Monday, September 19, 2011

The Neppi Modona Diaries: Reading Jewish Survival through My Italian Family by Kate Cohen 1997

 "The voices of the Neppi Modona family are interwoven with their discussions with the author. The frequent shift of focus enlightens rather than obscures. Four stories that remind us of the human dimension of history." from a review from Kirkus Reviews 11/1/96

Kate Cohen wrote this book with the financial help for foreign study from the Dartmouth College Committee on Graduate Fellowships. The award financed a trip to Italy so that Cohen could interview relatives of her father - Rachel Neppi Modona and her daughter Lionella, the two surviving members of their immediate family of four. The entire family had survived World War II, but Rachel’s husband Aldo and their son Leo, both of whom had kept diaries during the war years, died before the author began working on this book.

Having access to the two diaries and being able to interview the surviving women gave the author a window into how the family and many of their fellow Jews survived during World War II, first under Mussolini and then Hitler. The memoir is divided into four sections. In a general introduction we meet these Italian family members and learn some of their history. The next two sections consist of excerpts from the two diaries, first Leo’s rather short one, then his father’s longer diary. Throughout both sections Cohen intersperses diary entries with conversations she had with both Rachel Neppi Modona and her daughter Lionella who clarify and expand upon some of the circumstances discussed in the diaries. In the fourth section the author contextualizes their World War II experience and discusses the effects of the trauma of uncertainty, fleeing and hiding had on family members during the war and in post-war Italy. 

Some of what we learn from reading this memoir is that the Neppi Modona family whose home city was Florence was financially well off, well educated, and part of a large social circle. Aldo Neppi Modona’s family had lived in Italy for many generations and he was not at all an assimilated Jew. He was traditionally Orthodox and his religion and observance were very important to him. He was a fervent Italian patriot who had served in World War I and, in fact, was a member of the Fascist party. He could not believe that he would become a pariah. Little by little his status was eroded. Eventually he lost his teaching position, had to leave his home, and with his family wandered from one town to the next boarding with relatives, friends, and friends of friends in order to evade detection.

In reading the excerpts from these diaries, the discussions with the survivors, and the author’s commentary, we learn about the specific situation of the Neppi Modonas during World War II as well as the situation of Italian Jews in general. The author ends by explaining how reading the diaries and conducting the interviews helped her to gain insights into her own upbringing as a post-war Jewish American.

To read an article in the New York Times about recent research that deals with Jews in Italy during World War II, click here.

Leone Neppi Modona – married to Ada
    Aldo Neppi Modona – son of Leone and Ada; married to Rachel Fintz
        Lionella Neppi Modona – daughter of Aldo and Rachel; married to Guiseppi Viterbo
            Ada Viterbo – daughter of Lionella and Guiseppi
                Tal – daughter of Ada
            Emanuele Viterbo – son of Lionella and Guiseppi; married to Lia
        Leo Neppi Modona – son of Aldo and Rachel

Carlos Alberto Viterbo – father of Guiseppi Viterbo (married to Lionella Neppi Modona)

Family relatives – exact relationships unstated
Valentina Neppi Modona
Leone Ambron – cousin of Aldo Neppi Modona
Bettino and Luisa Errera
Matilde Nissim
Ernesta Neppi Modona
Amalie Cohen
    Ralph Cohen – son of Amalie; married to Judy
        Kate Cohen – daughter of Ralph and Judy;  married to Adam Daniel Greenberg; author
        Amy Cohen – daughter of Ralph

Friends and Acquaintances
Alfonso Pacifici
Enzo Bonaventura
Alfredo Forti
Siebzehner family
Costanza Salmon
Segre family
Viterbo family
Riccardo Dallo Volta
    Enrico Dalla Volta – son of Riccardo
    Margherita Dalla Volta – daughter of Riccardo
D’Urbino sisters
Nathan Cassuto – married to Anna
    David Cassuto – son of Nathan

Anghiari, Italy
Florence, Italy
Galluzzo, Italy
Rome, Italy
Patmos, Greece

Monday, September 5, 2011

We Are On Our Own: A Memoir by Miriam Katin 2006

"Even as fiction it would be one of the best stories I've read in the last year, but as a memoir it leaves you speechless." from a review by Andrew D. Arnold in Time magazine 6/1/06

Miriam Katin, born in 1942 in Hungary, is a graphic artist who has lived and worked in the United States and Israel. This graphic memoir tells the story of her and her mother’s flight from Budapest in 1944. They fled to the countryside where with forged papers her mother sought work disguised as a peasant and lived with the constant fear of being discovered as a Jew.

In 1968, Miriam Katin was herself a young mother and is remembering her own childhood during World War II. A number of times she interrupts the story of her childhood to present a scene of her interacting with her young child. The contrast between the two time periods and the two mother/child situations is stark, and one way aesthetically Katin makes this point is to draw the scenes from her childhood (which take up most of the book) in pencil with no color except for the bright red of the Nazi flag. The scenes of her and her child are colorful and drawn with more detail.

This book is called a memoir – it is not presented as fiction – but Katin has chosen not to use her and her mother’s real names. Although she provides no stated reason for this, it is most likely because, as she explains in an epilogue, she was only two at the time of their flight and has no independent memories. She is relying on the stories her mother told her whose details she cannot verify, but she can depend on her own emotional memory of fear and displacement. She illustrates though a number of contemporary scenes how the trauma of both her and her mother’s wartime experiences affected their postwar lives.

In an epilogue Katin reveals that she relied on information she found in letters her mother sent to her father when they were in hiding and he was a soldier at the front. On one page she makes a collage of several letters and a postcard her mother sent her father that reached him. On another she reproduces a photo of her and her mother taken in 1946.

To read a short article about the siege of Budapest in 1944 click here.

Budapest, Hungary
New York City, NY