Stateless Jews find refuge in the valleys of northwest Italy, thanks to the humanity of supposedly thick-witted peasants: a rich, rewarding, and well-researched tale of WWII.
Piedmont, the province north of Genoa, in the lee of the Maritime Alps, is now largely off the American tourist map. But in 1943, when the Italian Fascists surrendered to the advancing allies, Piedmont was desperately attractive to the thousands of Jewish refugees who were forced to flee the Germans marching into the political vacuum in Mussolini’s former European territories. Brutal as the Italian fascists were, they had been notoriously slow to turn over their Jews to Germans, and the Piemontesi had a reputation for sanctuary. In his third outing, science-fiction author Russell (Children of God, 1998, etc.) weaves oral and written histories and a large cast into a fast moving story that switches back and forth between the scarcely populated agricultural valleys at the edge of the Alps and fictitious Porto Sant’Andrea, an unexceptional industrial city somewhere on the Ligurian coast. An odd coalition of native Italian Jews, Roman Catholic clergy, communists, and unaffiliated anti-Fascists, have united in a conspiracy to protect the stream of refugees coming on foot through the mountain passes from France at the very moment that the Nazis are turning against their former Italian hosts. The masterminds of the Italo-Jewish effort are Lidia Leoni, an aristocratic and supremely sophisticated communist and her boozy, brilliant, protean son Renzo, a much-decorated flier haunted by his role in Italy’s Ethiopian adventure. Knowing the efficiency and ruthlessness of the Germans who now hold power in Porto Sant’ Andrea, the Leonis steer money and refugees to the tiny hamlets in Valdottavo, where peasants have already begun to harbor Transalpine guests. The one “good” German in Russell’s adventure is Werner Schramm, a doctor in flight from his past as an obedient euthanizer and witness to the death camps who is now witness to the humanity of the Jews and the charity of the mountain peasants.
Beautiful, noble, fascinating, and almost unbearably sad.