Archive for February 21st, 2010

Take him up on his offer, Signor Segre

Sunday, February 21st, 2010
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segreJoseph Frank writes in The New Republic about Dan Vittorio Segre’s Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, republished by the University of Chicago Press two years ago.  (Frank is the author of a five-volume series on Dostoesky — I wrote about it here.)

“Why did the book strike me so forcibly? It is beautifully and sensitively written, but more importantly it traces the author’s remarkable journey from the very heights of Italian Fascist society to a kibbutz in pre-Israeli Palestine, and finally back to his native land as an officer in the Palestine (Jewish) regiment of the British Army.”

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Joseph Frank, and wife Marguerite (Credit: L.A. Cicero)

For Frank, it was part of an ongoing train of thought: “I had for a long time been struck by the differences between the anti-Semitism of Mussolini’s Fascism and that of Hitler’s Germany.  Why had the Italian variety been so much less severe and fanatical?”

Hannah Arendt explored the same question in her Eichmann in Jerusalem (a.k.a. The Banality of Evil): “Assimilation, that much abused word, was a sober fact in Italy.” That sober fact  included native Jews whose roots reached back into the Roman Empire. While in Denmark, Jewish lives were saved thanks to an elevated civic and moral sense, in Italy, she wrote that it was “the outcome of the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people.”

“Italian humanity, moreover, withstood the test of terror…” Arendt wrote that less than 10 percent of the 50,000 Jews living in Italy were killed — and the vast majority of those in the war’s panicky final months.  That is the lowest of any country in Europe, as I recall.

Frank would like to meet Segre.  “He is now head of the Institute of Mediterranean Studies in the Italian Swiss University of Luano.  Unfortunately, Google was unable to inform me whether he is still teaching.  But if he is, and I were a student, I would take the next train, plane, or boat to Lugano.”

Are you listening, Signor Segre?

UPDATE:  Signor Segre was indeed listening — even before we wrote this post.  Reply from Joseph Frank: “Dan Segre wrote me a very warm letter about my article and invited me to visit him in Switzerland.”  So is the nonagenarian professor — who, incidentally, was a friend of Arendt’s and thought the comments we cited were “absolutely perfect” — going to make the trek?  “I’m giving it serious thought if we get to Europe. And if you haven’t read the book, you should. It’s quite fascinating.”

(New podcast of Joseph Frank on Dostoevsky is up here.)