Set in Italy in the decade before World War II, The Jewish Husband, by Italian author Lia Levi (Europa Editions, $15), takes readers into the same general territory as do better known works such as Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi- Continis and, in particular, the Academy Award-winning film “Life Is Beautiful.”
Like “Life is Beautiful,” the novel (the first of Levi’s works to be translated into English) tells the story of an acculturated Italian Jewish man married to a non-Jewish woman and focuses in part on the sacrifices he makes in order to save the life of his young son. In this case the Jewish husband is Dino, the narrator, a high school teacher of ancient Greek whose family owns Albergo della Magnolia, the Hotel Magnolia. The hotel is the family’s business, but it is also their home. It represents the open, modern, cosmopolitan world that is soon to be replaced by anti-Semitic racial laws and other Fascist restrictions. So central is this theme that “Albergo della Magnolia” is the book’s original title. “The Albergo della Magnolia exemplified my true essence, the life I lived before the gathering storm broke,” Dino declares. At the hotel, people come and go, no one asks too many questions, and different social worlds and classes can connect, interact and even attempt to merge.
It is here that Dino falls hopelessly in love with Sonia, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy, staunchly Catholic Roman family (named, as it happens, Gentile) who are enthusiastic supporters of the Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. Dino agrees to renounce his Jewish origins in order to marry Sonia. But, despite the love the couple share, he never really fits. “[Y]ou want them to respect you, admire you, consider you one of their own,” Sonia’s worldly cousin Gherardo tells Dino before the wedding, describing Sonia’s family. “In fact, it’s entirely the reverse, their hidden contempt is not even all that well hidden. You are nothing to people like them, or maybe less than nothing because they are annoyed at the very sight of you.”
Further, more painful renunciations come later, when it becomes clear that love (and assimilation) cannot conquer all, particularly not in the face of the mounting persecutions of the Fascist regime. In the end, the person in Sonia’s family Dino feels closest to is her rebellious younger sister, Lorenza, who joins the anti-Fascist student movement and becomes tragically involved with Dino’s cousin.
Unlike the “Jewish husband” played by Roberto Benigni in “Life Is Beautiful,” Dino survives the Holocaust by escaping to Palestine at the beginning of World War II. Once there, he cuts all ties with his past. The novel unfolds as a long letter that Dino, now a lonely pensioner, writes from Israel in 1967, just after the Six-Day War, to an initially unidentified correspondent back in Italy. It is his first attempt to communicate with anyone in Italy in many years. The letter, and the painful, passionate story that Dino pours out, are a means to reconnect his Israeli identity with the Italian Dino he had left behind and thus, in some way, make himself whole again.
Ruth Ellen Gruber, an American based in Europe, writes widely about Jewish issues and is the author of Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe