ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o The Wylie Agency, 250 West 57th St., New York, NY 10107.
CAREER: Journalist for Boston Globe and U.S. News & World Report in Italy, 1990-93.
AWARDS, HONORS: Los Angeles Times Book Award, 1992, for Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism.
Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1995.
(Author of text) Passion, Justice, Freedom: Photographs of Sicily, by Letizia Battaglia, Aperture (New York, NY), 1999.
The Future of the Past, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Alexander Stille writes about the problems of the modern Italian state in his books Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian-Jewish Families under Fascism and Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic. The first, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1992, is a study of the Italian Jewish community under Mussolini. The second looks at the uneasy relationship between the crime families of Italy and Sicily and the Italian government, and especially at the recent attempts of the judicial system to bring criminals to trial. He writes from his own and his family's experience: his "paternal grandparents," explained Istvan Deak in the New York Review of Books, "were Jews who emigrated to Italy from Russia after World War I." His father was a writer who published under the joint pseudonym Ugo Stille (German for "silence") after Mussolini passed racial laws in 1938 restricting the freedom of Jews to write and work. Stille's father immigrated to the United States in 1941. From 1990 to 1993, Alexander Stille worked as a journalist in Italy, during the period when the crime families made "excellent cadavers" out of some of the leading governmental reformers. "Mr. Stille," wrote New York Times contributor Richard Bernstein, "is a writer to watch."
"The story of Italian Jews under Fascism brings home not only the outrage and disastrous consequences of the racial laws, but the illusions and willful blindness of the Jewish communities," declared Victor Brombert in his review of Benevolence and Betrayal for the Times Literary Supplement. Brombert continued, "It also tells of the humanity, courage and plain decency of the many who stood up to oppose the spreading evil." "In 1984," stated Edith Kurzweil in the Partisan Review, "Alexander Stille decided to find out what had happened to Italian Jews under fascism which, after all, had been in power for sixteen years before the racial laws were put into effect in 1938." "Italy has always been the least anti-Semitic of European nations," wrote Carole Angier in the New Statesman and Society, "and Italian Jews, accordingly have been the most secure and assimilated." This was as true in ancient times as it was in the late 1930s. "The Jewish community of Rome," declared Commonweal contributor Philip P. Hallie, "was the oldest in the Western world . . . two hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ there were tens of thousands of Jews in Rome," he explained, "and . . . at Julius Caesar's death Jews kept watch and wept over Caesar's tomb out of gratitude for his tolerance."
Many Italian Jews celebrated the coming to power of the fascists as a good thing for Italy and supported Mussolini "by praising him to the skies," Hallie continued, "and by melting down some of their most precious gold and silver religious objects 'for the Fatherland.'" "Out of a Jewish population of 47,000 in 1938," wrote Edward Alexander in Commentary, "more than 10,000—that is, one third of the adults—belonged to the Fascist party." So assimilated were Italian Jews into Italian culture in 1938 that they minimized the impact that Nazi racism could have on them. "Nearly all Jewish Italians had relatives who had intermarried with Catholics, had many children and friends, and were as attached to their fatherland as they were to their families," Kurzweil said in the Partisan Review. "Thus they all started out by assuming that the Germans' racial laws could not possibly damage them, or even touch them."
This was not the case. Stille covers the lives of five representative Jewish families in Benevolence and Betrayal, trying to determine how these people dealt with the sudden onset of oppression. Ettore Ovazza of Turin responded by increased dedication to the Fascist party, even going so far as to attack his fellow Jews. In 1943 he was denounced to the S.S. and summarily executed. The family of anti-fascist Vittorio Foa, also of Turin, "supplied the resistance with one of its most vigorous fighters," stated Stefan Kanfer in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The Di Verolis of Rome were devastated in 1943. Many family members died in the aftermath of the city's purge in that year. Two members of the Schoenheit family of Ferrara spent the last years of World War II in the concentration camp at Buchenwald; both father and son survived the war.
Stille's "stunning achievement," New York Times Book Review critic Barbara Grizzuti Harrison declared, "—the result of meticulous research and comprehensive understanding—is to give faces and personalities to people who might otherwise have remained consigned to anonymity, to generalized categories rather than to be seen with their own peculiar natures, motives and characters." Angier concluded: "He is clearly a most sympathetic interviewer, and a most judicious user of the results; and he makes superb use of contemporary letters, diaries, and—startlingly—of police and secret police files. I have never read a more immediate and moving retelling of personal stories of the Holocaust, or indeed of anything else."
Stille's Excellent Cadavers is "a fascinating and horrifying book," stated Denis Mack Smith in the New York Times Book Review, which "explain[s] in great detail how in the last twenty-five years the Mafia has terrorized Sicilian society and helped to bring the first Italian Republic close to collapse." Stille draws connections between organized crime and political corruption, showing how each draws on the other for support. During the 1980s, government reformers—including prosecutors Paolo Borsellino and Giovanni Falcone—began moving against the Sicilian Mafia, or Cosa Nostra. Each of them was targeted by the crime families. "The magistrates lived for years in virtual isolation," wrote Martin Clark in the Times Literary Supplement, "could have no social life, exposed their families to reprisals, and often had little support from their superiors. They did manage to break up many Mafia families, and they paid for this success with their lives."
Despite the ambiguity of criminal prosecution in Italy in the mid-1990s, Stille views the struggle led by Falcone and his compatriots as a victory for the forces of law and order. "Mr. Stille demonstrates how this victory of law was, necessarily, coincidental with the end of the first Italian republic, which occurred in 1993 with the radical reform of the electoral system," declared Wall Street Journal contributor Roger Kaplan. "Whether the second republic—with its reforms, its new men and its invigorated civil society—can sustain the work begun by the Sicilian judges is far from certain." "Excellent Cadavers is an act of faith that humans will work and sacrifice to live decently," asserted Art Elsenson in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "It is a fine monument to those who died and those who live to act on that hope."
In The Future of the Past, Stille discusses the problem of preserving antiquities and ancient knowledge. Physical artifacts naturally decay with time, a process that is accelerated when they are handled, studied, or even just visited by modern observers. Knowledge from the past is lost as manuscripts decay, and even the electronic age has not cured this problem: as technology and software change rapidly, retrieving information from older hardware and software becomes a complicated and expensive proposition. Pollution, industrialization, and expanding populations all take their toll on the remnants of ancient cultures. At times, the needs of modern people are pitted against the preservation of the past. Furthermore, "preserving" a monument or other artifact is an artificial act that maintains an idealized image of the object in question. The Sphinx in Egypt, for example, has been so altered to maintain its classic appearance that little of the real thing is left today. Stille's book introduces the "passionate and forceful personalities of preservationists, dedicated scholars, bald opportunists, looters and other key players," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The Future of the Past is "rich with anecdote, detailed description and lively dialogue," concluded the reviewer. Stille is "a graceful writer," remarked Booklist contributor Gilbert Taylor. A Kirkus Reviews writer noted that the book, which is made up of previously published pieces, does not always add up to "a sustained argument," yet continued, "Even so, Stille is an exemplary reporter." A similar opinion was offered by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, who called The Future of the Past a "fascinating but helterskelter" collection of "deftly written, keenly observed pieces."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, March 15, 1995, p. 1292; March 1, 2002, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Future of the Past: An Engrossing Look at the Cultural Consequences of Technological Change and Globalization, p. 1071.
Business Week, May 22, 1995, p. 22.
Christian Science Monitor, May 31, 1995, p. 13.
Commentary, May, 1992, pp. 56-59.
Commonweal, April 24, 1992, pp. 15-18.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2002, review of The Future of the Past: An Engrossing Look at the Cultural Consequences of Technological Change and Globalization, p. 93.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 8, 1992, p. 11; April 30, 1995, p. 2.
New Statesman and Society, March 13, 1992, pp. 48-49.
New York Review of Books, November 5, 1992, pp. 22-26.
New York Times, June 21, 1995, p. C16.
New York Times Book Review, January 12, 1992, pp. 3, 15; April 23, 1995, p. 7; May 1, 2002, review of The Future of the Past: An Engrossing Look at the Cultural Consequences of Technological Change and Globalization.
Partisan Review, Volume 59, number 2, 1992, pp. 325-328.
Publishers Weekly, February 6, 1995, p. 68; March 4, 2002, review of The Future of the Past, p. 71.
Time, May 8, 1995, pp. 91-92.
Times Literary Supplement, June 5, 1992, p. 12; September 1, 1995, p. 7.
Wall Street Journal, April 25, 1995, p. A18.
Washington Post Book World, June 4, 1995, pp. 1, 14.