Carla and Alex Pekelis with their three daughters, after settling in Larchmont, New York.
Must-read writing by Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i, faculty and students. This issue: An excerpt from My Version of the Facts, a new memoir by former professor Carla Pekelis. In her memoir, Pekelis—born into a comfortable Italian Jewish family—immerses us in her childhood in Italy before the Great War and through the rise of Fascism, and then plunges us into a series of cataclysmic, often heart-rending, events. She sees her idyllic life shattered as Mussolini’s racial laws ultimately forced her and her family out of her homeland. In this excerpt, it is 1938: Carla and her husband, Alexander Pekelis, realize they must take their three young daughters and two grandmothers into France.
There had already been sporadic attacks against the Jews for years in the sectors of the Fascist press closest to Nazi Germany. Most of them, however, came from the pens of particular journalists, some of whom had even been criticized by other journalists. As for the Duce himself, he seemed to avoid going on record on the subject, while at the same time encouraging optimism on the part of the potential victims. ...Dismissing the rumors of a possible alignment on his part with Hitler’s antisemitic measures, Mussolini had affirmed [in a speech in Bari], “The Jews have wept over Caesar’s tomb; they won’t be touched!”
However, when his paper, Il Popolo d’Italia, began to publish antisemitic articles, or reprint sympathetically the criticisms, insinuations and slanders published by other papers, the direction being taken became tragically clear....
The first racial laws made their appearance at the beginning of September 1938. All Italian Jews were forbidden to attend public schools and universities (and these last are all public in Italy) as well as to teach there. The Jews who were naturalized Italians, Alex among them, ipso facto lost their citizenship and were invited to leave the country within six months. “Why?” said Mamulia [Alex’s mother] in dismay and confusion. “The king himself signed my citizenship papers!” Poor Mamulia! She, an immigrant from the land of pogroms, had faith in the integrity of Vittorio Emanuele III, King of Italy.
The fact that Alex had lost his Italian citizenship attracted a great deal of sympathy and affection from relatives and friends. However, it was really a blessing, since it prevented any further beating about the bush on our part. True, a special proviso allowed foreign Jews married to Italians to remain in our territory, but it would have required incredible ingenuousness to rely on this pretext. Thus we decided that Alex must leave immediately, while the children and I should remain, ready to leave as soon as he had given us a sign that the way was clear.Her memoir My Version of the Facts published in 2004.
The months that followed, the last in my native land, were so hectic with respect to every kind of practical detail that little room was left for sadness. Not only did Alex’s absence increase my daily responsibilities, but it was necessary to proceed with closing the house as well as the law office, and this had to be done discreetly, because our departure, though it was forced, might yet encounter some resistance. To all this had to be added the continual and very wearisome talking with hundreds of friends and relatives who wanted to say good-bye to us and show us their sympathy, or were merely curious. Some lived there in Florence; others came to look me up from out of the city. Strangely enough, the Jews among them did not seem to feel personally threatened by the way things were going. For most of them, I was a special case because I had married a foreigner, and their profound involvement in my plight did not appear to be troubled by personal fears. If the rights of all Italian Jews were being stripped one by one (to attend schools or to teach, to employ “Aryan” servants, to marry non-Jews, to hold public office), these deprivations seemed of little account in the light of a general and passionate desire for reassurance. Far from being seen as the prelude to worse evils, they were considered as mere concessions by Mussolini to Hitler “to keep him happy.”
As for our friends who were not Jews, their attitudes ranged from bewilderment to perplexity to indignation according to their degree of political awareness. Our greengrocer shook her head sadly. “Poor lady,” she commiserated, adding hesitantly with her typical Florentine cadence, “But what does it mean, Jewish?” My friend Bianca, whose parents came from landowning stock of the upper bourgeoisie, whose younger sister was a nun, embraced me with her usual warmth. “Poor, poor Carla,” she sighed, “I can find only one explanation for this drastic measure. Some Jew must have done something terrible, something that can’t be revealed. And you’re all paying, atoning for this fact!”
(1907-85) was born Carla Coen in Rome. In 1931, she married Alexander Pekelis, an Odessa Jew who escaped form Russia in 1919 and became a lawyer and a professor of law in Italy, and later, in the United States, a founder of the New School’s University in Exile. In 1946, she was left a widow and began single-handedly supporting her large family teaching Italian language and literature at Sarah Lawrence College. Pekelis was the author of many short stories and a dictionary of Italian idioms.
Strength and support came from those who had always been intellectual opponents of the Fascist regime. Among them I did not find myself an object of pity, but rather a symbol of the evils that beset us all, and I could feel like a combatant rather than a victim. By the time Alex decided that he ought to settle in Paris, it was the end of autumn. It seemed crazy to face an expensive and cold winter in Paris with three little children, but it seemed equally crazy to lose more time in Florence. The caprice of the new rule could, at any moment, separate us forever. Thus it was decided that the children and I would cross the border, but spend the winter in Nice. The trip (so short, but so fraught in my mind with a thousand dangers) was easily accomplished. At the first stop after the French border, I pressed my face to the window, trying to see from the lighted compartment into the darkness of the platform. I saw Alex and waved to him. He did not answer my greeting; nor did he board the train immediately. He remained motionless, touching his right hand first to his lips, then to his forehead. I knew that he must be murmuring in Hebrew his thanks to God.