Saturday, February 20, 2010

Un gran pranzo all'italiana

Since my first post on La Tregua (The Truce), I've finished reading the entire book. I've also read Levi's earlier work, Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man -- some English editions are entitled Survival at Auschwitz), and it has to be the most beautiful book I've ever read. One of the saddest, surely, but so beautiful because of Levi's simple, straight-from-the-heart description of life in the Lager. But more on Se questo è un uomo later. There are few memorable moments of La Tregua that I'd still like to savor.

     January 1945. Auschwitz stands abandoned by the Germans, who have taken all able-bodied prisoners on a forced march, killing most of them along the way in the attempt to keep the atrocities secret. The prisoners in the camp infirmary have been left behind to die. However, 26-six-year-old Levi, suffering from scarlet fever, is fortunate enough to survive. He is liberated along with a handful of other prisoners by the Soviet army. Thus begins his circuitous route home to Turin.

 During his last days in the Lager, Levi meets Cesare, another Italian prisoner, and the two become best friends. They are temporarily separated when Levi again becomes ill and is hospitalized. However, they are eventually reunited at the resettlement camp established by the Russians in Katowice, Poland, one of many involuntary stops in their journey back home. Levi becomes an assistant in the camp hospital, entitling him to better food and a pass to exit and reenter the camp at will. This allows him to spend free time exploring the surrounding town with Cesare. Several months later, the Russians announce that all displaced Italians will go by train to Odessa and from there by sea to Italy. Levi and his companion are jubilant. They pool their few remaining zloty and head into town to buy the ingredients for un gran pranzo all'italiana, a base di spaghetti al burro -- a big Italian-style dinner of with plenty of spaghetti with butter.

  They enter a store and tell the shopkeeper (whom they presume to be Polish) that they are Italian  and wish to buy the makings of a grand Italian dinner. In one of the more humorous passages of the book, Levi describes the reaction they get:

  La bottegaia era una vecchietta grinzosa, dall'aria bisbetica e diffidente. Ci guardò attentamente attraverso gli occhiali di tartaruga, poi ci disse chiaro e tondo, in ottimo tedesco, che secondo lei non eravamo italiani proprio niente.  Prima di tutto parlavamo tedesco, anche se piuttosto male; poi, e principalmente, gli italiani hanno i capelli neri e gli occhi appassionati, e noi né gli uni né gli altri. Tutt'al piú poteva concederci di essere croati: anzi, ora che ci pensava, aveva proprio incontrato dei croati che ci somiglivano. Eravamo croati, la cosa era fuori discussione.

   The shopkeeper was a tiny, wrinkled old lady, grumpy and shrewd. She examined us intently through her tortoise-shell glasses before declaring bluntly and in perfect German that there was no fooling her, like hell we were Italians! Her first clue was that we spoke German, even if we spoke it badly. But no way could we possibly be Italian, because Italians had black hair and passionate eyes, and we had neither. She could, however, be persuaded that we were Croats...as a matter of fact, now that she thought about it, she had met a few Croats who looked a lot like us. We were Croats, and that's all there was to it.

 The irony of the situation is that the two young men really are Italian, while the shopkeeper, whom they presume to be Polish, is actually a German woman exiled from her native land. When Levi tells her that they are Italian Jews, she softens and invites them to sit down. Then she tells them the story of how, many years ago, she had written to Hitler (der Lump, as she calls him) letting him know what she thought about his plans for war:

  Gli aveva scritto personalmente, «Al Signor Adolf Hitler, Cancelliere del Reich, Berlino», mandandogli una lunga lettera in cui gli consigliava fermamente di non fare la guerra perché troppe persone sarebbero morte, e inoltre gli dimostrava che se l'avesse fatta l'avrebbe perduta, perché la Germania non poteva vincere contro tutto il mondo, e anche un bambino l'avrebbe capito. Aveva firmato con nome, cognome e indirizzo: poi si era messa ad aspettare.
  
  She had written to him personally, "to Mr. Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of the Reich, Berlin," sending him a long letter in which she counseled him in no uncertain terms against going to war because too many people would die. In addition, she warned him that if he went to war he was sure to lose because Germany could not fight the whole world, something any child would have understood. She signed her full name and address. Then she waited for a response.

  Five days later, the brown shirts came and ransacked her house but found nothing treasonous. She was sure she was going to be sent to one of the death camps, but instead her shop license was confiscated and she was expelled from Berlin. She settled in Silesia, where she lived as best she could until --as she had predicted-- the Germans were defeated. When Polish officials heard the story of her courageous letter, they gave her a license and she was able to open a shop.

...Cosí ora viveva in pace, fortificata dal pensiero di quanto migliore sarebbe stato il mondo se i grandi della terra avessero seguito i suoi consigli.

So now she lived in peace, taking comfort in the thought of how much better off the world would have been, if only the big wigs of this earth had followed her advice.

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