Original title: Giudei
A sweeping and engrossing saga about an Italian Jewish family caught in the tangle of 20th-century upheavals: Giudei explores the intricacies of identity and the claims of memory, offering a unique view into the complexity of being Jewish between displacement and belonging.
Gaia Servadio raises the rate of beauty and elegance in culture in Italy and beyond. Based in London and a citizen of the world, she’s spent her life and devoted her writing to pushing multiple boundaries.
Jews, Hebrews, Israelites, or even “those people”, as they were called at the turn of the century in Italy, where they numbered no more than thirty thousand. A population that included cousins Zaccaria and Samuele Levi: an engineer and a theatre manager, two very different characters who share a great friendship destined to go beyond blood ties.
We meet them in 1903, as witnesses to an accident involving the composer (and their idol) Giacomo Puccini: he is with a young lover, and no one must find it out! Shortly afterward, Zaccaria has an arranged marriage with Rebecca Foà, a nice middle-class girl from Turin, who will bear him six children as they settle down together in Ancona. Samuele will have just one daughter, Giovanna, with Drusilla, an opera singer who leaves him a young widower. Devastated, he leaves the baby with Sara, Rebecca’s unmarried sister, and enlists to fight in the Great War, fully aware that his choice amounts to suicide.
Meanwhile, Zaccaria sets up a publishing house and takes care of his brood. A few years later, fascism begins to take hold and a poorly concealed intolerance of Jewish Italians turns into full-blown hostility from some of their compatriots, an attitude endorsed by the race laws that would soon deprive them of all rights. Zaccaria’s children, now grown up, react in different ways: emigrating to America, like the eldest, Michelangelo; or choosing active resistance, like Prospero, joined by Giovanna.
With the beginning of World War 2 the family witnesses raids, tip-offs to the Gestapo, and deportations. The Levis are constantly forced to change their name, flee, and split up. Only once the war is over they can be reunited, carrying the deep scars they’ve gained from the fighting in a hypocritical country that has already pardoned itself. And while it is impossible to forget, it is imperative to start again, to rebuild: Italy is making an effort, and the Levis are doing the same, relying on the young generation. The family’s history is in their hands.
Giudei is a family saga that becomes a universal story, opening with the operatic notes of Giacomo Puccini and ending with the future promise of Adriano Olivetti and Enrico Mattei. This is a rereading of 20th century Italy through the experiences of a large Jewish family made up of very different, fascinating characters, each driven by their own fortunes. A century narrated from many points of view, countless voices that never form a chorus but lend history the breath of a great symphony.