Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2018

First Words, a Childhood in Fascist Italy (1997), by Rosetta Loy, translated by Gregory Conti

knew when I was recently reading The Sweet Hills of Florence by Jan Wallace Dickinson that I had something on my shelves about fascism in Italy, but I couldn’t remember the name of the book or where I’d put it.  It was when I was completing the meme My Blog’s Name in Books that I came across it: First Words, a Childhood in Fascist Italy is a brief memoir by Italian journalist Rosetta Loy (b.1931), and it traces the Italy of her privileged childhood alongside the oppression of the Jews and the reaction of the Vatican.

There’s much more about fascism than a child could have known at the time.  Rosetta is five years old when the book begins, and her life is about playing in the park and at home; about listening to stories and singing songs; about beginning school and her brother beginning secondary school; and about her parents and her German nanny Annemarie.  Annemarie feeds her anti-Semitic stories, but this is not apparent to Rosetta at the time.

She takes what she is told at face value.  Looking back as an adult, she matches up the various decrees and restrictions with events in her own life and in her father’s.  Rosetta notes that her father was allergic to Fascism from its inception but that eventually like the vast majority of Italians, he had to register as a member of the National Fascist Party in order to be able to continue working.  He wears the party symbol on his lapel, but he abjures the wearing of uniforms and when he does have to wear a black shirt for some ceremony, before he sets out from home he mimics the Fascist gestures in the mirror to amuse his children.  Loy notes without further comment, however, that Papa’s friend, Fioravanti, prefers to work abroad rather than sign up with the party. 

It causes tension in the family when Mama decks her son out in the Fascist uniform of khaki shorts and a black shirt one day when they go to meet Papa at the station.  Papa has been in Turin during the preparations for secondary school and its drills to prepare boys for war.  Without making a scene at the station, Papa ignores his wife and family and blends back into the crowd on the platform:

Papa makes no gesture, gives no smile, just keeps walking straight ahead with his overnight case in his hand.  Before my mother can open her mouth or my brother move a muscle, he passes them, keeping his eyes fixed firmly ahead.  His grey hat is now indistinguishable from the others in the station hall.  He disappears.  Mama and my brother stand alone in front of the empty cars, the last puffs of steam turning to water on the rails.

I don’t know what they say to each other, as they come home from the station in the Astura, with Francesco behind the wheel. I don’t know which is stronger, the humiliation or the sense of how ridiculous my brother’s costume is.  But his aversion to all the drill to come and to his black silk shirt and khaki shorts may well have been born in that brief trip home from the station, the metallic M on his beret glinting in the October sun.  (p.26)

There are Jews in this Catholic family’s life in Rome: one of her mother’s best friends, her brother’s friend Levi,  neighbours both friendly and reserved, shopkeepers in the stores they patronise, and also the paediatrician.  These are the people affected by Hitler’s decrees when Mussolini aligns with Germany and its emblems, discipline and fervour become conflated with the swastika and its anti-Semitism. At the end of the book, Loy does her best to trace what happened to these people when the family fled to their country house, as the Germans entered the city.  One senses the anguish of guilt that these people were abandoned to their awful fate, when she was too young to realise the truth or do anything about it, and when she now knows that many other Roman families risked their lives to hide Jews.

Much of all this is sadly familiar, but I knew nothing about the portrait that emerges of Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) and his successor Pope Pius XII (1876-1958).  Loy documents an extensive litany of papal objections to the oppression of Jews under Pius XI who was Pope from 1922 to 1939.  The role of the Vatican in endorsing and/or turning a blind eye to the treatment of Jews during WW2 is still contentious today, but what seems clear from Loy’s book is that the death of Pius XI was a turning point, and that those who were conspiring to curtail his overt stance on human rights had free rein after his death.

An encyclical on human rights that was commissioned by Pius XI appears to have been deliberately delayed until his death intervened, and when a version of it emerges as the first encyclical of his successor Pius XII…

… some of the passages deploring the persecution of Polish Catholics will be taken entirely from the draft composed in Paris during the summer of 1938.  Everything regarding the Jews and anti-Semitism, however, will have disappeared as will any mention of Nazism or Hitler’s policy of expansionism.

And so it will remain until December 1972, when the American National Catholic Reporter will begin publishing extracts of a draft of an encyclical by Pius XI against racism.  (p.85)

Fortunately, not all of the translations of that draft had disappeared.  Using fragments of the English draft that had been put onto microfilm in 1967, and – undertaken over decades of obfuscation by the archives of the Vatican and the Jesuits – researchers eventually locate the French draft entitled Humani generis unitas.  This document was resurrected and published by historians Georges Passelecq, a Benedictine monk, and Bernard Suchecky, a Jewish historian.

The last part, rich in corrections, insertions and annotations, [is] more directly related to the situation of the Jews and to anti-Semitism, more pragmatic and specific. […] Today no one knows how much, and in what ways, Humani generis unitas could have changed the fate of millions of Jews.  But certainly it would have constituted an inescapable problem of conscience for some 100 million European Catholics.  (p.87)

As it was, (interpreting the Vatican’s actions at its most generous) the more ‘cautious’ approach of Pius XII and his failure to condemn the genocide, meant that those European Catholics were not bound to respect the human rights of Jews by the authority of any papal encyclical.   Of course, it may not have made any difference because an encyclical may have been suppressed anyway.  On May 12, 1940 when Hitler invaded Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, Mussolini’s thugs vandalised newsstands that sold the Catholic daily L’Osservatore Romano carrying the text of Pius XII’s telegrams to the three helpless victims of aggression.  

Nevertheless, just before Germany occupied France, Cardinal Tisserant wrote a prescient letter to his countryman Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard:

“… I have persistently asked the Holy See since the beginning of December to publish an encyclical on the duty of each individual to obey the dictates of conscience, because it is a vital point of the Christian faith… I fear that history will reproach the Holy See for having pursued policies of selfish convenience and not much more.  It is very sad for those of us who lived under Pius XI.” (p.103)

What Cardinal Tisserant couldn’t have known then was that when the new (Vichy) French ambassador to the Vatican sought clarification about the Pope’s position on the new anti-Semitic measures adopted in the so-called Free Zone, what Laval and Pétain received in reply was this:

“In a Christian state it would make no sense to allow the levers of power to rest in the hands of the Jews, thus limited the authority of Catholics.  It is therefore legitimate to deny them access to public office and to give them a limited number of places in the universities and the professions.” (p.105)

And so it goes on.  The Vatican doesn’t even protest about 700 priests killed in concentration camps because they wouldn’t cooperate with the new regime.  One can only speculate about what might have happened to the Vatican if the Pope had protested, but the silence was deafening…

Author: Rosetta Loy
Title: First Words, a childhood in Fascist Italy
Translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti
Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 2000, first published in 1997 as La parola ebreo
ISBN: 9780805062588
Source: Personal library

Probably not available anywhere any more but you could try for a secondhand copy from Fishpond:First Words: A Childhood in Fascist Italy


  1. Sobering stuff. Reminds me of the shameful role played by the church in Spain during its own experience of fascism and its aftermath under Franco. Interesting that it’s a child’s memories, too; I’ve only ever seen the film of the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but it made a big impression, and I keep meaning to look out for the book by Bassani that it’s based on.


    • The Garden of the Finzi-Continis should be easy enough to get from Penguin.


      • I have that one on my 1001 Books wishlist, maybe it’s time to get a copy:)


    • I discovered a little bit about that when I went to Barcelona, where the hatred of the church was expressed in burning down so many churches. Guilelessly, I asked why there were so few old churches compared to other places in Europe…


  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  3. Thank you for this Lisa. The book is hard to find, but I think well worth the effort.


    • It’s a little gem. I can’t remember how I came across it, or even what it was that made me pick it up and buy it… apparently Loy is an award-winning author in Italy but I couldn’t find out much more than that about her.
      What I really admire is the way she manages to convey grief and regret and guilt even while writing apparently objective prose. And I also like that she doesn’t hide behind the fact that she was a small child who couldn’t influence events at all.


  4. Lisa, what a perceptive article about this wonderful book. It’s one of the many that form so much of what I was writing about – it was often in my mind as I wrote. Like you, I’m not sure if it is still in print in English but there will be copies around. The Garden of the Finzi Contini is another perspective – also a fine book & I’m sure it is still available. Rosetta Loy’s though, gives the perspective of Italians who did not, would not, could not, overtly oppose the Regime and poses the question, how would each of us behave in their place?
    For anyone interested in the subject, I have a big bibliography and am happy to share.


    • Hello Jan, thank you for writing the book that triggered my impulse to read this one:)
      It’s a thorny question, about how we might behave. I read somewhere recently that psychologists would say that most of us would follow the herd, because that’s what most humans do. Of more interest – and if only the Vatican would open its archives – is the reasoning behind Pius XII’s behaviour and that of the people around him. It’s easy to say he was anti-Semitic, and I’ve read some virulent ‘proofs’ that he and the Church in general have a history of that, but his vulnerability in that tiny defenceless state was extreme and maybe … just maybe … he thought the preservation of the Vatican and all it stood for was worth protecting even if it meant lying low till the Allies arrived.
      I’m not a believer, but I think if I were, then the potential sack and looting of the Vatican by a godless conqueror would be a horror too great to contemplate, and not just for the believers within its walls. (I’m not talking about the treasures of the Vatican which I think are grotesque for a church that professes to care about the poor, I’m talking about the symbolism of it and the possible loss of historical religious equipment that is critical to their religious observances).
      Somewhere in the book Loy raises the question of just when Pius XII knew about the death camps, and that would have raised the stakes even higher. If you knew just how ruthless your enemy was, you’d have to ask whether the martyrdom of a Pope would achieve anything… especially if you genuinely believed that his authority as leader of the church comes directly from Jesus Christ. If you thought that the murder of a living Pope was fatal for the continuance of that authority, that would weigh heavily on what you’d be prepared to risk. In that context, even that wishy-washy statement about it being ok to deny Jews public positions, might have been a least-worst, carefully diplomatic way of avoiding provocation on more difficult issues.
      All this is contingent on religious belief that I don’t share, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look at it from another point of view…


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: