An Eve Where Italian Was the Mameloshn


By Masha Leon

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.
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“It is an honor to be part of the work of the Center for Jewish History,” said Antonio Bandini, Italy’s consul general in New York, at last month’s “A Conversation With Nedo Fiano on His Book, ‘Il Coraggio Di Vivere,’” sponsored by the center, the Centro Culturale Primo Levi, The Jewish Heritage Project, New York University Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò and the Italian Cultural Institute. “It is always difficult to speak of anything relating to the Shoah,” Bandini said. “It is not easy to react to Fiano’s book.”

Though Italian was the mameloshn (mother tongue) for many in the audience, excerpts from Fiano’s book were read in English translation by Susan Glasser: “I was born and grew up in one of the most ancient parts of Florence Via dei Rustici… a stone’s throw from the Palazzo Vecchio.… We were assimilated Jews, very secular, far from Orthodox. But… my mother celebrated some of the major Jewish holidays… I was part of the choir of the Florence Synagogue and I still remember many of the prayers I learned to sing there.”

Of his arrival at Auschwitz, Fiano wrote: “There were many Romans in my group.… They were great actors, able to recite… a quantity of jokes and the laughter they provoked was extremely therapeutic for our survival.… The Roman dialect stayed tenaciously in my mind.… ‘Hey, Ne,’ look the Mamser — bastard — (the S.S.) is coming… get away quick!’ they’d say in the Jewish-Roman dialect.” But the ever-present fear was, “You only go out of the camp durch den Kamin — through the chimney.”

Fiano, a handsome and elegantly groomed man, recalled: “Patton’s Third U.S. Army liberated us.… Whenever I see your Stars and Stripes (he paused)… I first saw over the camps of death.… We survivors could not believe our eyes.… We stopped singing and crying for fear that the S.S. would come back… I saluted by putting my hand over my heart as [U.S.] soldiers did…. It is important that the story of the Holocaust be told and retold… [now] as a new antisemitism is spreading over Europe.… If you don’t know about the past — you can’t react.”

“Most of what I am is motivated by his story,” said his son, journalist Andrea Fiano, who led the evening’s dialogue with his father. “Little is known about Italian Jews other than ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ or Primo Levi.… We have a synagogue in Ostia that predates Rome!” (In the program’s “Timeline of the Persecution of Italian Jews,” it notes: “August 22, 1938: A national census establishes that 58,412 Italian citizens have at least one Jewish parent; 46,656 are Jewish (1% of the total population.)” Among Fiano’s roster of facts are that 25,612 Jews had been hidden in churches and convents, and the startling revelation that “concentration camp San Sabba near Trieste (from where Jews were taken to Auschwitz)” had crematoriums!

* * *

You might remember him as the title character in the TV series “Barney Miller,” or as the Tony Award-winning paterfamilias of the Sheldon Harnick-Jerry Bock Broadway hit “The Rothschilds,” but Hal Linden (Jewish National Fund national spokesman) is now “hamming” it up as Major-General Stanley in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ delicious production of “The Pirates of Penzance” at New York City Center. Do not miss it!

I wonder what Sir William Gilbert (libretto) and Sir Arthur Sullivan (music), those operatic satirists of Queen Victoria’s bureaucratic, stiff-upper lip Empire, would have made of this 6 feet 2 inches tall, 73-year old Jewish hunk who portrays the major-general with impeccable upper-crust articulation as though he was born to play the role. With shtick (I can’t reveal) and musical finesse, artistic director and conductor Albert Bergeret has made this production of “Pirates” a joy accessible to multigenerational audiences like the one that packed the City Center at the opening.

During our reception chat, Linden and I recapped our 1998 interview, when he was appearing in “Visiting Mr. Green.” He’d told me that his mother was born in Bialystok and his father was from Keidan in Lithuania: “A twice-a-year Jew who moved into Zionism and was one of the founders of B’nai Zion.… He was adamant about maintaining Jewish culture and tradition and it was he who formed my Jewish identity.” After the column appeared in the Forward, I got a call from a resident in a retirement home in the Bronx who told me he’d known Linden’s father, who’d been the secretary of the [Keidan] landsmanschaft (benevolent aid society).

* * *

It takes a while to focus on who’s who amid the frenetic cast of characters agitatedly rushing through Michael Frayn’s riveting new play, “Democracy,” about the infiltration, some 30 years ago, of the inner sanctum of Willy Brandt (James Naughton) by the ingenuous and ever-so-helpful real-life East German spy Günter Guillaume (Richard Thomas). He so blindsided the Federal Republic of Germany’s Kennedyesque womanizing chancellor that it brought down the government. (Thanks to their stellar performances, I was able to block out the memory of Thomas’s portrayal of John Boy on the TV series “The Waltons,” and Naughton hawking “the purple pill” Nexium, on television.)

Set in a time and place that’s considered “old” history, “Democracy” is an intelligent and welcome theatrical excursion. At one point in the play, an adoring Guillaume describes Brandt’s laying of “his official wreath at the monument to the murdered Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. He steps back. And then.… Once again the world is about to change in front of our eyes…” (Brandt kneels). Guillaume says: “For a moment I think, ‘No, no no! This time he has gone too far!’ But I’m wrong, and he’s right, because this is what the world remembers. That long moment when the German who has no cause to kneel… knelt for all of us.” As Guillaume’s duplicity escalated, I thought back to the PBS series “I, Claudius,” in which Claudius’s childhood friend, Herod, cautions him, “Trust no one.”

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