For Carlo Ginzburg, It's Personal

Italian-Jewish Historian Learned From Heretics and Heroes

Man of Letters: Carlo Ginzburg says his Jewish identity emerged from persecution.
getty images
Man of Letters: Carlo Ginzburg says his Jewish identity emerged from persecution.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published April 13, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

In sharp focus, by contrast, are the examinations of cultural matters in “Threads and Traces.” Pinpointing the sources of murderous prejudices, Ginzburg is always lucid and balanced, rejecting in a chapter, “Tolerance and Commerce: Auerbach Reads Voltaire,” the approach of German-Jewish philologist Erich Auerbach, who in his landmark “Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature,” written during wartime, amalgamated some Jew-hating passages by French philosopher Voltaire with Nazi propaganda. Ginzburg’s discussion of this detail in Auerbach’s sweeping examination of thematics in literature, from the ancient Greeks and Romans to Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf, illuminates this landmark study written when its author was a refugee from Nazi Germany, living in Turkey.

Ever sensitive to Jewish history and its connotations, in his paper chase of erudition through the centuries, Ginzburg criticizes Princeton historian Peter Brown’s 1981 work, “The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity.” Ginzburg notes that Brown’s study describes a fifth-century mass conversion of the Jews of Minorca, one of Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean, with “deliberate anachronisms” such as “pogrom” and “purge.”

A comparably discerning chapter, one with a dedication to Primo Levi, is titled “Just One Witness: The Extermination of the Jews and the Principle of Reality.” It deals with a 14th-century massacre of Jews in Provence who were blamed for an epidemic of the plague. Ginzburg cites the statement of French-Jewish classicist and human rights advocate Pierre Vidal-Naquet, whose mother was murdered at Auschwitz, that in the face of Holocaust deniers or certain historians’ claims that it is impossible to discern between truth and fiction in narrative, there is value in “that old notion of ‘reality,’ meaning ‘precisely what happened.’”

Addressing such matters, inspired by the precedents of historian Marc Bloch, Sigmund Freud, art historian Ernst Gombrich and literary critic Leo Spitzer, Ginzburg moves eloquently from the history of humanity to that of Jews, and of his own family. Ginzburg’s dedication to Levi may have further symbolic import in a family context, whether consciously or otherwise.

Ginzburg’s mother is esteemed for fiction set in Turin, Rome and the Abruzzi countryside, in which trauma is expressed through focus on apparently mundane details, clearly a family approach toward grasping truth, whether in fiction or history. Natalia Ginzburg played a curious role in Levi’s early literary career. In 1947, as a staffer at Giulio Einaudi Editore, she rejected Levi’s first book about his concentration camp experiences, “If This Is a Man.”

Although later an admirer of Levi’s work, she never explained this decision. Ferdinando Camon, a friend of Levi’s and author of “Conversations With Primo Levi,” opined that so soon after the war and her husband’s murder, so acute was Natalia Ginzburg’s pain that Levi’s subject matter was too upsetting, especially in the coolly objective style of “If This Is a Man.” If so — or even if not — then her son Carlo has responded to this onetime rejection over the intervening decades by not just accepting, but also repeatedly affirming and embodying, Levi’s literary message of humanistic survival.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

Listen to Carlo Ginzburg lecture about the Internet in 2010.

And listen to Ginzburg in London in 2011, speaking about “The Historian’s Craft.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.