Historians and correspondence: The case of Jews’ letters to the Fascist Ministry of the Interior
First some historical context: in the 1930s, Italian Jews were considered as being well integrated into Italian society. They had supported the independence movements of the 19th century, they were heavily decorated during the First World War, and they participated in the political and social life of the country which had emancipated them in 1848. More than 700 Jews joined the fascist movement before the March on Rome in October 1922 and the first fifteen years of Fascism were relatively peaceful for the Jewish community. However, in November 1938, everything changed.
The anti-Semitic laws were enacted: they forbade mixed marriages and excluded Jews from state employment and schools. However, it was possible to be exempted from these discriminations by asking for a special status called… “discriminazione” [“discrimination, exemption”]. Italian Jews had to write to the Minister of the Interior to obtain it.
Last year, for my first dissertation, I chose to focus on a minority of Italian Jews, those who joined Fascism before the March on Rome in 1922. Their words and their lives are not necessarily representative of the Italian Jewish community, but their letters are interesting for two main reasons. First, they were part of a political and legal process, as the senders aimed to obtain a particular and beneficial status. Secondly, these letters were all written with the same goal to differentiate oneself as much as possible from the other Jews marginalised by the racial laws and the anti-Semitic discourses. Consequently, their construction was well thought out, and words carefully chosen.
The format of this type of correspondence was important. If a special format had to be respected, it can help us to find information more easily. It was not exactly the case for requests of “discriminazione”. The first paragraph usually gave the civil status of the individuals and the reasons for their requests in juridical terms; after that, some Jews told the whole history of their family, from the Risorgimento to the 1930s while a few just wrote the date of their enrolment in the party.
However, if these letters are not identically organised, some features are recurrent. The main characteristic is the dramatization and the “mise-en-scene” of the senders’ lives and actions. Italian Jews tended to highlight their glorious fascist or nationalist past and forget other aspects of their lives. Faced with these fascinating stories, it is sometimes difficult to remember that what is written does not always reflect the truth, and that what is not written can also be important – even though it may not have seemed particularly relevant to the person writing. The letters are not exhaustive. Someone with an exceptional fascist career may not have seen the need to describe his participation in nationalist movements before the war, and this part of his past may remain unknown.
Extreme deference toward Mussolini and the regime and an abundance of compliments are two distinctive traits of these letters. Everyone tried to be more respectful, more patriotic, more fascist, in a word more deserving of the “discriminazione” than the others. A majority of Italian Jews insisted on their patriotism, on their Italianness and more importantly on their faith – in Mussolini or in Fascism. A few even justified the anti-Semitic laws and recognised their merits and legitimacy: they were a last sacrifice made by the fascist Jews for a Greater Italy . The most delicate task for the historian is thus to determine what was sincere and what was part of the cautious construction of a defensive speech.
In general, letters of correspondence are great sources for historians, who want to focus writing about ordinary, anonymous people. However, they can be a tricky material to work with because they can easily lead to problems.
For further information:
- Cristina M. Bettin, Italian Jews from Emancipation to Racial Laws, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010
- Renzo De Felice, Storia degli ebrei sotto il fascismo, Torino: Einaudi, 2002
- Michele Sarfatti, Gli ebrei nell’Italia fascista : vicende, identità, persecuzione, Torino: Einaudi, 2007
- Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal: five Italian Jewish families under fascism, London: J.Cape, 1992
- Joshua D. Zimmerman, Jews in Italy Under Fascist and Nazi Rule, 1922-1945, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2005
 Renzo De Felice, Storia degli ebrei sotto il fascismo, Einaudi, 2002, pp.74-75
 To meet the main criteria, one had to be – or belong to the family of – a man who served in the wars fought by Italy, a man who enrolled in the Fascist movement before 1922 or during the second semester of 1924, or a man who had unusual merits.
 ACS, MI, Demorazza, B.204, f.14187, D.T., letter to the federal secretary of Turin’s PNF, 6.12.1938