Barbara Burns talks to Mara Josi, whose book Rome, 16 October 1943: History, Memory, Literature was recently published by Legenda.

cover of Rome, 16 October 1943

BB. It’s quite rare to find a book focusing on the historical events of a single day, but your study of the Gestapo round-up in Rome on 16 October 1943 is a striking example. Over 1000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz following that round-up, of whom only sixteen returned. This is a brutal story demanding to be remembered. What role do literary texts play in representing the past and shaping collective memory?

Mara Josi

MJ. The Roman round-up was the largest single deportation from Italy during the German occupation. Until the 2000s, there was a noticeable gap in both national and international discussions about this event. After that we witnessed a surge in research projects and publications, but surprisingly few of these publications were dedicated to exploring the cultural and collective memory of the Roman round-up, and even fewer focused on the literary texts associated with it. So, in my book, I've expanded on the existing research by homing in on the literary corpus related to the round-up. I explore how literature plays a role in shaping individual and collective memory, prompting reflection on questions such as: ‘Why and how do we remember? Why do we forget? And why and how do we omit?’

BB. Where did you study, and how did you become interested in Holocaust literature?

MJ. I began working on Italian Holocaust literature almost ten years ago at the University of Turin, where I studied for both my BA and MA. My interest in the Roman round-up developed into a book project at the University of Cambridge, where I completed my PhD. I further refined the manuscript during my academic journey at University College Dublin and the University of Manchester.

BB. The main part of your book focuses on four literary works published in 1945, 1974, 1997 and 2013 respectively. Can you give us a flavour of these texts in terms of their genre and perspective?

MJ. I was interested in the hybrid forms through which these four works link history, memory, and literature. The first text is a chronicle-narrative-essay; the second is a historical novel; the third is an autobiographical novel-essay; and the fourth is a work of popular history. Despite the differences in genre and approach, the four authors share recurrent themes in their treatment of the Roman round-up and use similar literary strategies. They combine historical facts with personal accounts, using techniques such as first-person narratives, detailed descriptions of everyday life, and present-tense voice to convey a sense of immediacy. They address readers in intimate ways, typical of direct, personal communication. These strategies involve readers in their stories and create collective affective bonds across generations.

By combining ideas from cultural memory studies and theories of emotion, I show that these texts reactivate distant individual and social memories and create a sense of shared social space and historical time in readers. An exciting aspect of this project has also been the opportunity to collaborate with one of the authors, Anna Foa, a historian who narrated 16 October very effectively by zooming in to the intimacy of one building where she lived for twelve years, from 2000‒12, many decades after the events of 1943.

BB. Can you tell us about the first literary work you examine, 16 ottobre 1943, by Giacomo Debenedetti? It must have played a significant role in the initial stages of shaping the cultural memory of the event.

MJ. Yes, this was the earliest attempt at capturing the Roman round-up in narrative form, and the text was important in establishing the chronicle of the event and framing the discussions surrounding it as socially, historically, and culturally relevant. This work first appeared in a Roman journal called Mercurio. In just under a year, in 1945, it was reprinted as a book, enabling the text to circulate at a national level. In 1945, it also appeared in Lugano in the newspaper Libera Stampa and in 1947 in French in the magazine Les Temps modernes. This means that the Roman roundup has been known about and discussed internationally since 1945, albeit in limited circles.

Mercurio number 1, published in the autumn of 1944, gathered an extraordinary cast of authors to witness the war. This is only page 1 of the contents: page 2 includes, for example, two diary poems by Eugenio Montale.

Debenedetti's 16 ottobre 1943 is undoubtedly the work that has most influenced the cultural memory of the event. It was reworked in all the literary texts published subsequently and considered by historians as a foundational source to trace the hours of the round-up and the events preceding that Saturday 16 October. It goes without saying that it became a primary point of reference for almost all the theatrical works, documentaries, films, and TV series produced up to now. There were also adaptations of Debenedetti’s work in the form of plays, documentaries, and comics, surprisingly created and published by an Australian artist and publishing house.

BB. This clearly is traumatic subject matter. Do the texts you’ve examined also contain elements of hope or spiritual transcendence?

MJ. It has to be said that a sense of hopelessness pervades all the texts. They vividly depict scenes of frightened children, powerless fathers, the old and the sick, and mothers with infants in their arms waiting to be transported away from their homes. These narratives capture the voices of hundreds of Jews herded into cattle-trucks, amongst which individual voices cannot be heard. Interestingly, however, the two most recent books, those published in 1997 and 2013, do offer some glimmers of hope. They document that amid indifference and collaboration, on 16 October, some families were actually saved by their fellow citizens.

Taking part in a story for TG5, the long-running news programme on Canale 5: see here to watch the item (though you may need to use Chrome for the video to play).

BB. Your book finishes with a very useful appendix listing all the films, television programmes and plays over the last twenty years which document the Roman round-up. Why was this important?

MJ. This was perhaps the most demanding aspect of my project, and at the same time it was very rewarding. I managed to show direct and indirect intertextual references to the four texts analyzed in the majority of twenty-first-century screen and stage adaptations. This underscores the leading role that these texts have played in shaping the Italian cultural memory of the Roman round-up and the Holocaust. And I can now confirm that the trajectory of the memory of the Roman round-up is continually growing, thus contributing to a deeper perspective of the Holocaust at national, supranational, and transnational levels.

BB. How is the 16 October 1943 commemorated in Italy today? Were there any special events to mark the eightieth anniversary in October?

MJ. Various events were organized to focus public attention on the themes of discrimination and persecution. These included theatre performances, film screenings, readings, talks, conferences, and walks around the places of deportation. I was lucky enough to participate in an event which included the presentation of my book in the form of a dialogue with two historians, and semi-staged readings of the four texts I analyzed, alternating with piano solos.

Trains leaving Roma Tiburtina, the city's second-largest station: photo, Wikimedia Commons user Raboe. First built in 1866, and most recently reconstructed in 2011 to accommodate high-speed through trains, the station remains best-known for one single journey: the Auschwitz train which departed on 18 October 1943.

BB. You’re now based in Ghent. Are you still working on Italian Holocaust literature?

MJ. While I was researching my book, I also encountered texts by Jewish authors who avoided arrest and deportation by going into hiding. I expanded my area of enquiry from Rome to the Italian peninsula and have now built up a corpus of approximately thirty texts of different genres which report life in hiding in occupied Italy. As a result of examining these texts I’ve set up what I call ‘the literature of hiding’, a new category of Holocaust literature through which I extend the field of Holocaust studies by blurring the physiognomy of what has been considered so far as a Holocaust survivor. Thanks to this project I was awarded a three-year FWO Postdoctoral Fellowship and am currently working very happily at Ghent University.

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