The historiography of the hardships faced by the Jews in Italy in the 20th century has produced considerable results in recent decades. There has, furthermore, been a copious production of memoirs that has constituted a kind of public analysis of issues relating to their identity, shaken by the tragic events involving persecution and deportation, and that has provided countless elements increasing the understanding of how the Jews lived and of both collective and family occurrences that affected them in those difficult times.
This publication by Federico Falk provides an original contribution in terms of the knowledge it provides of this varied landscape. He has accurately and passionately reconstructed a tableau of the Jewish families who lived in Fiume and Abbazia (Opatija) between 1915 and 1945.
In his foreword, the author states that he is not a historian. His honesty is commendable; but at the same time he deserves recognition for his ability to sketch in just a few swift and effective traits the framework of his documentary research. There had indeed been a Jewish presence in the city of Fiume since the 15th and 16th centuries. Over the following centuries, the community gradually confirmed and enriched its heterogeneous nature resulting from the arrival of Levantine, Spanish and Hungarian Jews who, however, used the Italian language that was dominant in the city, and that forged its character through contact with the different forms of political rule that ensued in the region: from being part of the Habsburg Empire to being included in the Kingdom of Italy and subsequently, after World War II, in the new Yugoslav Republic. Of these, the author highlights the phases that affected the lives of Jews in the “Carnaro province” most dramatically. There were the racial laws and deportations that, clearly, had a profound and tragic effect on the life of the community, but also tragic developments following the arrival of Yugoslav forces that affected the Jews as much as other Italian elements in Fiume’s population.
The wealth and diversity of information concerning Jewish families collected by Federico Falk is set against this historical background and consists of a remarkable collection of documents provided by the heirs of these families and by scholars who have studied that particular time in history. As Eugenio Artom wrote at the time of racial persecution, in outlining a research project focused on the history of Italian Jews during the Risorgimento period and its subsequent developments that led to the Unitarian State, their history gives the impression of being a tale of families joined by cultural, religious and social bonds. It seems to me that this evaluation criterion could be used also beyond the specific boundaries of that political and geographic environment and that, therefore, it consolidates the effectiveness and the value of this type of documentary research in terms of the elements of knowledge and mental stimulation it provides for historic research and study.
It should never be underestimated that preserving memory must also involve the conservation of documents that are often scattered, ephemeral or hard to find. The gathering of an accurate collection, open to further additions, provides an opportunity to safeguard the traits and memory of a world that has partly disappeared, to protect it and provide scholars with elements of research, making a significant contribution, especially now that we are living through a transition phase in the processing and conservation of memory inevitably associated with the passing of witnesses and protagonists, with changes in the collective attitude towards the public transmission of the Jewish memory of the Shoah and the resulting need for adequate documentation and the historicization of the events of a recent past that is at risk of becoming irremediably distant.
Associate Professor of Contemporary History at the “La Sapienza” University in Rome.