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chi ti ama così

11 june 2017

Edith Bruck's wonderful memoir Chi ti ama così is about surviving the Holocaust. But her liberation from the camps comes early in the book. Much of Chi ti ama così covers the process that Bruck's friend Primo Levi chronicled in La tregua: trying to find your way home, indeed trying to find a home, after the camps. As Steve Goodman sang in a different context, "They say the war is over, but I think it's just begun."

Chi ti ama così has 103 pages. Bruck recounts her family's deportation on the twelfth and her liberation on the 42nd. Her parents die in the camps. She and her sister are freed from the Bergen-Belsen camp – only to be taken to another camp by the Allies. Counterintuitively, they hitchhike back to Bergen-Belsen: "era un campo migliore e meglio organizzato [it was a better camp, better organized]" (50). Granted, the Nazis are gone, and Belsen is now under Allied supervision. But the move prefigures their lives for years to come. Orphaned, without a home to go back to, undocumented, they set off into a world that has become, for them, a void.

The Holocaust is such a staggering, incomprehensibly large event that one often doesn't realize, till reading accounts like Edith Bruck's, how petty so much of it was. Hannah Arendt based her concept of the "banality of evil" on Adolf Eichmann, one of the engineers of the Shoah. Eichmann may indeed have been banal, but he was banally evil on a great scale. Bruck, by contrast, presents everyday people who seconded Eichmann's grand plans with a kick here, a gob of spittle there, an uttered insult, a scrawl on a garden wall.

Shortly after being liberated, Bruck and her sister Eliz decide to go home, to the village where they grew up. Of course, they have no home to go to. In their family house, they find only a dresser and couch cushions full of ordure, walls full of "scritti contro gli ebrei," anti-Semitic graffiti (59). Neighbors tell them who's taken the rest of the furniture – because of course, when you're deported to Auschwitz, life goes on for your Gentile neighbors, and somebody gets your stuff. "La famiglia che si era presa i mobili ci scacciò dalla casa chiamandoci ebrei puzzolenti [The family that had taken our furniture chased us out of their house, calling us stinking Jews] (60). They are free to stay, they even have old friends who want to be "amici come prima," friends like before. But of course they cannot live in the village that had sheltered them for a while against Nazism and then turned so casually against them.

In some ways, so little had changed; in others, everything:

I ricchi erano scontenti dell'ingiustizia umana, i più poveri sorridevano della giustizia umana. Solo io non credevo più a nulla e non ero neppure certa che ormai esistesse una giustizia. (60)

[The rich were incensed at human injustice, the poor smiled when they thought about human justice. But I didn't believe in anything anymore. I wasn't even certain that justice still existed.]
When Edith Bruck had those thoughts, she had perhaps never yet heard the words, or even the language, in which she would indelibly express them. She grew up speaking Magyar, and in the course of her deportation and further displacement had to learn bits of many other languages: German, Yiddish, French, Hebrew. Chi ti ama così ends before she ever sees Italy, the country where she has lived for over 60 years now, and whose literature she has so greatly enhanced. Failing to find a home, the great theme of her memoir, is in many ways failing to find a language, and her confident Italian prose sets itself in counterpoint against a background of Babel.

Language was one of the many factors that caused Bruck to feel homeless in Israel, the target of many of her wanderings in the second half of this memoir. Jews speaking dozens of languages converged on Israel after the war, and set about learning the lingua franca that was also already the native language of their forerunners there, modern Hebrew. Working menial jobs, these immigrants

studiavano la lingua con la speranza di poter esercitare un giorno la loro professione. Ma io ero stanca e impaziente … (107)

[studied the language with the hope of someday being able to practice their professions. But I was weary and impatient …]
That impatience was Hebrew literature's loss, but a great gain to that of modern Italy.

Bruck, Edith. Chi ti ama così. 1959. Venezia: Marsilio, 2015.