“Warburg in Rome,” by James Carroll, Houghton Miffin Harcourt, 384 pages, $28
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Rome, 1944. David Warburg, an almost-but-not-quite deracinated American Jew, the eponymous hero of James Carroll’s “Warburg in Rome,” finds himself in the Eternal City. He has been sent by the U.S. Treasury Department to set up a branch of the War Refugee Board in the city – something, anything, to head off a worsening of the grim fate that has already befallen so many Jews across Europe. But Rome is a busy place, and his is not the only game in town.
The British and Americans are trying to strengthen the Allies’ tenuous foothold in southern Europe as the Germans withdraw northward. Then there is the Vatican, perhaps an unlikely power broker, given the ostentatious “neutrality” it presented as war raged across the Continent. The ambiguity of its open-ended political stance has allowed it to shape an important power base. This, like all power, has come at a price. A price intimately connected to Warburg’s mission, as he discovers.
The word “refugee” is bandied about as a useful euphemism for “Jew,” even by the Americans. While there was any number of good reasons to try to protect the Jews still under threat across Europe – basic human morality being the first – championing their cause overtly wasn’t the done thing.
Caution and circumspection are the order of the day, and Warburg possesses the right skills for the task at hand. An understated, even diffident manner masks inner steel; Yale Law and the prestigious Warburg surname – albeit with no familial connection to him – opens doors, first to the treasury and then to Rome, that would otherwise remain closed. But goodwill and good manners can only take a man so far: Unpicking the political intrigues of the Vatican requires much more than an earnest manner.
Much has been written about what exactly the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII did or didn’t do during the war, not all of this well-informed. Carroll, however, has the unusual advantage of deep background knowledge. The son of an U.S. Air Force general and a former Catholic priest, Carroll has written extensively about Catholic-Jewish relations, most notably in “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews” (2001). “Warburg in Rome” may be fiction, but its confidence conveys a familiarity with the facts not always present in works dealing with this particular subject.
Warburg needs a project to give the “refugee” effort momentum; he is soon presented with one by Marguerite d’Erasmo, a Red Cross official who has compromised her – and her organization’s – neutrality in order to try to rescue Jews. Orphaned by the fascists, she has seen the brutalities of war first-hand and understands the need for someone to fight in the Jewish corner.
Together with Giacomo “Jocko” Lionni, a native-born Jew instrumental in hiding members of Rome’s Jewish community from the Nazi occupiers, d’Erasmo presses Warburg to use his contacts in the city to help them liberate Fossoli, a deportation camp in northern Italy. The camp has 400 prisoners, and they are about to be moved north in the wake of the German retreat, and on to almost certain death. The idealistic liberators hope to take advantage of German disarray in retreat to pull off an audacious rescue.
Fossoli has the makings of a useful synecdoche. Warburg’s task is to arm-twist and wheedle his contacts in the U.S. Army and the Vatican into action. If Warburg can get the plan to hang together – Americans destroying the bridge intended to lead the Jews further north, d’Erasmo’s Red Cross stepping into the breach with humanitarian assistance, Lionni’s partisans on hand to dispatch dissenting Germans, the discreet but emphatic nod of approval from the Vatican – it could be the sign for prelates and priests across Europe to exercise their not inconsiderable authority in favor of rescuing Jews.
If only it were that simple.
The sticking point is that the Church’s primary consideration is self-interest – maintain the status quo as a minimum, actively promote its own prospects where possible. “If we could help all [the Jews] we would,” Carroll has Monsignor Tardini, the pope’s secretary of state murmur silkily. “Our paramount obligation is to do nothing that would make matters worse.”
What is to be gained from this self-interested conservatism, though? (Old-fashioned anti-Semitic hatred aside, that is.) There are other considerations. The Americans are wary of Stalin’s interest in the gap left by the retreating Nazis; despite the very ambiguous “neutrality” of the war years, the Vatican could serve as a bulwark against the spread of communism’s red threat. And where does rescuing Jews fit into this? Not very well. The Church, as an institution, doesn’t hate the Jews; it just has no use for them. And this is possibly a much worse outlook.
The first half of “Warburg in Rome” runs at a brisk pace, the reader thrust into dizzying intersections of intrigue and double-dealing. Carroll writes smoothly, but moves the story along at an improbable pace, force-feeding his principals with helpfully expository passages just to make sure we can keep up. The not-surprising consequence is that his characterization is often rather stilted, with a blandness not helped by a continually expanding cast of plotters and conspirators. The occasional archaic turn of phrase – starboard passengers complemented by the “larboard bench,” someone living in a “mansard flat,” Central Park described as a “greensward” – give the fiction an old-fashioned air, quite possibly a deliberate affectation but one that doesn’t quite ring true.
“Warburg in Rome” is never flippant – far from it – but for a while it carries the airs of unbound optimism and adventure. Books and films about World War II all seemed to be like this once, unquestioning – and unquestionable – heroism overcoming bureaucratic blips. And for a while, the anonymous Jewish prisoners of Fossoli seem just a convenient narrative device. But just for a while. Without warning, the derring-do doggedness that characterizes the first half of “Warburg in Rome” eases into something much darker.
It’s not giving very much away to say here that the rescue at Fossoli does not go according to plan; the failure casts a long, malevolent shadow over the second half of the book. The war ends; Warburg, cut loose by the American government, takes up a post with the Joint Distribution Committee, the international Jewish relief organization. He is not quite an embittered man, but is certainly far less trusting, more cynical; he sees now more clearly the essential vulnerability and dependency that accompanies being a Jew of this time and place. The Nazis have been routed, but there are rumors that friendly prelates are happy to facilitate their escape from the ruins of Europe. And then there are whispers of violent Jewish nationalism, the Zionist struggle for autonomy in Palestine spilling into Europe. When D’Erasmo – who by now, I should say, has found a special place in Warburg’s heart – and Lionni reappear after a year of being missing in action, it doesn’t take very much to figure out that they haven’t returned just to sit around meekly and wait for others to solve the problems of the Jewish community. What’s left of it.
Despite its impressive historical and political background, “Warburg in Rome” seems constantly at threat of being overcome by its sense of melodrama. Carroll’s language is sometimes overwrought, his characters too redolent of central casting to ring entirely true. (Incidentally, I think the book has the makings of an excellent television mini-series. But that’s another matter altogether.)
But the book’s most important underlying theme – concerning the uses, and abuses, of power – remain largely untouched by these reservations. “Warburg in Rome” is principally about the failings of the Catholic Church in acting against the Nazis and the Holocaust; the book could have been easily swept up by Manichaean considerations, the Church’s moral ambiguity – hence, evil – faced down by the passive innocence of Jewish victims. And in the last third of the book lies the whisper of a question that continues to trouble Zionists to the present day.
The Jews that have returned to Rome from their self-imposed exile, with support from battle-hardened fighters from the Irgun underground organization, have a word on their lips: vengeance. And they have little patience for the subtle shades that do sometimes exist between conceptions of good and evil.
Violence, ultimately, is a badly behaved demonstration of power. Well-behaved Jews – or, at least, well-behaved Zionists – seldom make their own history, appropriating a quotation from another context. But will the end always justify the means? It isn’t just the Catholic Church on trial in “Warburg in Rome.” Other people have difficult questions to answer too.
Akin Ajayi is a freelance writer and editor, based in Tel Aviv.