Back in January, I reviewed a Holocaust book titled Paper Kisses and began with a single sentence: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." That happens to be the first line of Ford Madox Ford's great novel The Good Soldier, about the devastating effects of love, passion and a terrible deception. The line works perfectly in Ford's novel, although its effect is, at least by the work's concluding pages, meant to be taken ironically; I had borrowed it several months ago because I thought it worked perfectly to introduce a small, sad work about the effects of the Shoah on the love affair between two everyday people. I, however, meant the line to be taken on face value, as purely descriptive.
I was wrong in one sense, though. Paper Kisses is definitely one of the saddest stories I've ever heard, but the saddest, without question, is contained between the covers of This Has Happened: An Italian Family in Auschwitz by Piera Sonnino. I have read any number of overwhelming and despairing works about the Holocaust, but I don't think I have ever read anything so simply structured, so clearly composed — so heartfelt a tragedy, especially from the pen of a someone who never considered herself a writer — as the one that unfolds in this brief memoir, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.
A Central Document
Piera Sonnino began writing her family's story in 1960 — 40 years before she died — and she did it solely for the benefit of her daughters. Only after Sonnino's death was the manuscript published, but again, only for distribution to a small circle of family and friends. Now, having been recently discovered in Italy, it is appearing in English for the first time, and if there is any justice in the world it will be widely recognized as a central document about the Holocaust experience.
What must be understood is that this is an Italian Jewish story and an Italian Jewish tragedy. We watch as the life of a particularly close Genoese family — mother, father and six children, three boys and three girls — is transformed, first in 1938, by the passage of Mussolini's racial laws, and then again in 1943, as the Fascist government collapses and the Nazis take over in Italy, rounding up Jews for deportation. The Sonninos decide that it's best to leave Genoa and spend a year, hiding at times, at others on the run, until they are denounced, captured and sent to Auschwitz.
The memoir begins in the simplest manner, with an introduction to the family. "My name is Piera Sonnino. I was born 28 years ago in Portici, near Naples, the fourth of six children of my mother, Giorgina Milani, and my father, Ettore Sonnino. Their wedding, celebrated in a Jewish ceremony in Rome in 1910, was lavish, in keeping with the social position of both families, and the ceremony concluded with a concert in which a well-known soprano of the time took part. For my mother, deeply in love with the man who had become her husband, and for my father, their life together had an auspicious start.
"Their first child was Paolo, who was followed by Roberto, Maria Luisa, me, Bice and Giorgio."
But this introduction to the family members is possibly the last still — as in untroubled — moment in the manuscript. By the mid-1930s, with the appearance in Italy of German Jews who'd been expelled from their country, the family gets its first intimations of the horrors that are erupting elsewhere in Europe. Then come the racial laws in August, which shock the Sonninos, since earlier the Fascist government had announced that "the Jewish Question" did not exist in Italy.
The author describes this turn of events as "a lightening bolt striking our house." In a matter of days, Paolo, Roberto and Maria Luisa lose their jobs. By October, Giorgio, Bice and the author are forced to enroll in the Jewish school.
So begins a detailed depiction of continuing discrimination; then September 1943 rears its ugly head and the Sonninos understand that they must leave Genoa. They move about the area, hiding in various places, avoiding capture despite close calls, but always knowing that they must be willing to move at a moment's notice whenever danger draws near.
There are numerous discussions about splitting up the family, of the older boys taking off for Switzerland, for example, but each time the subject is broached, the parents refuse to occasion it. The family will stay together, no matter what.
When they are denounced, after nearly a year of evading the enemy, it is a particularly painful scene to witness.
"We left our house single file. The police had ordered us not to call attention to ourselves. Along the way they said to Maria Luisa, who was still crying, 'Come signorina, stop it. Please. Tell us what we've done to you or what we've said to make you cry like that!'
"I don't know what happened to those policemen, if they are dead or if they are alive, I don't know what job they have now or what profession they practice; but perhaps their children are grown men, as Paolo and Roberto were then, or young women like Maria Luisa and me, or children like Giorgio and Bice.
"The person who ordered our arrest was Brenno Grandi, who was acquitted, in a trial in 1947, because he managed to show that he had not been cruel to Jews for his personal gain; but those four agents who carried out his orders, wherever they might be today, I want them to know that the moment they dragged us from our house, that first and only time they saw us, they started us on our journey toward death. For me today, in my memory, they have the face of death."
So begins the descent into the horror of the concentration camps and the slow desolation of the Sonnino family. First, they are taken to a series of cells and prisons, then put on a transport to the unknown. They imagine they are being taken somewhere in Germany, and still think this is so when they hear the name Auschwitz. It means nothing to them, until they learn they are actually in Poland.
The family is crammed into a desolate shed with countless others; people huddle together to gain whatever warmth they can. The older Sonnino boys move around, trying to get information about where they are and what fate might await them all. Giorgio, the youngest child, lies in his mother's lap, "curled up as if he had gone back in time, as if he were asking the one who bore him to take him back into herself, to gradually eliminate him, to take away the life she has given him. …
"This is the last night that my family will spend together, united. There will be no more. Eight creatures joined together by bonds of blood, holding each other close for the last time."
At dawn, SS members burst in brandishing guns. The people are told to line up. One officer wears the insignia of a doctor. As each individual steps forward, this man examines him or her. He divides the people into three groups: the old, the young men and the young women.
"Everything happens rapidly: We don't even have time to exchange farewells: the group of young women is the first to leave the shed amid a storm of orders shouted in a loud voice. Not even once can we turn, not a single time, to see Mamma and Papa and our brothers again. We are shoved brutally outside, into the mud that sticks to our shoes, into the freezing air."
The date is Oct. 28, 1944. There isn't much time left to the war in Europe, and yet there is more than enough time for death to triumph. Piera tries to drag her sisters through the degradation, to prop them up, to keep them going. Maria Louisa is sent to another camp. Then hunger, disease and endless cruelty take their toll. Piera watches as her sister Bice dies, despite all her ministrations.
She breaks her glasses, is transferred elsewhere by train, but by then the world is a blur in too many ways. She wakes to kind hands, words spoken in Italian. Fear cuts through her until she understands that she's been liberated. She is nursed back to health, is sent to Italy, hopes to be reunited with some part of her family. But, step by step, she discovers there is no one left. She feels alone in the world.
She eventually learns that an aunt and a cousin are in Genoa, and she soon meets people whom she admires. She marries and has children. But the dreadful sadness of the lone survivor — the dominant emotion that pervades the memoir — clearly pervaded the rest of Sonnino's life, no matter the occasional triumph.
The critic David Denby notes in his foreword one of the most tragic aspects of this tragic story: "[T]he Sonninos' unselfish devotion to one another, their determination to stick together as a family at all times, may have hastened their destruction. The older boys might have escaped into the mountains in northern Italy. But they did not escape; their mother wanted the family in one piece. And that irony, among many other things, makes this devotional family text a fresh contribution to Holocaust literature."