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My Political Autobiography: Tullia Zevi

Tullia Zevi left us on January 22, 2011. We remember her with respect and affection. On the occasion of this Giorno della Memoria we would like to share a speech that Ms. Zevi gave at the Circolo Rosselli in Florence, on November 15, 1999, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Carlo Rosselli’s birth.  Re-printed in Quaderni del Circolo Rosselli: 1, (Florence, Alinea editrice, 2000).  [translation by Inga Pierson]

 

In Italy, Before the Exile
Dear Friends, dearest John, Paola, and Alberto Rosselli. As always, seeing you brings me great joy.

More than anything else, my testimony is the story of a political education – that of a girl, born into the northern Italian Jewish bourgeoisie, who spent her formative years in Fascist Italy. The Giustizia e Libertà movement, along with Carlo and Nello Rosselli and the courageous women of the Rosselli household all play an important role in this story and each has a special meaning for that girl and the woman she would become.

Let us begin with my education and with the Italian schools under Fascism.  I remember the tone, the bombast, the rhetoric, the boredom, the grammatical imperative of the “voi” and that jaw and those imbecile massive images of the Duce that were all over.  However, I also remember the father of a classmate – bludgeoned to death by Fascist henchmen – and the anti-fascist brother of another classmate who was in prison.

A few notes on our family: we were four children and father was a lawyer whose ideals we knew to be vaguely liberal and republican.  We also knew that he was a Free Mason – the old school kind, not like today’s version.  Father was cautious in speaking with us but his irony and disdain for Mussolini and all things Fascist assured that we understood his views perfectly well. These rhetorical tools were simple perhaps but effective nonetheless.  I want to recall here a couple of anecdotes.  For example, he never told us, “Fascism is an abuse of power and Mussolini is a scoundrel”.  Not exactly.  But rather, at the table, he told us about how they had discovered a poem written on the walls of Corso Buenos Aires at dawn.  It was written in Milanese dialect so I hope you Tuscans will understand it:

“Caro il me Benitute me cunscià pulitute me cala la pagate me cresù l’affittu. Quando “Bandiera rossa”se cantavatrenta lirette al dì num se ciapava. Adeso inves se canta “Giuvinesa”se crepa tùch — ahimè — de debulesa. ”

My dear Benito
What a great job you’ve done:
You’ve decreased my pay
And raised my rent.
When “Bandiera Rossa” we went singing
We couldn’t even wrestle together 30 lire a day.
Now that we must sing your “Giovinezza” songs
We’re all croaking – alas, weak and powerless.

So, in essence, this was the beginning or our anti-fascist education.  I remember another time at the dinner table (because that was where our political consciousness was formed) the youngest of my brothers, the one who had been the most conditioned by Fascist propaganda, asked, “Papà, you don’t think Mussolini is a great man?” Father, very serious and in a quiet voice, answered: “In my opinion everything he says and does nonsense”.  Thus, through these little ‘off the cuff’ comments and anecdotes, he made us understand what he thought.

Things changed radically and tragically in 1938 with the promulgation of the Racial Laws.  Father was part of a liberal anti-fascist group that met in the bookstore of the Galleria di Milano – The Baldini Castoldi group – to which many Italians of the old guard – famous liberals such as Arturo Toscanini – belonged.

It was the summer of 1938 and we were on vacation in Switzerland.  Toscanini warned my father that he was in danger.  Dad called us saying, “Wait for me, I’m on my way.” When he arrived he told us we wouldn’t be going back.

This abrupt departure – without any goodbyes to our friends – was traumatic.  Our first stop in exile was Geneva which, although crawling with fascist spies, was also home to a number of important anti-fascist circles.  It was there, during a visit to Guglielmo Ferrerò’s home, that my political awakening occurred.  For the first time, I heard candid and bitter criticism – in this case, the discussion focused on the Munich Agreement (the then very recent pact between Chamberlain and von Ribbentrop). And I also learned of the death of the Rosselli brothers.

Father initially thought that we could continue living in Europe and that he could open up an office in Paris with a French friend.  But the ever more dramatic turn of events was such that, in the summer of 1939, on one of the last passenger ships to leave France, we set sail for the United States.

Our American Exile
It is difficult to provide an accurate description of life amidst a community of exiles – it was an enormously diverse group, very dynamic but also apprehensive and insecure.  Nonetheless we pulled together the antifascist forces and founded the Mazzini Society, which even then had the liberal-socialist imprint of Giustizia e Libertà. Quickly emerging as the most outspoken personality in that group was Gaetano Salvemini – the first and only real teacher I have ever had.  With Salvemini there were also Aldo Garosci, Alberto Trachiani, Max Ascoli, Nino Levi, Sandro Pechelis and so many others who contributed to the liberal-socialist – or “giellini” (adherents of Giustizia e Libertà) – ideas coming out of the Mazzini Society.

There was great tension within the organization – anything could become the subject of intense discussion.  Of course, we talked about our political game plan and ideas for the future but even minor things could spark endless arguments and debate. For example, our insignia.  Some wanted the female image of “Italia” crowned, others vied for Garibaldi and still others thought it should be Mazzini.  At a certain point, Salvemini, betraying a strong southern Italian (pugliese) accent, lost his patience and loudly asserted, “What the devil do you want to put if not Mazzini?! A naked woman?!” Everyone calmed down and Mazzini’s head became our emblem and signature image.

The communists kept their distance and I can’t say they would have been welcome.  Just as in Spain and during their exiles in Paris and in the U.S., the communists weren’t much for political rivalry.  They would have preferred a political monopoly as the tragic skirmishes between communists and anarchist-unionists in Spain (which resulted in Berneri’s death) have demonstrated so well.  When, for example, a group of anti-fascists (Garosci, Tarchiani, Cianca and my husband Zevi) left to pursue the fight in Europe, first in London and then in Italy – I remember that same day one of the communists, Ambrogio Donini called me.  He asked for Bruno and I said that he was out.  He didn’t have much of a reply but the next day the papers exploded with ferocious attacks against Giustizia e Libertà and the Mazzini Society.  All those who had left were accused of being in the Allied secret service.  This conduct isn’t really all that surprising given the long history of their hostility toward our group.  Italian Communist Leader Palmiro Togliatti famously and disdainfully dismissed Carlo Rosselli’s 1930 book, “Liberal Socialism” as “a skinny socialist pamphlet and a close relative of Fascist literature”.

The presence of the Giustizia e Libertà movement in the U.S. and abroad was strengthened by the publication of our magazine “Quaderni di Giustizia e Libertà” – a sign that our movement was destined to exist then, just as it should today.  We were in Boston at the time and the editorial office was at our house.  The printer was an old anarchist – Aldino Felicani – who printed our journal on the same press he had used to print all the material in defense of Sacco and Vanzetti during their trial.  We printed “Quaderni di Giustizia e Libertà” in two editions, one on very thin paper with a blank cover to send back to Italy and one with a grey cover and red characters.  (The red characters didn’t quite satisfy Felicani who preferred the image of a big, bloody hand.) The editorial staff consisted of Garosci, Tarchiani, Cianca, Enzo Tagliacozzo, then Salvemini’s assistant, and my husband – with me acting as editorial secretary. We were able to run four issues.  The third issue, printed in 1943, was entirely dedicated to Spain.  After my husband and the others left for Europe, I can say – to my own modest credit – that I published the 4th issue entirely on my own.  And I don’t think it was any worse than the preceding numbers.

In the U.S. our anti-fascist work went in several directions.  There were the efforts directed at Italy: the shipment and diffusion of our magazine, fliers and other materials overseas.  Then there were the short wave radio initiatives – one of which – a news and commentary program for partisan fighters – I directed from the National Broadcasting Company offices in New York.  Then there was the task of maintaining contact with and informing the other anti-fascist cells abroad – in Latin America, England and North Africa – where Paolo Vittorelli was in charge.

Moreover, there were our relations with the longtime anti-fascist Americans: the Catholics, Fr. Sturzo and Giorgio La Piana, the socialists and the anarchists (who had important cells in both Patterson, N.J. and in Philadelphia).  I remember paying visit to these old anarchists, sometimes with Marion and Maria Rosselli. They were grateful to see that the social liberal spirit was still alive in Italy and welcomed us with open arms.

Among the anarchists Carlo Tresca distinguished himself, not only as an historical figure and a famous labor union organizer but also for his interest in the Mazzini Society.  One evening, I remember him leaving a Society meeting, arm in arm with my father.  Two shots fired by a hired assassin struck him dead. The investigations continued for some time but the real motives were never uncovered. There are those who think it was an instance of personal revenge – motivated by a woman, perhaps – while others maintain the hypothesis of political murder.  I’m with the latter camp – I know that people disagree because he was a good-looking older man, with a flowing beard and cerulean eyes.  But he had a young American wife and I don’t think he had a lot of time or need for running around.  So my guess is that the mafia had something to do with it.  Tresca had been a leader during the heroic period of the labor union movement.  At the time, the employers fought back by trying to pit the different ethnic groups among the worker population against one another. Trescas’s death sent shockwaves through the Italian American community and especially our anti-fascist circle.

Which brings me to our work within the Italian American community.  Soon after arriving in the U.S., I came to understand that no one in Italy was Fascist to the extent that Italian Americans were Fascist.  And why?  Because what they knew of Fascism was what they had sorted out from the propaganda – that the trains ran on time, that there were no strikes, etc.  In the eyes of the American middle class, this proud man with a protruding chest – who commanded respect and flouted international sanctions – inspired fascination and respect, reinforcing – on some level – their Italian American pride.  Our job was to explain to the population – which (at that time) was still concentrated in the old immigrant neighborhoods – how things really were.  I remember that the youngest among us were charged with spreading the word on a grass roots level.  We commemorated the anniversaries of Matteotti and the Rosselli brothers.  We went into the Italian neighborhoods in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, etc. distributing fliers and pamphlets in the cafés, stores, and barber shops.  Often they would chase us out with raised fists yelling, “Traitors! Traitors!” In brief, it wasn’t easy to reverse so many years of Fascist brainwashing.

We also had to keep tabs on the local radio programs in Italian. I was responsible for the news programs on WOV – the biggest Italian language radio station.  It was incredible! They were basically issuing Fascist news bulletins within the U.S. while the country was at war! Eventually they thought better of it and moderated their tone.

Beyond our work within the Italian American community, we also had to inform the more general American public of the justice of our cause.  We had to prove that Italy and Fascism were not inseparable and to demonstrate that Italy’s honor would be won not in defending Fascism but in fighting for its defeat and for the re-birth of democracy.  We published a bulletin with the title “Italy Against Fascism” – which caught the attention of the liberal American press including the New Republic, The Nation and the Partisan Review as well as some of the big newspapers.  Our relations with liberal American society proved to be rather positive and effective.

When, during the war, the dark cloud of McCarthyism cast its shadow over foreign political organizations, a few of us were interrogated at length.  But they were looking for communists and their investigation into “anti-American” activities within our circle did not yield much satisfaction.

The Rosselli Family in the U.S.
In the summer of 1940 the Rosselli clan arrived in the U.S.  I remember the emotions associated with that arrival. Signora Amelia, Carlo and Nello’s mother, the two daughters-in-law, Maria and Marion, and their seven children.  The architect behind this fortuitous voyage was Max Ascoli, a scholar and university professor, member of the Giustizia e Libertà movement, and one of the founders of the New School for Social Research.  Ascoli had an American wife whose friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt helped to expedite the Rossellis’ entry into the country.  Thus the Ascolis sponsored them and we were all very grateful.

I began to visit the Rossellis soon after their arrival and our friendship was born. They lived in a house at 9 Park Road in a house in Westchester County, about 40 minutes from New York City.  Signora Amelia was like a mother.  I went to her in my worst moments of anguish, loneliness and nostalgia.  I have extraordinarily vivid memories from those visits.  We talked about everything, about life and she spoke about her experience and tried to give my advice.  Some of her advice I followed and that which I didn’t, I usually regretted. I hardly have the courage to speak about her … but to elucidate the magnitude of her personality, I will share a question of hers, a desperate question, almost a cry: “To what extent – to what point – should a man – a husband -sacrifice his family for his ideals?”  (This question appears in the text of her memorial.)

I wouldn’t know how to answer an inquiry so full of heartache.  But I found a response in a text written by Piero Calamandrei on the occasion of Amelia’s death in 1954.  Please allow me to cite his words because, in my mind, no one has succeeded in describing the extraordinary figure of Mrs. Rosselli so well.

Amelia Rosselli’s destiny was to experience unspeakable devastation, followed by long periods of agonized, silent waiting for the rare piece of news from imprisonments, exiles and assassinations.  Her first son was killed in the Alps and yet never did a note of regret, anger or displeasure issue from her lips – neither for his conduct nor for that of his brothers, already preparing to sacrifice themselves.  It was only natural that they should do so; it was their duty.  She looked upon them with a trembling heart but never expressed any kind of selfish intransigence.  They were her life and yet there was, within her a profound and religious democratic [Mazzinian] understanding.  Life is given to be lived and spent, and to be continued in others”.

Perhaps without a mother like Amelia, Carlo and Nello would not have been the men they were.

The Return to Italy
The Rosselli family returned to Italy in July 1946 and I made the journey with them.  It was one of those ships still outfitted for the transportation of soldiers and military personnel.  We talked for hours and I remember Signora Amelia, Maria and Marion sitting on the bunk beds.  It was a time of great uncertainty, of doubt, and anguish but also filled with hope.  After being at sea for several days, we landed in Italy.

What was our rush in returning so quickly?  Perhaps the strength of their ties to Italy are more easily comprehended, but what was I doing?  The horrors of the war were only then coming to the fore – including the large-scale extermination of Jews, gypsies and political prisoners as well as the destruction of the Jewish community.  It seemed to me a question of justice – that I, who had had the good fortune of surviving, should help to resurrect and rebuild democracy in Italy.  I joined the Partito Repubblicano and collaborated in the party’s main publication, “La voce repubblicana” [The Republican Voice].  I should add that, in the meantime, in working with the Jewish communities, I had made a kind of “career” for myself – in reality, I had taken on a great many volunteer projects. I was the first woman in the history of Italian Judaism to be elected to the High Council of the Union of Jewish Communities.  Later I would be elected president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.  I was passionate about the cause and I tried to do my best during those difficult years of reconstruction.

Conclusions
Signora Amelia,  Marion and Maria are no longer with us and other tragedies have afflicted the third generation of Rosselli family.  With the same courage and dignity, they endured Melina’s death and that of Silvia’s son.

My admiration, esteem and love for the Rossellis lives on, especially through my close friendship with Silvia. I see Aldo sometimes and even, although more rarely, Alberto, John and Paola. But every encounter is the greatest source of joy for me, just as being here today warms my heart and brings me immense happiness.  I would like very much for the Rossellis to know that I speak sincerely, from the bottom of my heart.

I have now come to the conclusion of my story.  Mussolini said that the Italians were a people of heroes, explorers and poets.  Every nation and civilization looks to its heroes for symbolic value.  I don’t know whether we really need legendary or symbolic “heroes”, but I do know that it will be very difficult – if not impossible – to fill the void left by men such as Leo Valiani and Carlo and Nello Rosselli.

So what is left for us to do?  It is our duty to honor their memory and to continue the work they began.  To work for an Italy whose citizens are conscious of their rights but also of their civic responsibilities.  And to labor for an Italy and a European Union that is not merely a conglomerate of markets and exchanges but a political community with a profound understanding of the principles of liberty and justice. Read

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