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The Italian Jewish Exiles in America. An Overview by Gianna Pontecorboli

A book by Gianna Pontecorboli. Translation by Marion Lignana Rosenberg and Steven Baker

Pontecorboli’s book is a long overdue account of a lesser-known aspect of the Italian anti-Jewish persecution: the exile of Italian Jews to America. Forced to the US by the Fascist persecutions during the 1930’s and 1940’s, roughly two thousand Italian Jews landed in America and continued their work in a wide range of fields, from mathematics and biology to medicine, music, banking, textile manufacturing, art and antiques. The book traces the threads of their stories, their strategies to exit Italy, find a visa to the US and their first steps in the new world.

From the introduction

November 17, 1939. War had broken out in Europe little more than two months before. The majes- tic Saturnia approached Pier 84 of the Port of New York. The day was cold and cloudy, and it was drizzling. Just after its arrival in the New York Harbor, The New York Times reported in a four-column spread that the Simon Bolivar, sailing under the Dutch flag, had struck a German mine twenty miles from the English port of Harwich, with the loss of 140 lives. The Nazis had imposed martial law in Prague.

On board the Saturnia, gazing at the great, unknown city, were Willy Barta and his twin brother Carlo. Twenty-two years old and nearly penniless, they spoke bad English. Embarking on that ship had entailed untold difficulties. They made the seventeen-day trip in third class, among poor passengers. They didn’t speak with anyone on board. Though they grew up and studied in Italy, their passports identified them as stateless.

The great ship, a pride of the Italian fleet, had made a long journey. Amid the other more than two hundred passengers, the few Italians blended in. […] Among them was a small group that spoke the same language, but that stood out from the others, a minority within the minority. The adults were well dressed, they behaved like the wealthy and refined bourgeoisie of fascist Italy, the children were polite and seemed to be enjoying what was for them an unexpected adventure. […] Many of them traveled in first class, like tourists on a luxury vacation, others, above all the young, had to content themselves with more modest accommodations, but their manners made it clear that they were not traditional immigrants.

From the preface by Furio Colombo

“This book is a humble homage to the history of some two thousand Italian Jews who crossed the ocean to flee the fascist regime’s unjust racial laws, having understood early on the tragedy in which those laws would culminate only a few years later. This story has never been told in its entirety, though many of the exiles have written books and personal memoirs.

The collective story of this small group of people is, first of all, unquestionably a story of consistent and extraordinary success. In the new country that took them in, Italian Jews have left a substantial mark in a thousand different fields. They gave the academic world three Nobel Prize winners, Salvador Luria, Elimio Segré and Franco Modigliani; to architecture, Giorgio Cavaglieri’s designs; to modern art, Leo Castelli’s keen eye; to music, Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco’s melodies. Without Giorgio Padovani, RAI USA might never have existed; without Giorgino Funaro and Enrico Pavia, Pirelli and FIAT might have had no one to help them penetrate the postwar American market. That said, I did not set out only to tell stories of “great men and women” who made it big. This is also the story of people who had to make do with work as a seamstress in the garment district, as a door-to-door salesman of pots and pans, or as a workshop apprentice in a transport company.”

“What makes these pages necessary among the many already devoted to the immense concatenation of events, incidents, and stories of the Shoah, is the insight that guided the author as she gathered, inter- viewed, recast, rediscovered: that flight is an integral part of persecution and carries its own load of information on the crimes that were committed: abandoning one’s home, seeking passage, the need for protection, sudden and drastic changes in one’s place in society that, as if in some mysterious and intolerable spectacle, becomes all of a sudden, inimical.

[…] As we read these stories, both simple and unimaginable, we would do well to keep in mind that there was a cultural campaign to bring back to life the monster of persecution that was seemingly lost in the mists of time, banished by political and moral civilization. Its agents was not the mob’s bestial impulse but universities, academies, conservatories, and scientific laboratories that created manifestos that were demented but hailed as definitive documents on “the defense of the race.” They were the finest German, Italian, and European centers of learning. And we would do well to remember that a vile army of millions of people who saw but did not speak, knew but did not tell, were present but pretended to be absent, joined forces with those who made necessary the escapes told here in so many different voices.”

About the Author
After receiving a degree in economics from the University of Genoa in 1968, Gianna Pontecorboli started her career as a journalist in working for periodicals such as Quattrosoldi, Annabella and Anna. After moving to the US, she became correspondent for Quotidiani Associati. She also directed a program from New York at Radio 105. During a 30 year long career she has travelled extensively across The United States, Central and South America. Her expertise ranges from politics to culture and economics. Currently she is UN correspondent for Lettera 22 and correspondent for the Swiss paper, Corriere del Ticino.

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