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Thursday, September 3, 2015

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Italians and Jews: an enduring bond

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Robert Eli Rubinstein


Objectively speaking, my having been born in Italy was a geographical accident.

Unlike the majority of their relatives, my dispossessed Hungarian Jewish parents had managed to avoid being murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration had shepherded them to Displaced Persons Camp No. 17 in Grugliasco, a town near the northern industrial city of Torino, together with many other refugees from all over Europe.  Quite astonished and profoundly grateful that they were still among the living, my parents had modest aspirations. All they wanted was the opportunity to start reassembling their shattered lives, in any country in the world that would have them. Sadly, no invitations arrived.

For nearly three years, my parents languished in the Grugliasco camp, where they no longer subsisted in mortal fear and where their basic material needs were provided for. This was admittedly a dramatic improvement over the very different camps they had inhabited previously. But after all they had endured, they bridled at the daily indignity of being unable to return to the free, normal life of people everywhere. 

At long last, in the fall of 1948, an unexpected opportunity arose for my parents to start life anew in a remote and unfamiliar land called Canada. They were absolutely thrilled and had no regrets whatsoever about leaving Italy behind.  They carried with them a five-month-old bambino as the sole tangible keepsake of their melancholy Italian sojourn.

Since my parents were stateless refugees, I inherited their status, despite my birthplace. Italy was economically devastated after the war, and hardly in a position to offer permanent shelter to all the ragged strangers abruptly dumped within its borders. I was granted Canadian citizenship together with my parents five years after arriving in this capacious land of immigrants, and finally I belonged somewhere. 

Today, as I ponder my family’ s tortuous odyssey from Hungary to Canada by way of Italy, I recognize that my having been born in Italy, geographical accident though it was, has exerted a profound influence on me.

I grew up in Toronto nourished by my mother’s shimmering stories of the small, everyday acts of kindness bestowed by ordinary Italians on the hapless Jewish refugees in their midst. She has always been utterly convinced that such demonstrations of human decency helped survivors like her regain their faith in humanity and start rebuilding their devastated lives.  Here is a characteristic example.

 Shortly after I was born, my mother took me to a pediatrician in Torino for my first checkup. Finding herself hopelessly lost in the unfamiliar streets, she showed the slip containing the doctor’s address to a passing stranger and asked if he could kindly point her in the right direction. Without hesitation, the gentleman took her by the arm, accompanied her on a 10-minute tram ride and then walked with her for several blocks, finally depositing mother and child safely at the entrance to the medical clinic.

Such stories, of which there are many in my mother’s repertoire, led me in my youth to regard the Italian people as paragons of virtue who played a special role in the rehabilitation of traumatized Jewish refugees like my parents after the war. As I grew to adulthood, of course, I came to realize that the truth is far more complex, that every national grouping encompasses a turbid mix of good, bad and indifferent individuals.

How people behave in extreme situations depends very largely on their objective circumstances. Members of a powerful majority group, for instance, have far greater opportunity to behave badly toward their fellows than members of a weak minority group. There were many heroic Italians who risked their lives in order to save Jewish friends and neighbours from the Germans. But sad to say, there were also Italians who enthusiastically supported the fascist alliance with Germany and were complicit in drafting and enforcing anti-Jewish legislation.

On journeys of discovery back to my birthplace over the years, I have been perturbed to learn that Italians are afflicted by a collective amnesia concerning the Jewish refugee camps in their country after the war. This fact suggests a great many guilty consciences regarding the Italian role in precipitating the need for such camps; but in fairness, it also suggests a refined moral sensibility that is sorely lacking in certain other nations with far more reason than the Italians to feel guilty.

Several years after arriving in Toronto, the men in my family decided to become house builders, recognizing the great opportunity presented by the ever-growing demand for housing in a booming metropolis. They were undeterred by their lack of qualifications or resources. Just then, large numbers of Italian immigrants, mainly from the ravaged-by-unemployment south, started pouring into Toronto, and many of them entered the undermanned construction trades. From a personal perspective, I see it as a wondrous irony that Jewish and Italian immigrants have worked together harmoniously to build habitats for the burgeoning population of their new homeland. The extraordinary saga of Italian-Jewish collaboration in the Toronto real estate industry awaits a proper telling.

People often talk about the remarkable affinities between Italians and Jews. They point to the emphasis placed by both groups on the importance of the traditional family, which is often guided by an authoritative mother figure. They direct our attention to frequently striking resemblances in physical appearance, to a common love of food and a fondness for talking about it. We are told that members of both groups tend to have strong personalities and to be highly opinionated; that impoverished, unschooled immigrants, both Jewish and Italian, were prepared to work very hard to create a better life, cherishing education as the key to upward mobility for their Canadian-born children. Of course, these are all stereotypes, and it is easy to cite exceptions without end in either group. Yet there is widespread recognition of the broad validity of the characterizations. Should we ascribe all the apparent similarities between Italians and Jews to mere coincidence, or is there perhaps something more to it?

The historical record indicates that in ancient times, in addition to Rome itself, there were significant Jewish communities in southern Italy, especially in Sicily and Calabria. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70 CE, considerable numbers of captive Jews were brought back by the victors, greatly boosting the Jewish presence in Italy. With the later ascendancy of the Roman Catholic Church, most of the Jews in Italy were converted to Christianity.

Over time, there was a gradual northward migration of those who remained faithful to Judaism, and they began reaching the then-welcoming Rhine Valley in the 10th century. These were the first Ashkenazim who adopted the local Germanic language that gradually evolved into Yiddish. In the course of the following centuries, large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews fleeing persecution and denial of opportunity migrated en masse to eastern Europe, notably to Poland and Russia, where through prodigious fertility they eventually came to constitute the great majority of Jews in the world.

Meanwhile, under Spanish rule in the 16th century, the Inquisition pressured almost all the Jews still remaining in southern Italy to convert to Roman Catholicism.

The conclusion is clear: the bonds of ancestry between Italians and Jews run deep, so it should not be surprising that the two groups have so many characteristics in common.

Until recently, the historical record was our sole source of information regarding these bonds, albeit a compelling one. However, the new forensic tool of DNA testing has provided vivid scientific confirmation that Ashkenazi Jews bear a stronger genetic relationship, denoting commonality of ancestry, to southern Italians than to any other non-Jewish group in Europe. As a consequence of this dramatic revelation, growing numbers of people in southern Italy have begun to recognize, investigate and occasionally embrace their Jewish roots.

I find it particularly fascinating that the predominantly Ashkenazi Jews of Toronto, including my own family, have roots in southern Italy – just like most of the Italians who have made their lives in Toronto. In a convoluted way, it turns out that I am “Italian” after all, together with a great many of my fellow Jews who have never realized it.

That Jews and Italians have come together through the vagaries of history, living in affectionate concord as friends, neighbours and colleagues in once unimaginably alien Toronto is truly a wonder to behold and a phenomenon most worthy of celebration.

Toronto businessman Robert Eli Rubinstein is the author of An Italian Renaissance: Choosing Life in Canada, which won a 2011 Canadian Jewish Book Award. He will be speaking on Sept. 19 at the Columbus Centre, as part of “Saluti a Jerusalem,” presented by the Jerusalem Foundation of Canada and Villa Charities to celebrate the enduring friendship of Toronto’ s Italian and Jewish communities.

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