In his preface, Renzo Modiano asks what he can add to the testimonies of Anne Frank, Primo Levi and the Warsaw Ghetto. Why write another book about the Holocaust? The answer, of course, is “Because it matters”.
This is the testimony of a seven year old boy who survived partly through luck, partly through the judgement of his parents who ran when there was still time, and mostly through the bravery of those who helped his family at the risk of their lives. And that is why it matters, because it is the memory of a child and a testament to the heroism of ordinary people.
Young Renzo does not really understand what is happening around him in the Rome of October 1943. He knows that his family radio has been taken away because they are Jewish, and that he has to go to school in the heat of the afternoon because he is Jewish, but he does not understand why his parents want Mussolini defeated if they are not traitors. He does not understand that the phrase “The war is over” is the prelude to the worst year of his life. He does not understand what is happening.
But when his father says “They’re taking the Jews” he is forced to learn quickly as his family flees into hiding, and others do not, which led to the disaster of 16th October 1943, when Eichmann had the Jews of Rome rounded up. Renzo’s family survive because of the bravery of ordinary Italians, who hide them separately, arrange for their travel from one safe place to another, and eventually bring them back together again. Renzo learns that he must not attract any attention, and how to merge into the background as he hides with his brother in a village in the Abruzzo.
In some ways this reads like an adventure story, but because we know what happened, it is not. Renzo escapes, but Rachel who sat in the next desk to him at school is taken. Uncle Alberto is taken when he is betrayed trying to cross the fascist lines. People helping Renzo’s family to hide take incredible risks because of what they are doing.
This is a story of the depths to which humanity can sink, but it is also one of infinite hope because it is a story of human solidarity and bravery in the face of murderous oppression. Renzo learns this lesson in the simplest of ways, through the sharing of a very simple meal of tagliatelle with the family hiding him in the Abruzzo.
This is why the story is important. This is why the story needs to be told. This is why you should read it, so that you can learn the lesson without having to go through an experience of this kind.
[Vagabond Voices £8.95]