– On 17 May, the Lithuanian Society of Art Historians will unveil in Vilnius stumbling stones to five Jewish artists who were exterminated by the Nazis – Liza Daiches, Bencion Michtom, Fania (Uma) Olkienicka-Lerer, Rachel (Roza) Suckever-Ušajeva, and Jacob Šeras. The fate of Lithuanian Jews during the Cold War was, of course, well known to you. And was there even the slightest possibility of learning anything about the work of any of these artists?
– No, unfortunately, I had never known the work of these women artists. The stones therefore, which are a work of art, are fundamental not only to the memory of their persecution and deportation but also to the knowledge of their artistic activity .They are living memory.
– In 2010, you yourself, with the help of the German artist Guenter Demnig, unveiled the Memorial Stones of the 30 deportees („Memorie d`inciampo a Roma“). Why are such initiatives important? And how are they better than traditional commemorative events?
– This question would require a long and articulate answer. It is the object of the text that, in the impossibility of being present, I sent for the ceremony at the Vilnius Museum on Tuesday 17th. If I have to summarize it in one word, I would say that it is a widespread monument, not a sculpture but a map of European memory of nazi-fascist crimes.
– What do you know about Lithuania? Perhaps you have visited it? Did your family have any connections with Jews living in Eastern Europe?
– Actually, no. My mother is of Sephardic origin and my father a Roman Jew for 2,000 years. A year ago, however, I have been lucky to be invited with other art historians, by Laura Gabrielaitytė-Kazulėnienė, cultural attaché of the Embassy of the Republic of Lithuania in Italy, to a 4-day trip to Vilnius and Kaunas to meet with artists working on the enhancement and memory of the Jewish cultural heritage erased by the Nazis and the Soviets. Since I have been for 20 years the curator of the biennial exhibition of contemporary art “Art in Memory” in the ruins of the Synagogue of Ancient Ostia, among the oldest vestiges of Diaspora Judaism, I was interested in learning about the work of artists who could possibly participate in the project. I had already been to Vilnius in 2008 and was totally fascinated. After almost 15 years, I found it profoundly changed: an open building site, new buildings, many restored, even too much, in short, a modern and vibrant city. I was especially struck by the artists’ commitment and creativity in claiming through gestures, temporary works, recovery of traces, the presence of a culture removed for decades. I have visited the sites of the 2017 Kaunas Biennial with Paulina Pukyte, artists’ studios, museums, private galleries and was extremely impressed by the engaging guided tour – performance “Glaistas” at the former Vilnius ghetto, produced by Ana Ablamova. I must say that this very pleasant trip, the tangible discovery of the annihilation of a people and a culture, the acquaintance with the artists and the valuable friendship with Laura and Giedre, urge me to deepen the original declination of the art-memory nexus in this part of Europe.
– I want to ask about your parents. Bruno Zevi (1918-2000) was a famous Italian architect and theoretician who was forced to abandon his studies and even leave the country because of anti-Semitic laws under Mussolini. He returned to Italy only after the war. Your mother, Tullia Calabi-Zevi (1919-2011), a journalist and writer, covered the Nuremberg Trials in the Italian press, collaborated in the British and Israeli press, and headed the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. How is their memory commemorated in their home country?
– Since 2002, the Bruno Zevi Foundation, of which I am President, has been open, carrying out a great deal of activities aimed at enhancing and updating a challenging historical and cultural heritage. Among them: the opening of the library and Archives to the public, the organization of conferences, exhibitions, and an annual Prize for an historical-critical essay for PhDs. The prize is international and consists in the publication of the winner’s essay by a Publishing house specialized in books on architecture.
In 2018, on the occasion of the Centennial anniversary of Zevi‘s birth, for three years, with the support of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, we organized exhibitions (the openingl one was hosted by the MAXXI Museum in Rome), symposiums, documentary films, and publications all over the world (Israel, Brazil, Harvard, Sofia…)
For more information on the Foundation and the Centenario, please look at the website: www.fondazionebrunozevi.it
As for Tullia Zevi, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of her death, the President of the Republic Mattarella organized a concert in her honor at the Quirinale (my mother was a harpist) and a special issue of the “Rassegna Mensile d’Israel” (the magazine of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities), dedicated to her multifaceted personality and activities, has just come out.
– What is the situation of the Jewish community in Italy today? How has it changed in almost 80 years? In 2018, several stumbling stones were stolen in Rome. Do you feel that the treatment of Jews in Italy has worsened? What is behind the new wave of anti-Semitism that the EU study talks about?
– To answer the first question would take a long time; simplifying, we can say that the Italian Jewish communities in the vast majority have become more fundamentalist, that is, more religious and intolerant of secular forms of Judaism that are not identified only with the observance of mitzvot or with indiscriminate and a-critical support for Israeli government policy. Compared to years ago, internal dissent has certainly weakened. On the other hand, the fundamentalist drift has fostered for the first time, in historically unified and monolithic communities, the emergence of reformed, pluralistic and welcoming synagogues. As for the stumbling stones, apart from the growth of anti-Semitism and racism due to many historical and traditional factors such as insecurity, pandemic, economic crisis , the crisis of democratic institutions, there is the specific fact that the stones, although so discreet, are a strong, permanent and unequivocal sign, before everyone’s eyes, of what happened in our cities, in our homes, to our neighbors during the German occupation. They denounce indifference and complicity, starting with the fascist police who led the Germans in hunting down the Jews.
– The sympathy of some European Union countries for communists is surprising for Lithuanians who survived the Soviet deportations, massacres and 50 years of occupation. What has led to the Italian fascination with communist ideas?
– I can speak for Italy. The pro-Soviet attitude of some parties such as the League, the 5 Stars and the ultra-right-wing Forza Nuova was prior to the conflict and was basically due to seeking funding. However, this did not prevent the same parties that, except Forza Nuova, are part of the government from voting in favor of sending arms to Ukraine. Today, these parties say they are against sending new heavy weapons but so far have never voted against it. Unfortunately, the opposition between sending arms and seeking peace is getting stronger. It is an absurd alternative, but it certainly expresses a growing unease over the continuation of hostilities.
– Italian TV`s, without any analysis of the facts, is giving a platform to the child killer Sergei Lavrov and the lies he spreads. Where does the favourable attitude of the Italian public towards the Russian regime come from? In the second week of the war, Russia attacked the Kiev TV tower and damaged the Babyn Yar memorial, where during WWII the Nazis murdered 33 000 Jews at the ravine in just two days. Why is this fact not enough for the Italians to see what a vicious clique now rules Russia? Why is part of Europe in general indifferent to the killing of Ukrainian civilians? After all, is distance that important?
– I believe that Europe has shown as never before extraordinary unity and timeliness in its decision to help Ukraine militarily and to host refugees. It is continuing to do so, despite some voices of dissent, especially from the political right. The Italian Democratic Party, which we can hardly call communist, is among the government’s most staunch supporters in its anti-Putin policy. The fact that President Draghi told Biden that it is necessary to start peace talks immediately does not at all mean supporting Russia or send arms to Ukraine. I think that the conflict could and should have been avoided and that no one understood or did not want to understand-except Biden-the true intentions of Putin and therefore did nothing to avert this catastrophe. Now the war must end as soon as possible and the peace treaty must be signed first by the two belligerents. The pro-Russian attitude shown by a small minority of Italians is due to a fiercely anti-American, anti-Israeli and therefore anti-Semitic old communism.As for Lavrov’s words, it seems to me that the Italian protest was immediate and very harsh and the apology to the Israeli prime minister a confession of guilt.
– Perhaps the public mood is changing? Do you think the Italian government’s support for Ukraine is sufficient?
– Yes, I think we are the European country that will pay the most for generous and unconditional support to Ukraine.