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The Itinerary of an Identity

Primo Levi’s “Parallel Nationalization”
  • Nancy Harrowitz
Chapter
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Part of the Italian and Italian American Studies book series (IIAS)

Abstract

In 1975, Primo Levi published a troubling description about what his Jewish identity meant to him in the year 1941. This passage appears in The Periodic Table, the story of his life as a chemist: “In truth, until precisely those months it had not meant much to me that I was a Jew: to myself, and in contacts with my Christian friends, I had always considered my origins as an almost insignificant but odd fact, a small cheerful anomaly, like having a crooked nose or freckles; a Jew is somebody who at Christmas does not decorate a tree, who should not eat salami but eats it anyway, who has learned a bit of Hebrew at thirteen and then has forgotten it”1 The political scene at the time was rapidly shifting. The Fascist racialist doctrine of the purported impurity of Jews had become diffuse. Levi was learning what exclusion meant for Jews, as it became difficult for him to remain at the university because of the antisemitic Racial Laws of 1938–1939. Despite the claims he makes to the contrary, the fact of being Jewish was already much more significant than the “small cheerful anomaly” he notes, as not only Levi but also the entire Jewish community of Turin was then suffering under laws eliminating Italian Jews’ civil rights.

Keywords

National Identity Jewish Community Jewish Identity Parallel Nationalization National Consciousness 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Sander Gilman, The Jew’s Body (New York: Routledge, 1991).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Mario Toscano, “Italian Jewish Identity,”, Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule: 1922–1945, ed. Joshua Zimmerman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 43.Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    Cesare Lombroso, L’antisemitismo e le scienze moderne (Torino: Roux, 1894).Google Scholar
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    Alexander Stille, “The Double Bind of Italian Jews: Acceptance and Assimilation,”, Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule: 1922–1945, ed. Joshua Zimmerman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 43. Stille’s term “double bind,” for Italian Jews caught between a desire for acceptance and the demanded price of assimilation, is very useful for understanding the situation of Levi and many others in his generation.Google Scholar
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    For more contextualization of Momigliano and the atmosphere surrounding the questions of identity after emancipation, see Paolo Bernadini, “The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Italy: Towards a Reappraisal,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies 1, no. 2 (1996): 292–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Antonio Gramsci, Further Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Derek Boothman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), 104.Google Scholar
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    Arnaldo Momigliano, Pagine ebraiche, edited by Silvia Berti (Turin: Einaudi, 1987), 145. Translation mine.Google Scholar
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    Primo Levi, “Itinerary of a Jewish Writer,”, The Black Hole of Auschwitz (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2006), 128–29.Google Scholar
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    See, for example, Millicent Marcus, Italian Film in the Shadow of Auschwitz (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).Google Scholar
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    Ferdinando Camon, Conversazione con Primo Levi (Milano: Garzanti, 1991).Google Scholar
  19. 23.
    In the 1880s, Levi’s grandfather had a bank in the small town of Bene Vagienna that was driven out of business, and the family driven out of town, by an antisemiti: Dominican friar. It is not clear exactly what Levi knew or did not know about the particulars of this episode; it appears that older family members did not discuss it willingly. See Ian Thomson, Primo Levi (London: Random House, 2002) for more details.Google Scholar
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    See Giorgio Fabre, Mussolini razzista: Dal socialismo al fascismo: la formazione di un antisemita (Milan: Garzanti, 2005).Google Scholar
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    Susan Zuccotti, The Italians and the Holocaust (New York: Basic Books, 1987) for discussions of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic policies.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Risa Sodi and Millicent Marcus 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nancy Harrowitz
    • 1
  1. 1.Boston UniversityUSA

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