Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Thread of Grace

"There's a saying in Hebrew," he says. " 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.' "

About 10 years ago, on my very first trip to Italy, I visited the church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola in Rome. The Baroque building houses Andrea Pozzo's masterpiece, a trompe l'oeil painting on the ceiling of the church that represents the Apotheosis of S. Ignatius (click through, there is a picture). There is a a brass disc on the floor of the church where you are to stand and look up, and from that vantage point the ceiling appears to extend upward into a vaulted roof decorated with statues. The ceiling is, in actuality, quite flat.

My family's connections with the Jesuits are of long standing and one of the things we did in Rome was meet an old school chum of my dad's, a Jesuit stationed in Rome, who lived down the street from Sant' Ignazio. He told us that there is quite a large space between the ceiling of the church and the actual roof of the church and that in the final years of WWII the Jesuits used that space to hide Jews. In preparing this I searched for some official recognition of that fact but I could find none. But he seemed quite certain of this and I have no reason to disbelieve him.

The Vatican is often justly criticized for its policies toward Hitler but too little recognition is given to the people of Italy, within or without the church hierarchy, who took it upon themselves to try to save their neighbors and even refugees that they didn't know. And the history of the liberation of Italy is often ignored in favor of the far more publicized history of the liberation of France. Perhaps because France was never a willing ally of Germany.

Mary Doria Russell's beautifully written novel A Thread of Grace will make you want to learn more. The story begins in September, 1943. A group of Jewish refugees cross the Alps from France into Italy because Italy, with the commencement of the Allied invasion of Italy, has made a separate peace. The Germans will not, however, willingly give up the Italian peninsula and for the next year and a half Italy exists in a state of war not only between German troops and the Allies but an underlying civil war between the Italian partisans and the Repubblicans who fight on the side of the fascists.

The main theme of the novel is the generosity of the people of Italy who managed to save the lives of 43,000 Jewish people, Italian and foreign. Set in the northwest corner of Italy, among the hills and valleys of Aostia and Liguria, in towns real and fictional, it has a large cast. Russell is a trained anthropoligist and in the afterward of the novel she credits her story to the many interviews she did with survivors and their descendants. She recognizes that they will find it strange to find bits and pieces of their lives interspersed throughout her novel. She says "What I have written is not real, but I hope they will find it true." This, I think, is what good historical fiction does: convey the reality of a situation.

At one point in the novel, one of the principal characters philosophically opines:
Ten percent of any group of human beings are shitheads. Catholics, Jews, Germans, Italians, Pilots, priests, Teachers, doctors, shopkeepers. Ten percent are shitheads. Another ten percent - salt of the earth. Saints. Give you the shirts off their backs. Most people are in the middle. Just trying to get by.
This is a novel made up of Saints who are fighting shitheads. Very few of the people of the middle, ordinary type exist in this novel except in the background.

For a while I thought that was going to be a problem for me. I kept doubting that ALL of the people of Italy were as benificent as they were made to appear in this novel. But after a while I gave myself up to the concept that I was reading a Lives of the Saints. And like the old fashioned Lives of the Saints, the stories are not pretty and do not end happily. And like many of the Saints of old, some of the characters seem to have been born saintly while others have sordid pasts for which atonement is necessary.

As with any book about Germans and Jews in WWII, don't get too attached to any of the characters. If such a story is to convey the reality of the situation, all characters must be casualties, even the ones who don't die. And, as in a war, Russell allows no time to mourn the demise of a character but sends us on to the next crisis.

The Allies play little role in this story. Landing in the south and fighting their way up the peninsula, they exist only in bombing raids that are equally likely to kill their friends as their enemies. They show up in person only towards the end and only very minimally. The partisans of the northwest of Italy fight almost completely alone through most of this novel. The Allied fight up the peninsula is a story of another novel.

However, despite their absence, I found myself thinking about them because of another experience I had in Europe. After the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII I found myself in deGaulle Airport in France waiting for a flight back to St. Louis. In the waiting area were a large number of elderly Japanese American couples who were connecting through St. Louis on their way back to San Francisco. I assumed that they were a tour group.

After we boarded the plane and took off, however, the pilot set us straight. These old men had once been in the 442nd Infantry Regiment, a regiment composed of Japanese Americans, many of whose families were left behind in the United States in Interment Camps. They had fought their way up the Italian Peninsula and in Southern France and were the most highly decorated military unit in the United States Armed Forces. The pilot himself came back to shake their hands followed by many older men on the plane who looked like they could remember WWII. These men and their wives had been invited back to Italy to take part in, and be honored by a commemoration ceremony for the liberation of Italy and they had continued on to France.

I knew next to nothing of these men or the liberation of Italy until my flight on that plane. But it caused me to look up the history of the 442nd and the Italian campaign. This novel opened my eyes to another part of the very human campaign in Italy against Nazi Germany. It also was a good way to remind myself that acts of good or evil are undertaken by otherwise ordinary people. In the final line of the novel, a 21st century Rabbi, attending the death of one of the remaining survivors, thinks about Hitler and reminds himself and us:
One hollow, hateful little man. One last awful thought: All the harm he ever did was done for him by others.