July 14, 1916, is the birthdate of Natalia Ginzburg, the Italian writer and public intellectual whose sense of Jewish identity was based not on religion or culture, but on a strong sense that being Jewish is to suffer from persecution. Paradoxical as it may seem, it was also this same belief – that Jesus was a persecuted Jew – that led her to join the Catholic church, in 1950.
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Natalia Levi was born in Palermo, Sicily, where her Jewish father, Giuseppe Levi, was a professor of histology. In 1919, when she was three, Giuseppe was offered a professorship in Turin. Her mother, Lidia Tanzi, was a Catholic, the daughter of a socialist lawyer.
Natalia was the youngest of the couple’s five children, all of whom were raised to be atheists and anti-fascists. Both her father and all three of her brothers were arrested at one time or another by the Fascist government for their political work.
Natalia was home-schooled by her mother before entering Turin’s Vittorio Alfieri secondary school, in 1927. Following that, she began literature studies at university, but did not finish her degree.
An author, secretly Jewish
In 1938, the year that Italy introduced its racial laws, severely restricting the rights of Jews, Natalia married the publisher and political activist Leone Ginzburg. The Odessa-born Ginzburg, a Jew, was one of the founders of Turin’s Einaudi publishing house, for which Natalia ended up working for much of her adult life.
She published her first story at age 17, and completed the first Italian translation of Proust’s “Swann’s Way” in 1937, although it was published only after the war, in 1946.
Because of her Jewish background, Ginzburg published her first novel, “The Road to the City,” in 1942, under a pseudonym, Alessandra Tornimparte.
In 1940, Leone Ginzburg was sent into internal exile in the village of Pizzoli, in the Abruzzi region, where he was joined by Natalia and their two children (later three). Although it was difficult to be isolated from friends and family, Natalia later looked back on this period as “the best time of my life,” when she “had faith then in a simple, happy future, rich with fulfilled desires, with shared experiences and ventures.”
By 1944, when she wrote those words, Leone had already died in a German prison in Rome, to which he had returned after the fall of Mussolini, and was re-arrested in the fall of 1943 for publishing an anti-fascist paper. He was badly tortured there.
Identification with Jesus
Natalia remarried in 1950, to the literature professor Gabriele Baldini, with whom she moved to Rome in 1952, but she continued calling herself “Ginzburg.” The next few decades were very productive for her professionally, with a total of five novels – the best-known of which may be the autobiographical “Family Sayings” (1963) – several plays, and non-fiction as well. She also worked as an editor at Einaudi, where one of the manuscripts she rejected was Primo Levi’s first book, “If This Is a Man,” in 1947.
It has been suggested that the subject matter, Levi’s imprisonment in Auschwitz, was too disturbing for Ginzburg at the time. In any event, she and Primo Levi became friends and colleagues. Much later, in 1982, she signed an open letter to Menachem Begin that Levi circulated, criticizing Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Einaudi later published a reprint of the book.
Meanwhile, Ginzburg converted to Catholicism, explaining that this was done out of identification with Jesus as a suffering Jew. In 1990, she told the writer Mary Gordon, who asked her if she still felt Jewish, that, “You never lose your sense of connection with those who died in the camps.''
Ginzburg’s son Carlo, a highly regarded historian, who was for many years at UCLA, has also said his Jewish identity “is in large measure the result of persecution.”
Natalia Ginzburg served briefly in the Italian parliament, representing the non-Communist Independent Left party, and remained an outspoken advocate for children and other groups she saw as weak or as victims all her life. She also cared for a severely handicapped daughter, born in 1954, at home, until her own death, in Rome, on October 7, 1991.