Historian looks at Italian-Jewish efforts to fight Fascism

Moorehead image
Caroline Moorehead, author of A Bold and Dangerous Family.

In the lineup of 2 0th-century "bad guys," Adolf Hitler usually comes out on top, with Joseph Stalin running a close second. Behind them, Francisco Franco often appears and, farther down, Benito Mussolini.

Now, with the publication of her latest work of nonfiction, A Bold and Dangerous Family: The Remarkable Story of an Italian Mother, Her Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Fascism, British journalist and historian Caroline Moorehead hopes to shake up the list a little.

"Mussolini gets a lighter ride," said Moorehead, in a phone interview from her home in London, because "he was always seen as a buffoon."

But in Bold and Dangerous, Moorehead said, she wanted readers to recognize that Mussolini was a "more noxious person than actually credited" and that he should be "in the running for the silver [prize]" instead of Spain's Franco as the world's second most heinous fascist
after Hitler.

Moorehead lays out her argument by focusing on one prominent Italian-Jewish family, the Rossellis, who took the lead in challenging and trying to undo the despotism of Il Duce, as Mussolini was commonly called, and his Italian Blackshirts. Wealthy and educated, part of Florence's intellectual and cultural circles, the Rossellis-mother, Amelia, a respected playwright, and sons Carlo and Nello-fought valiantly against Mussolini's Fascist dictatorship. They did so, Moorehead argues, out of a pure, unadulterated love of their country, where Italy's Jews, who numbered only around 50,000 in the 1920s and 30s (centered mostly in Rome, Venice, Florence, and Turin), had been part of the fabric of society since the pre-Christian Roman period.

"For her," Moorehead writes of Amelia, "there was no debate: the italianità (Italian-ness) of Italian Jews was something precious, to be jealously guarded. She had no time for Zionism, fearing that it might damage the position of assimilated Italian Jews. For her, Judaism was 'a religion and not a race.' There was just one patria (homeland), Italy, and they were Italians first and Jews second."

Love and courage cost Nello and Carlo their lives-at the hands of Mussolini's henchmen. Amelia and other family members, with Eleanor Roosevelt's assistance, waited out World War II in the United States before returning to Italy.

Moorehead said that she was able to chronicle the Rossellis' many heroic acts largely by combing through Amelia Rosselli's memoirs and the 10,000 or so pieces of correspondence that she and her sons wrote to each other. "They were prodigious letter writers," she said.

It helped, Moorehead said, that she is completely fluent in Italian, having spent her entire adolescence in postwar Italy with her parents, the Australian journalist Alan Moorehead, who gained renown as war correspondent as well as an author, and Lucy Milner, who had also been a journalist.

Bold and Dangerous is hardly Moorehead's initial literary foray into efforts to fight fascism. Her 2011 book, A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival, focused on several hundred French women who saved Jewish lives during World War II. They were eventually captured, jailed, and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them perished.

Moorehead followed up in 2015 with Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France, in which she painted a portrait of a small village, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, whose residents, at great risk to their own lives, hid thousands of people wanted by the Nazis, including many Jews.

Bold and Dangerous was meant to be the last in a trilogy on the anti-fascist movement. But while reading about the Italian resistance, Moorehead happened upon the story of a group of women, including several young Jewish students, the writer Primo Levi's sister among them, who were part of a partisan movement. She is now focusing her attention on them, and hopes to come out with a book in three or four years.

A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for her 2005 book, Human Cargo: A Journey Among Refugees , an intimate look at the plight of people who abandon homes, families, and livelihoods to seek freedom from religious, economic, political, and other forms of persecution, Moorehead said that she is loath to make comparisons between the rise of fascism in the 1920s and 30s, and the growing presence of the alt-right movement in the early 21st century. But, she said, right-wing populists, including Mussolini, have often adopted pernicious positions they had not heretofore embraced out of political expediency.

"Mussolini was not anti-Semitic until it was convenient for him to be anti-Semitic," Moorehead said.

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.


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