who lived and died attempting to aid the Jews, both Italian and refugee, Russell repeatedly evokes a sense of commonality, of shared humanity and shared suffering, between the war-weary Italians and the fleeing Jews:
"A lady saw Papa on the ground," Lisel says. "She pulled us inside."
"Signora Giovanetti, her name was." Frieda accepts the glass of water the nun presses on her. "She was so kind, so kind! I asked, Perche'? Why? She said, Anch'io vedova. Something like that. What does that mean, Sister?"
"Dear lady," Suora Marta says gently, "it means: 'I, too, am a widow.'"
Why this fellow-feeling should have triumphed in Italy, when it did not elsewhere, is much less clear. The sense of cheerful haphazardness, seen above in the description of the Basilica, is alluded to again when Russell seeks to explain why the deportation of Jews never became official (or even unofficial) policy under Mussolini's regime:
Specially selected for imposing size and commanding presence, the carabinieri are, to a man, disinclined to be intimidated by their French or German counterparts.
When Vichy authorities wave Gestapo orders for the removal of undesirables, the carabinieri shrug diplomatically, all ersatz sympathy and counterfeit regret. Artistically inefficient, they shuffle papers and announce that another permit, or a letter from Rome, or some new stamp is required before they can process such a request, and no one has been deported.
Here, however, Russell comes perilously close to suggesting that there is some sort of national character at work - "to a man", the Italians resist the attempted persecution of the Jews. Note that "artistically", too; there is more than a whiff of stereotyping about this, and while it may be well meant, such casual generalisation leaves me uncomfortable. It is hyperbole, of course; but it is just such a hyperbolic mode of thought that underlies ideas of racial difference, and thus (in some minds) superiority and inferiority. Later in the book, a group of Nazi commanders share their own conclusions on the matter along much these lines, leading one to identify the Italian resistance as a threat on the basis that,
"Italians are a notably tenderhearted and generous people, and such altruistic softness inevitably leads to collectivism. If Bolshevik Jews join and subvert Italian resistance forces, they must be considered the vanguard of the Soviet army."
It's clearly bizarro logic; but it is founded on the notion that "a people" have certain distinguishing features, and all may accordingly be judged (and punished).
There are other, more sensible, suggestions advanced or implied. Russell goes to some lengths to show how Jews are part of the fabric of Italian society: they are neighbours, friends, relatives, business partners; they are active in government and the military, rather than their heavily-stereotyped role in commerce.* As an ally, rather than an occupied territory (until late 1943), Italy was for a long time freer to direct its own affairs on such matters. Deportations did not take place; the token race laws of 1938 were hedged about with multiple exceptions, dulling their impact. Racial segregation laws, of course, create not only segregation but the very difference that supposedly prompts their enactment. But since Jews were not isolated by (or from) state and society, the members of that society went to great lengths to protect them - to protect their own - when they were threatened. That said threat came from an invading force that was also killing Italians probably did little to endear its wishes to the average person.
[* Tangent (which Vicky will probably correct me on...): The historical association of Jews and commerce was a mixture of opportunity - Jewish families tended to be strung out all around the medieval Mediterranean, providing contacts, capital, and staging-posts for traders travelling in other countries, both Christian and Islamic - and necessity - for centuries, the Church forbade Christians to participate in money-lending (an activity vital to long-distance trade), and Jews, meanwhile, were increasingly prevented by discriminatory legislation from doing anything but money-lending.]
Whatever the macrocosmic reasons, though, Russell's portrayal of the micro is convincing and compelling: the personal connections forged, the experiences shared, the support and shelter offered without question; above all, the individual decisions, made and re-made each day in the face of the most horrific hardship and danger (there's a description of one main character's (psychological) experience of interrogation/torture that is particularly upsetting), to fight for fellow human beings. And for all the heartbreak, there's undoubtedly something uplifting about a Holocaust story that manages to evoke, at intervals, man's humanity to man.
"There's a saying in Hebrew," he tells her. "'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.' After the Yom Kippur roundup in '43, people all over Italy helped us. Almost fifty thousand Jews were hidden. And so many of them survived the occupation. I keep asking myself, Why was it so different here? Why did Italians help when so many turned away?"
On a very different note, tomorrow is the first birthday of our little blog. (Oh halcyon days, when I could write a post in a handful of short paragraphs... ;-)) Here's to the next twelve months!