We think of our fiction collection as divided in two sections. One is smaller and this is the TBR, or To Be Read part – those are books we have acquired but have not picked up to read for various reasons. The much larger area holds books we have already read but know we want to read again someday – the TBRA (To Be Read Again) part. Mary Doria Russell’s books are in this larger section, and I selected this book of hers to read because I knew I had liked it a great deal and wanted to revisit it.
This historical fiction about the Nazi occupation of Italy reflects meticulous research into what the Italian people endured during World War II. The story focuses not only on the plight of the Jews, but on the many non-Jewish Italians who risked their lives to help protect them. As one rabbi in the story explained, “There’s a saying in Hebrew. No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.”
One priest had a more specific explanation for the actions he took to help Jews. He encountered a 13-year-old refugee who had nothing but a stamp album, with three hundred stamps from all over the world. When the priest asked how he got them all, the boy explained “They’re from letters [of denial] my father received from embassies where we were trying to emigrate….” The priest asked himself, “Can I abandon that boy, when the whole world has rejected him?”
The casualties of the war extended beyond the physical deaths and injuries that affected so many. One character mused at the end of the story: “Immense, intractable, incomprehensible, that conflict remains the pivot point of two centuries, the event that defines before and after.” He observed that “the poison still seeps down, contaminating generations So much evil. So much destruction….”
Many of the heroic characters you get to know in this story do not survive. But you won’t soon forget them. Ironically, or perhaps, realistically, it is the Nazis who by and large make it out of this story relatively unscathed. And what of their motivations for evil? The author takes a stab at speculating, via the thoughts of the one Nazi among her characters who is repentant, Werner Schramm. First Schramm acknowledges how easy it was to transform persons into objects, to categorize and then dispose of them. He then admitted:
“We were afraid. We were all afraid. There wasn’t enough of anything, and if there isn’t enough, you’re afraid someone will take the little you have. They’ll hurt you, steal from you, and laugh at your weakness and stupidity afterward. That’s what everyone believed. We were all locked away in our separate fears, and then the Führer came out of his prison with a key. He would turn our selfish, despicable fear into a kind of glorious selflessness if we obeyed him, if we dedicated our lives to the Reich. If our blood was pure.”
Schramm also agreed that part of the Nazi movement’s appeal was that it promised adherents, “You’re part of something big, and new, and powerful! You’re better than you were alone.” [Make Germany great again…]
While Schramm was the only Nazi who speculated about his own guilt, the fighters against the Nazis wondered about personal responsibility much more. They considered many of the victims of the war to be innocent. Renzo Leoni, the tortured hero of the book, had bombed a hospital in the Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-1937), and couldn’t get past it. He understood the Nazis killed many more people than he ever had, but thought “when the murder of forty-three people no longer matters, civilization is extinct.”
What was most striking to me about this book was the portrayal of the fate of so many civilians, whether raped by drunk soldiers, or shot for looking at passing Nazis the wrong way, or burned alive in a locked building for reprisals against something with which they had nothing to do, or even killed by Allies attempting to help. So many deaths, so many victims, and so much of it aleatory – a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One can only be grateful for the thread of grace that helped at least some to survive, albeit scarred for life.
Evaluation: You won’t be apt to forget this story soon, which is a good thing. Every new generation should be aware of history that preceded it, in the hope that just once, it won’t be repeated. Russell’s story emphasizes the importance of pulling out the skeins of truth from the web of propaganda, and resisting the call to hurt or abandon others in order to elevate oneself or one’s ethnic group. Morality and grace transcend artificial boundaries, and without those qualities, as Renzo Leoni lamented, civilization is extinct. This book was definitely worth a second reading!
Published by Random House, 2005