Merely a thread of grace…

Several readers have told me about a N.Y. Times article entitled  “Italy’s Treatment of Jews in World War II is Reconsidered.”

I just read the article, and I think it’s fair. Mussolini’s government promulgated anti-semitic race laws in 1938, which is long before the Nazi occupation began on Sept. 8, 1943. Those laws were damaging, insulting and ugly. (You can read Tullio Bertini’s translation of the ordinances by clicking on the FAQs for A Thread of Grace and scrolling to the end of the page.) The difference in Italy was that such laws were not impossible to get around.

While doing the research for A Thread of Grace, I was told many stories about Jews “selling” their businesses to gentile friends or Catholic relatives so that they could continue to operate commercially. Bank accounts were also placed under the names of friends or family to protect the assets from the kind of confiscation that was taking place elsewhere. At the beginning of the occupation, the treasures of synagogues were placed in bank vaults or in hidden church basements. Published memoirs, interviews and histories confirm what I heard from my sources.

Obviously, people had to be quiet about those arrangements at the time — the transactions were illegal, by definition. After the war, when assets were returned, there was private gratitude by the surviving Jews and an attitude among the gentiles of, “Niete! It was nothing! I was in a position to help, so naturally I did.”

These were all face-to-face deals, enforced by nothing but a sense of decency. The people who participated in such deals have died. Only those who were very young during the war are alive today. They were rarely made aware of under-the-table dealings of their elders before, during or after the war.

For those like Ursula Korn Selig, featured in the NY Times article, the fiercest memories are of post-war displacement and deprivation rather than of the quiet circumventions of the race laws that took place earlier. Even so, these younger witnesses do testify that their own survival was made possible by Italians. As Mrs. Selig says in the article, “An Italian woman hid me, an Italian priest put me in a convent where I wore a nun’s habit, and an Italian boy risked his life to bring us food.”

That said, it’s important to note that my novel’s title is A Thread of Grace, not “A Giant Braided-Steel Cable of Grace.” Jewish survival in Italy is not a feel-good Holocaust story. People were made destitute. People were turned into ghosts in their own country. They were driven into the mountains to live like hunted animals. When they were captured in Italy, they were deported to Auschwitz at a time when that death camp was operating at full capacity.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Italian gentiles risked their lives and their families and their property to shelter   Jews when it was a capital offense to do so. They kept secrets and they kept people alive. That is a singular shining thread of decency woven into the vast black tapestry of the Holocaust.

8 thoughts on “Merely a thread of grace…”

  1. In the time of the Holocaust, throughout Europe there were non-Jews who risked their lives to shelter Jews or help them in other ways. Some of these people have been honored (often posthumously) by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. But new stories keep coming to light; some will never be told because the people saved are no longer alive to tell them.
    Many other non-Jews collaborated with the Nazis, even took an active part in the rounding up and murder of Jews. And many more simply did nothing.
    I do not pretend to judge those who did nothing. It as an all-too-human response to the situation. But without the threads of grace throughout Europe (and the extent to which they existed in different places was, I think, a difference of degree rather than kind) one could throw in the towel on humankind.

  2. a sociologist friend of mine tells a story about surveys taken in the 1930’s in the UK and Germany dealing with attitudes toward Jews in both countries. he says that in England, the Anti-Semitism in the studies was significantly higher than in Germany. the theory is that the English pre-occupation with manners and politeness (!) prevented them from ever endorsing the kind of actions that mainstream Germans allowed in the early 1940’s. the idea being that even if the English agreed in principle, they would never act in such a way. of course, no one would ever say that this was the only (or even a primary) factor in such a complex series of events, but perhaps cultural habits have a bearing on how societies react when they are confronted with extremism. in that light i wonder about the cultural norms of the US and how they affect things like our foreign policy or our pendulous politics…

  3. During the horrible era of Hitler and Mussollini’s anti-semitic reign of terror there are many threads (stories) of grace that have passed untold.

    My wife’s grand parents lived in Nice during the war. Their neighbor was a wealthy Jewish couple who were childless. My wife’s grand parents were simple people Both worked to make ends meet. When the government officials began to round up the Jews of Nice, the family neighbors fled to a farm in the Alps Maritimes. But, before they left, they entrusted a larg box with my wife’s grand parents. The box contained hundreds of gold coins, gold jewelry as well as a variety of jewels. They trusted this humble couple to act as stewards of their wealth. The Jewish family survived the war and returned to their home in Nice. The box was returned untouched, even though my wife’s grand parents often went without food. Their honesty did not go unrewarded. When the landlords of the grandparents’ decided to tear down the building to erect a larger apartment building, the Jewish neighbors offered them a piece of land next to their villa and the grandparents were able to build a small home for themselves. When my wife and I went to Nice on our honeymoon, Madame Levy took us out to dinner and told us the story of the box. Later, Madame Levy went on a vacation to Strasbourg to visit family and brought the same box over to my grand-mother-in-law to hold for her. Evidently, she trusted her more than the bank. Grand ma ma voiced her anxiety over this great responsibility. I asked her if she felt the same way during the war. But, that’s another story.

  4. The “singular shining thread of decency” also gleams through your books, even at the most hopeless times. From the drawing given to Emilio by his ‘colleagues’ to “I’ll dance when the war is over” to “it means: ‘I, too, am a widow.’ ” makes all of your work endlessly re-readable.

  5. I think that these sorts of considerations are the very thing that makes “A Thread of Grace” my favourite book by Mary. The same values and insights run through the others as well, but “A Thread of Grace” deals with a set of experiences within living memory, and for those of us born just after WW2 ended it seems to be part of our heritage and character.

    There is something in human beings that leans towards division and a “them and us” mentality, a leaning that has endlessly caused polarisation in all societies, perhaps simply based on suspicion or fear of that which is different. It isn’t everyone who can see past the invisible boundaries of race, age, religion and language and grasp the fact that we are all one species, all earth-dwellers. Perhaps this is why the thread of grace is only a thread and not that thick and shining cable…

    The biggest encouraging thing is that the more that LAWS are made to separate people, the more likely it is that ordinary folk will want to overturn the injustice of those laws… not by all-out military rebellion, but in small, neighbourly, caring ways. It takes a lot of snowflakes to turn into an avalanche, but it happens, it happens. We can each be one snowflake – and perhaps the very one that causes the avalanche to reach the sliding point.

  6. Contrast the Italian gentiles making handshake agreements with their Jewish neighbors (regarding their assets) with the behavior of many Americans in 1942, when Japanese-Americans were interned. Many non-Japanese Americans took advantage of their neighbor’s plight to purchase their homes and businesses at fire sale prices. There were some decent folks who managed businesses and watched over homes for their absent neighbors but not many.

    On another note, “Thread of Grace” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Thank you, Maria Doria Russell!

  7. During the horrible era of Hitler and Mussollini’s anti-semitic reign of terror there are many threads (stories) of grace that have passed untold. My wife’s grand parents lived in Nice during the war. Their neighbor was a wealthy Jewish couple who were childless. My wife’s grand parents were simple people Both worked to make ends meet. When the government officials began to round up the Jews of Nice, the family neighbors fled to a farm in the Alps Maritimes. But, before they left, they entrusted a larg box with my wife’s grand parents. The box contained hundreds of gold coins, gold jewelry as well as a variety of jewels. They trusted this humble couple to act as stewards of their wealth. The Jewish family survived the war and returned to their home in Nice. The box was returned untouched, even though my wife’s grand parents often went without food. Their honesty did not go unrewarded. When the landlords of the grandparents’ decided to tear down the building to erect a larger apartment building, the Jewish neighbors offered them a piece of land next to their villa and the grandparents were able to build a small home for themselves. When my wife and I went to Nice on our honeymoon, Madame Levy took us out to dinner and told us the story of the box. Later, Madame Levy went on a vacation to Strasbourg to visit family and brought the same box over to my grand-mother-in-law to hold for her. Evidently, she trusted her more than the bank. Grand ma ma voiced her anxiety over this great responsibility. I asked her if she felt the same way during the war. But, that’s another story.

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