“[Fredric Brandfon’s] book is rich in detail, with comprehensive research drawn from biblical texts and papal decrees, inscriptions from the catacombs, medieval art, and folktales and poetry in Italian, Hebrew, and “ebraico” the language of the Roman Jews.”Elaine Elinson, The Jewish Book Council
“A fascinating and readable history that’s essential for those interested in Jewish or Italian History.”Joel Neuberg, Library Journal
“The theme of Intimate Strangers is that from the beginning, Roman non-Jews recognized Roman Jews as familiar, as almost family members, but with the accent on the “almost.”Aaron Leibel, The Jerusalem Post
An interview with me was published in Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb, and I am looking forward to an interview on AJU/MAVEN on June 27 at noon.
The piece in the Jerusalem Post was a feature, not a review and there are already 4 nasty comments, not about me, but about Catholics. Good Luck cancelling the Catholic Church! Below are some more thoughts on topics of interest to me.
What I Learned Since I Wrote My Book
After some seven years of research and writing, Intimate Strangers A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome is officially published as of May 1, 2023. I had to learn a tremendous amount to write it, and at every step along the way I was fascinated. Therefore, I did not stop reading and studying after the manuscript was finally submitted in January 2023. I have been reading whatever I can get my hands on when it comes to Italian history, and among the many new things that I have learned, there are a few that I wish I had known when I wrote the book.
1. Art Imitates Life: Casablanca at the Brenner Pass.
When I wrote the book I was already aware of the unforgettable scene in the movie Casablanca where the patrons of Rick’s Bar, French refugees during World War II, rise together to sing the “Marseillaise” and drown out the few German officers singing “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhein), a patriotic song from the Franco-Prussian War (1870). The German song was implicitly insulting to the French, and they responded with the French national anthem. Although occupied by Germans forces, the refugees in the bar perform their own act of resistance against the Nazis.
Some have said the scene is the greatest moment in cinema, but of course it is fictional. It never happened. But something like it did. And that is what I wish I knew when I wrote the book.
Towards the end of the war, Germany occupied Italy. Hitler’s ally, Mussolini had been deposed and the Nazis responded with an invasion of their former Axis partner. The Italian army was caught off guard, not knowing whether to defend their homeland from invaders or welcome their former allies. Some Italians fought the Nazis; some quickly surrendered. In either case, Italian troops who were captured by the German army were deported to German work camps. Their destination was not the death camps established for the extermination of Jews, but the work camps like Mauthausen which were part of the Nazi camp system that interned Jews, political prisoners, Roma, and homosexuals. Persons in those camps were not automatically executed, but death was often their fate anyway. These are grim facts, but nothing new.
But then I read that Italian military prisoners while still jammed in the box cars headed through the Brenner Pass between Italy and Austria sang Giuseppe Verdi’s “Va pensiero” (Fly my thoughts) that had become the anthem of the Italian War of Italian Unification, the Risorgimento (1848-1871). “Va Pensiero” is a song from Verdi’s opera Nabucco, composed in 1841 but based loosely on the Biblical story of the Babylonian Captivity of the Israelites deported from Jerusalem to Babylon in 587 BCE. In Nabucco, as the Israelites sit on the banks of the Euphrates River in Babylon they mourn for their homeland, Judah and sing Va Pensiero. In the Opera, Verdi’s song was put in the mouths of Jewish characters of long ago, but Va Pensiero was meant to evoke the nationalistic feelings of Italians, Jewish and non-Jewish at a time when they were fighting for their independence and their own nation. Verdi was an ardent nationalist, and his song of longing for a homeland was adopted as the anthem of the Risorgimento. For many Italians even today, it packs the same emotional punch as the “Marseillaise” in France. When I saw Nabucco, “Va Pensiero” was performed first by the chorus in character as Jews, and then performed a second time at the close of the performance by the same chorus dressed as Italian peasants and soldiers displaying the Italian flag. Somehow Jewish exile and Italian independence became intertwined.
Back in 1943, Italian soldiers, many of whom had fought for Mussolini, joined the Resistance, in their own way, by singing “Va Pensiero” while headed in a manner similar to the deportation of the Jews, to Nazi camps. The scene deserves a movie of its own. And if I had known about it, it would have been in my book.
2. More on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.
A significant portion of my book covers the Holocaust in Rome and the role Pope Pius XII played in that catastrophe. I concluded that “even [Pius XII’s] critics described the pope as a profoundly spiritual man . . . . Yet according to the available evidence, during the war years of 1939 through 1945 and specifically from September 8, 1943, through June 5, 1944—the time of crisis when the Nazis occupied Rome—Pius XII failed to live up to that image.” (p. 245). He failed because while sympathizing with the suffering of innocent people during World War II, he could not bring himself to say that many if not most of those sufferers were Jews. He did not once confront the Nazi regime or its leaders about their murder of Jews. As I note there are several explanations for the Pope’s reluctance to specifically identify Hitler’s victimsOne explanation has some plausibility.
“Pope Pius may have been afraid to jeopardize Church institutions across Rome, Italy, and Europe that were clandestinely sheltering Jews. Had the Pope given Hitler any excuse to move against the church, even invade the Vatican, the lives of thousands of Jews in safe hiding would be risked and might well have been lost. While such an explanation is plausible, there exists no evidence that the Pope had such concerns.” (p. 243).
After writing the book, I did not learn of any such evidence directly about the Pope. However, in my reading of Claudio Pavone’s A Civil War, A History of the Italian Resistance, I came across a statement of exactly that policy from Monsignor Ambrogio Marchioni, the Secretary of the Nunciatore in Italy, that is the ambassador from the Vatican to the Italian government. He was answering a question from General Rudolfo Graziani who was a commander of Mussolini’s armed forces and the Duce’s Minister of Defense. On October 15, 1943, three months after Mussolini was deposed, and a month after the Nazis rescued Mussolini from jail and installed him as the dictator of a puppet Italian regime in northern Italy, the General asked for the Monsignor’s support for the newly minted Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana) known also as the RSI.
The Monsignor made a well-considered reply. He insisted that the Church and the Vatican must remain neutral in any contest between belligerents.
“The duty of priests rather was to instill calm, tranquility, order so as to ensure that ill advised actions do not produce serious reprisals against so many innocent people or the entire population.”
Here is an explanation of the Pope’s silence set forth in one sentence. And like Pius XII, the Monsignor studiously avoids identifying who the “innocent people” are. In this particular case, the innocents were Jews, and more than Jews. The innocent could have included priests, nuns, peasants and townspeople. All were vulnerable to reprisals from the RSI or the Germans. But the Monsignor does not want to further opine on that delicate subject. Indeed, it appears to have been Vatican policy in both the statements by Pius XII and Monsignor Marchioni to deplore the suffering of innocents without identifying who was causing the suffering. The Nazis and the Fascists were the agents of the suffering but that was a matter left unsaid. As Pavone notes it was a policy to “deprecate the deeds without denouncing the culprits.” And it might have been done to protect the Church, which, to be sure, was using its offices to give shelter to innocent Jews and others in its Churches, convents, and monasteries.
Evasive as his reply sounds, Monsignor Marchioni also said “the Church does not and cannot remain neutral between good and evil.” True enough. Yet, as in the statements of the Pope, there is a palpable reluctance to state clearly who the forces of evil were. In a Letter of the archbishops and bishops of the region of Piedmont to the clergy and the people at Easter 1944 the clerical recommendation is for “an able and eloquent silence.”
A policy of silence avoided challenging the murderous Nazi activities, while hoping that someone else would take the steps necessary to alleviate the suffering of Jews and other innocents. If that “someone else” was a priest, nun or other Catholic cleric – and often it was–that may have been what was intended. When the policy is silence, the intent of the policy cannot be certain.
I might have included these musings in my book. But does that mean I was wrong when I said the Pope Pius XII failed to live up to his image as a spiritual person? I think not. Pius XII would have appeared in history as a courageous spirit if he had directly confronted the Nazis over their actions to exterminate Europe’s Jews. And that possibly could have saved Jewish lives. Or it could have cost numerous Jewish lives. It was impossible to know. Instead, the Pope acted, not as a spiritual person, but as a political person. He made a political calculation, No one can know if it was a calculation that was ultimately correct. We are left with an uncertainty that may accurately reflect a flawed solution to an excruciating dilemma.
The past rarely reveals itself to the historian with crystal clarity. That can be most disturbing, and frustrating, when questions and complexity both illuminate and obscure our darkest moments.
3. Italian Soccer
If you write anything about Italy, you eventually run up against the national passion, football. What we call soccer, is, in Europe known as football. But in Italy it is called Calcio because in Medieval Florence there was a game, Calcio that involved a ball. That was enough for Mussolini, who was never overly concerned with the truth, to claim, falsely, that Italians created football or as he insisted, Calcio, and gifted it to the rest of the world. The name stuck and has outlived the Duce by almost 100 years.
You can watch Calcio—and I do– on Paramount plus where Serie A, the major league, is televised in the United States. And you do not have to watch it at 3:00 in the morning or any other inconvenient time. All the games are taped automatically, and I watch the replays when I can.
In years past, Italy dominated European and even world football but lately the mighty Italians have fallen somewhat. True, the billionaire Berlusconi poured money into his team AC Milan, but the “real” money from Russian oligarchs and the Middle Eastern sheikhdoms has ended up in British football. This year Italy did not even qualify for the World Cup. But surprisingly the Italian teams are making a comeback.
A brief guide for those of you who are already perplexed follows. Serie A Calcio is similar to American sports. It has a long season which runs from August to May. If your team wins enough games, it comes in first. Simple. Napoli is cruising to the championship this year. But there is also the Coppa Italia which proceeds simultaneously and includes all the teams in Italy including those in the lower leagues. That is a separate tournament with often a separate winner. This year Florence (Fiorentina) could win the cup. More importantly, the top four teams in Serie A qualify for the next year’s Champions League which is yet another annual tournament running at the same time from September through May and includes the top four (or three) teams from the national leagues of England, Germany, Holland, France, Scotland, Spain, Poland etc.; most European countries. Finally, there is the Europa League which is a tournament for the runners up in all those European countries. Again, the tournament starts in September and the winner is crowned in May. And if that is not enough, some teams that are eliminated from the Champions League early in the season are shunted into the Europa League and have to play a separate series of games to qualify.
So, right now Serie A, and the Coppa Italia are coming to a conclusion. So are the Champions League and the Europa League that include the best teams from last year’s national league’s all over Europe. And in those two European tournaments, Italian teams have made it to the top. Both tournaments have reached the semi-finals. In the Champions League two of the four remaining teams are Italian: Inter Milan and AC Milan. They are from the same city and they play each other which guarantees that one Italian team will make it to the final. In the Europa League as well, two of the four semi-finalists are from Italy: Juventus and Roma. But they do not play each other. Therefore, the semi-finals may be the last stop for the Italian clubs if both lose, Juventus to Sevilla, Roma to Bayer Leverkausen. In any event, the next month is going to be great fun because the semi-final round is not a one game elimination. The teams play each other twice, and the one with the highest aggregate point score is the winner. There will, therefore ,be six crucial games for Italian teams in the next few weeks.
On the other hand, I cannot ignore the virulent antisemitism and racism in Italian soccer as well as the rife corruption. But that is for another Newsletter.
I am learning new stuff every day, mostly by reading as much as I can. But if any of you have stories, books, movies, or museum exhibits that you recommend or, if you are a fan of Calcio, please let me know. I want to hear from anyone who wants to respond.