Rome, 1943: Marina Tozzi is on her way home from university when she learns that her father has been killed for harboring a Jewish artist. Her grief is mixed with fear for her own life, and she flees to Villa I Tatti, the Florentine villa of her father’s American friend Bernard Berenson and his partner Belle da Costa Greene, the famed librarian who once curated J.P. Morgan’s library. So begins Anita Abriel’s novel A Girl During the War (Atria, $17.00). Abriel, the author of two other novels set during World War II, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about why she endows her young protagonists with such courage and such grit.
YZM: Marina’s father shelters a Jewish artist—was this kind of bravery something that occurred often in Italy?
AA: After the Germans occupied Rome, many safe houses sprung up throughout the city. Roman citizens hid Jews and other people in danger and Italian partisans formed a network that stretched from Naples in Southern Italy all the way to the Northern border. There is a wonderful movie starring Gregory Peck called The Scarlet and The Black about how even the pope in the Vatican was hiding Jews. Pope Pius XII had a white line painted around the Vatican and German soldiers weren’t allowed to cross it and enter the Vatican. Eventually the Vatican ran out of space to hide any more Jews, so the need for safe houses grew even more vital. Roman citizens really stepped up and provided those safe houses.
YZM: In researching the activities of the partisans, did you find out anything that was surprising?
AA: I was surprised, as I always am when researching the Holocaust, about the bravery of ordinary citizens, especially young people like my fictional Marina. These young people, who today would spend their early twenties enjoying themselves, were called upon to risk their lives on a daily basis. I was also surprised that the partisans came from all walks of life. The wealthy (like Carlos, Marina’s neighbor in the book) worked alongside other partisans who were born to much more straightened circumstances. They all had a common bond – to free the Italians from German occupation and help defeat the Nazi’s all across Europe.
YZM: How has your own Jewish background informed your writing?
When I wrote THE LIGHT AFTER THE WAR, based on my mother’s experiences during and after World War II, I realized that the stories I had heard as a child still resonated with me. While I don’t practice being Jewish outwardly all the time, I feel it very much inside and it definitely comes through in my writing. My grandparents lived with us and so I think much of my upbringing and my way of looking at life was affected by my Jewish background. It doesn’t show itself in my activities, or even in the way I raise my own children, but my Jewishness is innate. I would guess that many people of Jewish descent feel the same. One doesn’t have to go to temple on a regular basis to feel Jewish, it is just part of one’s nature.
AA: You were born in Sydney, Australia and your novels are often set in beautiful and legendary places like Rome, Florence and Buenos Aires—are you a world traveler? Do you draw on your own experience?
When I was young, my mother wanted to return to Europe and we spent the greater part of a year traveling to the places she had known before the war. She spoke six languages (as did my father) so we visited those places – Italy, Hungary, Germany, France, etc. like natives. That early exposure to Europe made me a lifelong lover of foreign cultures. I love European Art and European literature. As an adult, I have been busy raising children and writing and have not traveled very much. I do most of my research online but I would love to get back to traveling soon. I plan on revisiting many of the places she showed me, especially the French Riviera where LANA’S WAR is set, and Florence where A GIRL DURING THE WAR takes place.
YZM: Many of your protagonists are young women facing adversity—deaths of loved ones, betrayals, exile from their homes—and yet they manage to overcome these challenges and emerge stronger for having done it; care to comment.
AA: I believe that women are born with a certain strength —they will almost certainly need it later in life. Mothers, especially, learn quickly that they need to be strong. Babies start out as being helpless, and it is often up to the mother to guide the child through the formative years. I was raised to believe I could accomplish anything if I applied myself hard enough. I like to believe I have passed that on to my own children and to the characters in my books. Readers want to read about women who overcome obstacles to achieve their dreams – it makes them believe in the limitlessness of their own capabilities. Books are a wonderful way to learn about life, and nothing makes me happier than receiving emails from readers saying that the characters in my book inspired them to reach for what they wanted.