An excerpt from
Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew
An Italian Story
Dan Vittorio Segre
I was probably less than five years old when my father fired a shot at my head. He was cleaning his pistol, a Smith & Wesson 7.65, when it went off—nobody knew how.
My father was sitting at the same desk at which I am writing these lines, a massive oak table, well fitted for the huge ledgers in which he carefully entered, in his clear handwriting slightly slanted to the right, the daily expenses, purchases of animals and seeds, income from the sales of wine and grain, the taxes he paid, as well as the small sums he put in the neck pouch of Bizir, his massive Saint Bernard dog trained to fetch his cigars from the tobacconist. In the village everyone knew the hairy, good-tempered dog of the village mayor. If the tobacconist was not prompt enough in giving Bizir the correct packet, it was only to make him growl for the admiration of the villagers. On the oak table, now mine and still unburdened—as before—by modem gadgets such as a telephone, transistor radio, typewriter, or calculating machine, I keep my father’s photograph. Bizir is standing on his hind legs, his forepaws on my father’s shoulders. The picture is fading and still smells of tobacco like the desk drawers full of aging possessions: pipes, spring tape-measures, erasers, rusty compasses, penholders, a dry inkwell-things I no longer use but carefully preserve as remnants of the vanished world of my family.
On the day I was shot, in the sixth year of the Fascist revolution, I would certainly have been killed had my father held his pistol at a slightly lower angle. I had crawled into his study, placed myself in front of the huge desk without his noticing me, and suddenly stood up at the very moment when the pistol went off. The bullet grazed my head, burned—so I was told time and again—a lock of my then-blond hair, and penetrated an Empire-style armoire behind me.
This was one of those pieces of furniture with a front panel opening into a desk, which was known incorrectly in the family as a serre-papier. I still occasionally see this type of desk-cum-drawers in the windows of antique shops, converted into bars with places for bottles and glasses. My wife, who is convinced that furniture, like flowers, has a dignity of its own, is furious whenever she sees one of these aberrations. She regards them as a perversion of nature. I do not share this belief with her, yet I am convinced that this particular serre-papier possessed a personality of its own. I wonder how it would have perceived my funeral after having witnessed my death.
There would be a small, white coffin at the center of my father’s library, transformed for the occasion into a funeral parlor. The rabbi would arrive from Turin with a hexagonal black ceremonial hat on his head, standing just in front of the Sisters of Saint Vincent—who nursed in the village hospital—with their wide, starched caps, rosaries in their hands, praying for the salvation of my soul. I would be carried to the cemetery in a hearse drawn by two, or perhaps even four, horses with white plumes on their heads and embroidered caparisons as in Paolo Ucello’s pictures. A lot of people would be weeping around my bier. Our faithful maid, Annetta, would be there in her black uniform and white cap; Cecilia, the cook, with the special chocolates she made for my mother’s Thursday tea parties; Vigiu, the coachman, with a top hat adorned by a pheasant’s feather; the two collies, the huge cat, my tin soldiers, and, naturally, the entire family crying around me.
Their sorrow did not affect me. Even apart from dreams of this kind, I have always asked myself what it really means to share someone else’s sorrow. The cases in which people genuinely empathize with other people’s feelings are few. After all, an ingrown toenail hurts one more than the death of a thousand Chinese, and we live in a world where we share our “deep grief” or our “great joy” with distant people through cabled messages, which cost less if transmitted by a coded number. Nobody ever seems to learn from the suffering of others; rarely from his own. Only in the look of confidence and love of a dog, or of fear in a wounded animal is it possible to catch a fleeting instant of the pain of the world.
For years I have empathized with that piece of furniture wounded in my place. I do not claim that it felt pain instead of me, but I have often thought that the shot established a peculiar link between us; that that piece of oak, old and polished, possessed a strange vitality, as if it were holding a particle of my destiny. The little hole, round and clean-cut, discreet and unexpected in the folding panel, has winked at me for years. Long before I was told so by a gypsy, it convinced me that I had been born under a lucky star. Not one supposed to grant glory, wealth, and social success, but a minor star, full of a sparkling life that still gives me courage in the ever more frequent hours of doubt and sadness.
Late in the 1950s I once accompanied an Algerian sultan to Nazareth. According to his calling card he was a direct descendant of the caliph Abu Bakr, and he wanted to visit the lodge of the Clarisses convent. Here the viscount of Foucauld, touched by grace, had prepared himself for his mission of conversion of the Arabs in the Sahara, where my sultan’s grandfather had murdered him. The nuns of the Order of the Père de Foucauld, who had transformed the lodge into their small convent, received my companion with the enthusiasm due to those who are clearly part of a divine design.
We sat on low, rush-seated stools, chatting quietly in the big room, clean and tidy, smelling of new whitewash, opening on two sides onto a secret, shady garden. Gusts of wind carried in the perfume of orange blossom while we kept measuring out, like the beads of a rosary, polite phrases and conspiratorial smiles, full of spent hatreds and aging vanity. We had left outside the thick convent walls the diversities of our religions, politics, and cultures. All that reached us from the outer world was the muffled sound of traffic, waves of flower scent, and the smell of burning charcoal spattered by mutton fat.
History had lost its dimension. The conversation veered almost naturally toward the idea of death. The sultan was saying that life is made up of bursts of energy constantly struggling with death. To exist was, for him, to be like a flicker of light shining for shorter or longer periods on the black inertia of matter. This descendant of Abu Bakr, to whom the French had for a moment thought of handing over control of the French Sahara, spoke, in this place of peace and faith, so remote from my village in Piedmont, in the same manner that my father spoke to me for the first and last time about his soul, two weeks before he died.
We were looking down from the top of our terraced garden into the valley, soft and green, which sloped gently down to the Tanaro River. To our left, like a caravan of brown roofs and whitish walls, the houses of San Defendente undulated above vineyards already dressed in autumnal red. The farmhouses and the courtyards stood aligned in their ancient order, still unaffected by the new, undisciplined way of life with which the farmers now had to cope. From the tops of the hills the houses overlooked the plants still growing in their appointed seasons. Here and there, however, one could already see the first signs of change. Men who only yesterday had been at the mercy of drought and hail, now crushed the land with tracked vehicles, dusted crops with small planes, and tricked the climate with plantations of imported pines and aspens. Here too, as in the Levant, one was able to perceive the deep wounds that modernity was opening in the old system of cultures. Yet at the end of the fifties, the valley still showed the face that, like that of my father, I had known since my childhood.
Scattered over the fields were bushes of cobnuts and a few lines of poplars, slim and wavering up to the sky; there were orchards that by that time had already given their crops of peaches, figs, and apricots. The land, tired by the summer toil, was lying exhausted, like a woman’s body resting after the elan of love. Punctuating the deep silence, crickets chirped, thirsty birds darted from tree to tree. The hay was drying, fragrant, in the meadows. Unpicked clusters of grapes rotted on the vines amid the buzzing of wasps and in the shade of vine leaves spotted by copper spray.
From every side it seemed as though a message of farewell was rising to us. It was still hot, but my father sensed a chill overcoming his body. He calmly explained to me how the feeling of death was spreading, surprised at not feeling any fear. He had the impression, he told me, that his bones, sinews, and muscles, which still held him upright in spite of his years, were no longer his own; that his life was leaving his body like a flickering flame, deserting the cinders of his earthly life. Sooner or later, he said, these cinders would disperse into nothingness, and the flame of his soul mount, with travail, to the place from which it had come.
He was speaking slowly, to himself, about himself, head slightly bent to one side as if he wanted to catch a consensus from the rustling of the leaves in the vineyards he had planted in his youth. His eyes wandered along the rows of vines, from the houses to the dusty paths, from sky to valley, caressing the brooks, stopping at every milestone on the provincial road, following the tracks along which he had ridden, the meadows over which he had hunted hares, the poplars under which he had dismounted to drink wine with his peasants and eat slices of bread, tasting of olives and garlic.
I looked at his purplish hands, clutching the railing of the steps leading down from the garden to the bowling green. From here he had called on the youths of the village to go and fight and get killed in the war that was to have given back to Italy the towns of Trento and Trieste and brought perpetual peace to the world. His patriotism had not been the reason for his becoming the youngest mayor in Italy. The villagers had consistently voted for him because he was the largest landlord and a Jew, two things that made him more credible than others in matters of money. Villagers who had emigrated used to send him money to have mass said for their dead, trusting him more than the local priest. He had sold many tracts of land to his peasants with deferred payments and without interest. To those who suggested guarantors, he used to answer that the mouths to be fed in the buyer’s family were as good as any security. At that time he was loved, admired, and respected.
It was only natural, therefore, that when he decided to volunteer in the Great War, many of the villagers followed his example, believing that it would be, as he had promised, a glorious and short war. Instead it had been just the opposite, long and painful, with few of the soldiers coming back from the front. Although there were fewer than half a dozen socialists in the village and nobody really held him personally responsible for the slaughter, the dead had been too many not to reproach him for the military interventionism he had defended with such fervor. Insulting graffiti appeared on street walls, his poplars were slashed, subversive slogans were shouted at him as he drove through the village in military uniform. They did not appreciate the garden he had planted on the castle grounds in memory of the fallen soldiers. My father felt deeply wounded; he became convinced, like many other landowners of the time, that nothing would stop the “Bolshevik hydra” except a new, strong, patriotic regime, capable of forcing draft dodgers to recognize the contribution of blood and suffering that the veterans had given the country. He could not accept emotionally the social changes that war had brought, even though intellectually he understood them. More out of anger than ideology, he enrolled himself in the Fascist party, which was gathering strength and credibility with the help of enraged war veterans like himself and with the covert support of the police and the army.
After the March on Rome, which he understood as the triumph of order over anarchy and of which he totally missed the political consequences, he threw himself with enthusiasm into the burgeoning electrical industry. He invested the income from the sale of his magnificent estate in the building of dams. In this way he ruined himself twice over: first in politics and then in the financial chaos created by the Great Depression. However, these were things of the past, memories faded by time. The more recent ones, of anti-Jewish persecution, had been mellowed by the help extended to him by those very farmers who had forced him to run away from the village at the end of the Great War. During World War II they had risked their lives to save him and his family from the Germans. In these more recent memories I had no share. Our lives had evolved in different directions. We had parted too early and for too long to share common adult experiences. If my father now allowed himself to speak to me of his innermost feelings, something he would never have done before, it was because he knew he was on the point of leaving this world forever.
Listening to him talking about his image of his soul, I had the impression of quite literally seeing a flicker of life emerging from his shabby, gray, peaked cap. It was a flickering, bluish flame of delusion and failure. I was his only triumph in life, but for the wrong reasons. The long war, from which we had both emerged unharmed, was a conflict in which a third of world Jewry had disappeared; in it he had lost his motherland, Italy, and I had found a new one, Israel. I had returned home victorious but dressed in a foreign uniform; he had survived six years of civil ignominy, two of flight into the mountains, and had witnessed the defeat of his country. Humiliated by the king, whom he had personally served, persecuted by the Fascist regime that he had helped to create, he had no other reason for pride except my contribution to that Zionist cause against which he had so tenaciously fought as an Italian nationalist.
I perceived his embarrassment toward me as soon as I saw him after five years of separation. In May 1945 I discovered that, after years of being in hiding, he was still alive and living in our old village home. I rushed in my command car to look for him, on roads still torn up by Allied bombing and Partisan operations. I felt an arrogant satisfaction in making peasant carts move out of my way, in the stupefied and frightened looks of local people seeing a British uniform for the first time.
When I got to the village I stopped under the outer archway of my home, uncertain how to behave. I was sensitive to the silent feeling of awe and curiosity in the villagers gathering in the street behind me, brought together by an event that was breaking the monotony of life in the small, rural center, forgotten by history and overlooked by war. I did not dare enter the courtyard, afraid that a sudden meeting with my father might be too much for him. At the same time I was trying hard to remember his face. I was terrified at the thought that he might recognize me first, while my expression might give away that I did not know who he was. We had not written to each other for years. The last Red Cross card I received from my family was dated 1941, before I joined the British army. I was wondering how he would react to seeing me dressed in a foreign uniform (he who had dreamt of a military career for me in Italy), discovering that without his permission I had abandoned the agricultural studies on which he had spent so much money. Behind my back people surrounded my Italian driver, bombarding him with questions and telling each other who I was. I could feel, without turning around, that they were pointing me out, could hear them mentioning my name and that of my father, exchanging comments without daring to approach me. To them I was the representative of the new authority, of those Allied forces who had won the war and whom they had not yet had a chance to meet.
From the inner courtyard of my home one of our tenants emerged. Pinin was his name. I recognized him by his thick, drooping moustache and the black scarf tied around his neck, looking exactly as he did when he used to help me mount my horse. I told him who I was. I asked him about my father. When I heard that he was in his study, in good health, and that my mother was alive and living with my sister in a nearby convent, I asked him to inform my father that I had returned. I was nervous. I had assumed a brisk tone of command that, in those circumstances, made me feel I was acting a part. With all those people clustered behind me, I stood facing the big gates that opened onto the inner courtyard. I lacked the courage to go through them, wondering if somebody would pull the iron chain of the entry bell in my honor, feeling like part of a cheap theatrical piece, of one of those serialized novels that I remembered from my father’s library. Shamefacedness prevented me from crossing the threshold of a world of affections and hopes that I felt was no longer mine but that my father probably still associated with me. I had a confused premonition that a breach, deeper than that opened by time, had developed between us: between his Italian world, which had been destroyed, and my new Jewish one in which, as Joachim Murat, who Napoleon made King of Naples, once said proudly, I was my own ancestor.
My father suddenly appeared under the archway. He was panting; he must have run all the way from the library. He stopped abruptly in front of me, wondering if someone was perhaps playing a trick on him. We scrutinized each other for a moment, suspiciously, because we were both greatly changed. The man with his military beret at an angle over one ear, a blond moustache, the silk scarf of the Special Units around his neck, a pistol dangling in its canvas holster at his side, must certainly have looked to him very different from the boy, dressed in navy blue jacket and linen collar, whom he had accompanied to embark at Trieste in 1939. He, with a long white beard that had grown during his life underground, his hair thinner but still black, his leaner body barely filling a crude corduroy suit, had a patriarchal look quite new to me. Only his button-up boots were familiar.
He did not stretch out his hand or make any gesture of affection. We both stood silent and still, unable to disentangle ourselves from the images of each other that we had preserved during the long years of separation. Changed in our outward appearances, we felt both the same and different inside: linked by blood ties but separated by experiences so divergent. All this, of course, lasted only an instant, but the shock was great for us both. He spoke first, asking me which regiment I belonged to. I answered him: the Palestine Regiment. Probably he did not understand what I meant, but it was only after that answer that he stretched out his right hand and then hugged me with his left arm. By this time people behind us were talking at the tops of their voices. Someone even started clapping. We paid no attention. With our backs to them so that no one could see our emotion, side by side, we slowly crossed into the inner court and moved toward the garden, now full of weeds. My father had his arm around my shoulders. In silence we stopped at the top of the steps leading to the bowling green, untended and overgrown, to look at the valley that had been his domain and that of his parents.
The valley was unchanged except for the airfield that the German army had built near the river Tanaro. It held part of our common memories and had witnessed the sadness of our parting five years earlier. Here, we felt, we could again converse in silence, overcoming that void of disappointed experience that neither of us had been able to fulfill. For this reason, when my father suddenly chose this spot to speak to me about his soul, I knew that he was nearing his end. Convinced as he was of having failed in his task of guiding me in my life, his halting words had no other aim but to teach me how to face death, with dignity and detachment.
I, too, as I grow older, find myself thinking about death while standing at the top of the steps that lead to the bowling green, looking at the shadows drawn by the sun on the banks of the Tanaro. But I am unable to imagine my soul as a small flame flickering out of the cinders of my life. My soul looks more to me like a light reflected by an insignificant star, one of those that Saint Exupery would have given his Little Prince to ride on: a happy and sociable star, which at least twice helped me to escape my mortal destiny, once as a child and again on a rainy evening in still-occupied Bari.
I had gone to look for a cardigan in the kit bag that the king of England had lent me, together with two sets of underwear, two winter shirts and three summer ones, two pairs of trousers, and a leather jerkin, all to make me fight better in the war. I had also been issued a jackknife, one pair of boots, a pouch with needles and thread, two gaiters, and that combination of webbing, pouches, and packs that, with the help of a flat steel helmet, made us look like ancient warriors in a modern world.
At the bottom of the kit bag I kept a big revolver taken from a captured Italian arms depot. It was heavy, cumbersome, and I had forgotten that it was loaded. I took it out of the kit bag and laid it on the corner of my bed, which I then inadvertently hit with my knee. The weapon fell onto the cement floor, butt downward. It was a fall of less than half a meter, but it was enough for the hammer to jerk and the bullet to explode.
At that moment I was crouched over the weapon. The flash blinded me for a second, and I still carry with me, intact after all these years, the memory of a deafening bang. I am surprised today at not having felt any fear, though I am not by nature particularly brave. But I cannot rid myself of the image that flashed through my mind, of myself bent forward as if I were stretching my neck on the block, looking like an illustration from the History of Illustrious Men, which my father kept, bound in three volumes, on the second shelf of his library.
As a child I used to spend long hours leafing through these books that, more than any others, I think, infected me with a romantic taste for the heroic. Each volume contained a collection of primitive watercolors protected by tissue paper, torn at the corners and spotted with rust. I recalled them, looking at the rust spots on the barrel of the revolver, now lying warm and vulgar, on the floor near my bed.
I do not remember how long it took before I found the strength to pick it up and unload it—three seconds, two minutes, three hours? But I know that when I looked at myself in the mirror hanging askew from two hooks on the wall over the dirt-encrusted washbasin, I saw the reflection of a pallid face, not belonging to me, with a lock of burned hair standing up over a pair of eyes that had stared, without seeing, at the void of my death.
There was deep silence in the room. On the floor below nobody in the mess seemed to have heard the noise of the explosion. If I had died they would certainly have attributed it to suicide. In a way it was true: I had that day thought of killing myself, and I felt now as though I had wriggled out of my human destiny.
I went on believing in my special lot until the day my wife, without my knowledge, decided to repair the serre-papier and plug up the hole made by my father’s pistol. The spell is now broken. Yet from time to time I find myself believing that hidden in the shining oak there still slumbers a shred of my peculiar destiny.