Most of humanity cannot fathom the total inversion and collapse of the moral order that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Most of us recoil in abject horror when we even try to imagine the mass slaughter and other horrors that took place. Some who survived, however, dedicated their lives to inspire us to embrace and strengthen the moral order, including such people as Victor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, Irena Sendler and Primo Levi.
After the Second World War, Levi returned to his native Italy and eventually began to record recollections and reflections of his time as a prisoner of the Nazis. His works are widely studied and Levi is revered as an exemplar and advocate for justice, ethics and conscience in our daily lives.
Some 18 years after Levi’s death in 1987, Centro Primo Levi (CPL) was established in New York to promote his work and to foster education and awareness of Jewish life in Italy, past and present. Located at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, CPL operates under the auspices of the Consulate General of Italy and partners with universities in Italy, Israel and the U.S. Its publishing arm, CPL Editions, prints “classic and new books on topics of interest in Italian Jewish history and thought.”
One of CPL Editions most recent publications is a memoir by Eleanor Foa called Mixed Messages: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. Foa is an author, journalist and corporate writer.
The New York-based writer set out to enshrine the story of her parents – both survivors of the Second World War. Foa’s father, Bruno, was born in Naples, and her mother, Lisa, in Munich. As Foa points out on numerous occasions, the match may not have been made in heaven. But during those tumultuous years in Europe between the two world wars, heaven was hard to find on earth.
This book is the result of a number of visits to Italy that Foa took with her sister, Pamela, and then with her two grown sons. “It was something, frankly, I had to write for myself, and only later, over a period of 10 years, did I begin to think it might be of interest to others,” Foa said in an interview with blogger Deborah Kalb.
Visiting, interviewing, researching and writing her family’s history was clearly therapeutic for the author. The project helped her understand, and come to grips with, the many parentally sourced intellectual, emotional and psychological contradictions that marked her early years.
She refers to these contradictions as the “mixed messages” of the book’s title. As Foa explained: “For example, it was OK to be Jewish as long as you didn’t look, sound or act Jewish. Money was unimportant, and yet it was hugely important. ‘Family is everything,’ my parents insisted, yet somehow they alienated me and my sister from our family.”
Ultimately, Foa comes to peace with the impact of her parents’ mixed messages. “Given who they were and how they were raised, they did the best they could,” she said.
Yet understanding the all-too-human reasons for her parents’ mixed messages is not the key part of Foa’s book. By far, the most noteworthy aspect is the history of the Foa family, specifically, and of Italian Jewry, generally. The author uncovers this information through what she calls the archeological excavations – “with multiple layers, discoveries and interpretations” – of her extended family’s journey.
Foa’s archeology metaphor is apt. She masterfully reveals fascinating historical treasures of Jewish Italy, excavated from the time of the Foa family’s arrival in northern Italy in the 16th century, to the migrations of the extended Foa family to southern Italy and beyond.
Through Foa’s descriptions, the reader travels to diverse Italian communities, such as Sabbioneta, Soragna, Parma, Turin and Naples, and meets a wide array of strong, accomplished, interesting, wonderfully depicted characters, some of whom played a role in wider world history, as well. Foa brings a compelling tenderness to the discoveries she lays bare for her readers. Indeed, one of the endearing traits of Mixed Messages is the way Foa includes many deeply illuminating sidebar details into the many descriptions of place and people.
For example, consider what broader historical information the reader learns when Foa describes her paternal grandparents:
“Nonna’s youth and prime – from about 1861 to 1911 – coincided with a liberal and prosperous ‘golden period’ in Italy, especially for Italian Jews. Though a tiny percentage of the population – about 40,000 – was liberated at last from the restrictions of the ghetto, they reached unusual heights of power and visibility during the first 50 years of Italian unification. By 1910, for example, Italy’s prime minister (Luigi Luzzati of Venice) was a Jew, as were its chief justice of the highest court (Lodovico Mortara) and the mayor of Rome (Ernesto Nathan).
“He (my father) never tired of telling me that his mother, Eleonora, was born in Rome the year the gates of the ghetto were opened – 1870. She grew up in a family of solid, practical businessmen. Some say Nonna’s family – Sereni – had an even more distinguished Italian-Jewish lineage than the Foas. As my father wrote, ‘Mother’s father, Sereni by name, allegedly belonged to the upper crust, claiming uninterrupted residence in Rome from the era before the Diaspora.”
“Whether or not the Serenis traced their Italian-Jewish roots to ancient Roman times, they were successful merchants in Rome.… Once the gates of the ghetto opened, they quickly moved up into prominent roles in Italian society. One became a doctor to the royal family; one became a prominent leader of the Jewish community in Rome. Another, Enso Sereni, became a well-known anti-Fascist who parachuted behind enemy lines in 1944, only to be arrested and killed by the Germans in Mauthausen.”
Mixed Messages is rich with myriad veins of shining anecdotes about Italian Jewish life. Foa mines them deftly, carefully, with great enthusiasm and an evident sense of personal and communal purpose. In paying “homage to her Italian relatives, living and dead,” Foa acknowledges that she has evoked in herself “a deeper appreciation of – and attachment to – her past.”
Isn’t that the aspiration we all carry in our hearts for ourselves and for our children?