A GIFT FROM THE ENEMY
Written from the perspective of a child of 7 to 11 years of age, this WWII memoir is unique in many ways. Growing up in Italy, away from his home in Vienna, the boy lives an adventurous life, unaware that the world is crumbling around him.
A review of A GIFT FROM THE ENEMY
The author of this endearing narrative is an 82-year-old retiree living in Florida. How he got there is an amazing tale. Born in Vienna as Erich Lifschütz, an upper middle class Jew with Polish roots, he left Austria with his parents in 1938, at the age of 8. As Jews, they were not permitted to take much money out of the country as they shuffled across France and came to settle in Italy, as the Nazis marched across borders. You would expect such an account to be filled with the horrors of war. But it is not.
Lamet is a natural storyteller. When he identifies himself as being al confino, he is referring to the system of enforced exile, or confinement of untrustworthy elements, which was put in place by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini after allying with Hitler. The author’s father made the fateful choice of returning to Poland to see family, leaving his wife and son on their own for the duration of the war. The author and his mother, whom he calls “Mutti,” are affectionate, yet she is as willful and worry-prone as he is active and adventure-prone.
Excerpt from a review by prof. Andrew Burstein of SLU
A Gift from the Enemy, originally published by Syracuse University Press and subsequently by Adams Media under the title A Child al Confino, will be re-published, revised and enlarged, by October 2013.
A GIFT FROM THE ENEMY
A True Story of Escape in War Time Italy
by Lamet, Enrico
Manuscript (432 pp.)
Lamet offers a tender, highly observant narrative of his boyhood years in Italy during World War II.
With his Jewish mother and father, the author spent the first eight years of his life in Austria in a comfortable bourgeois atmosphere. But then the storm clouds of war forced the family to move from Vienna to Milan, Paris, Nice and San Remo, before they found the obscure sanctuary of Ospedaletto, Italy. Along the way, Lamet’s father left for Poland, and therefore plays little role in the remainder of the memoir, but his mother remains a steady force throughout.
As the author writes of his days with her, he brings an authentic feel of childhood to the story, and readers will likely remember their own similar, universal joys. He touches upon activities in all manner of daily life, including woodworking, hearing Jewish singers and occasionally eating in restaurants. He also writes of attending summer camp and spending another summer on a farm, and of the kindness of a newswoman who lent him the latest comic books—all while he lived as a Jew in Europe at the wrong time in history. He draws other moments with a quieter, emotional ache: His mother finding a new man (“My parents had never kissed like that in front of me”), his family’s lack of food and the terrifying experience of seeing a uniformed German soldier.
The book’s second section comprises the author’s postwar years, and although readers may enjoy finding out what happened to Lamet down the road, his life during wartime is far more gripping, whether he’s dodging bombs or learning to love poetry.
An engaging childhood narrative of World War II.
Enrico Lamet has created a literary masterpiece. His "A Gift from the Enemy" is exactly that -- a literary masterpiece -- in which his mother plays a dominant role. It is more than a diary. It is an exquisite telling of history with a good bit of psychology and demography.
The author and its readers soon come face to face with Nazi brutality. The bond with his mother helps him to survive those bitter years.
I highly recommend Lamet's excellent book to learn both the miracle of survival and share in the author's leap of intelligence.
Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz
Erich remains in Italy with his mother, Lotte, while his father goes to Poland to attend to business. The war breaks out in 1939 and the family loses contact. Two years later Mother and son are sent to an internment camp, a small village in southern Italy. Entering Ospedaletto d'Alpinolo, the village creates a shock to both.
Nothing has ever been wwritten about the Fascist Government's treatment of foreign Jews, thus giving this work significant historical importance.
The eighteen hundred villagers for whom time seemed to have stopped in the 1800, walk barefoot, are illiterate and influenced by century old traditions and superstitions. More than sixty internees - English, Polish, Czech, and French citizens and Jews, considered enemies of the country, have been relegated here. Even two Italian political enemies join the fold.
Racial laws forbid Enrico, now eleven, from attending public school. His indomitable mother arranges for tutoring by one of the internees.
The last news the small family has received from his father was in 1939. The only contact Lotte has with her family is from a labor camp in Germany and in 1942 she learns that her mother and sister are being sent to Poland. It is the last message from those unfortunate people. In those years when the news was bleak for the internees, when German conquests occurred all over Europe, Lotte finds a source of hope, a new love.
Most vivid through the story is the primitive life in the village, mired in old fashioned lifestyles, where families still have more than twenty children and education stops at the fifth grade for most children.
On September 8, 1943, Italy signs an armistice with the Allies and changes its allegiance. Mussolini is imprisoned and the Fascist government is replaced. Life changes overnight in the small village. The German army, surronds the village, and the soldiers, friendly and casual up to the day before, now walk in groups and are armed to the teeth. A German officer requests a list of Jews living in the village.
In this environment, to the horror of his mother, Erich befriends a German sergeant. This ends when the man tells his young friend that he knows Erich is Jewish but he has nothing to fear, for "all Germans are not alike."
by Professor Risa Sodi - Yale University
If you travel today to the southern Italian village of Ospedaletto d'Alpinolo in the Apennine Alps east of Naples, you will find a village perched 2,200 feet above sea level and ranging over 1,400 acres, half of them rocky cliffs. Its 1,639 residents make a living today as they have for centuries: from the hazelnut and chestnut forests surrounding the town. Its 643 dwellings are interspersed with pizzerias, restaurants, hotels, and shops that provide the amenities of modern life including Internet access, as eviden-ced by the town's Web site. Sixty-five years ago, however, when young Erich Lamet and his mother, Carlotte Szyfra Brandwein, were sent there to begin four years of compulsory internal exile, life in Ospedaletto was radically different. The terrain and the surrounding forests were essentially the same; at 1,800 inhabitants, the population was only slightly larger; and then, as now, State Road no.374 traversed the town before branching off toward the Montevergine sanctuary nestled in the cliffs overhanging the village. In 1941, however, Ospedaletto was governed by a Fascist mayor, il podestà Modestino Di Pietro, and the Fascist system of il confino (from the Italian verb confinare, meaning “to confine, to relegate” had forcibly brought to the village scores of suspect foreigners, political activists, Jews, and sundry other potential enemies of the state, trans-forming it utterly.
Il confino was a system of enforced internal exile devised by Mussolini quite early in his regime in order to marginalize those who could potentially cause it harm. Conceived as a measure halfway between a warning and incarceration, il confino was a police procedure that required no actual trial but rather mere denunciation by local authorities. In the years preceding 1938, the confinati were usually vocal political opponents of Fascism; indeed, the most prominent antifascist thinkers of the day ended up in internal exile, mainly on Italy's countless small islands. There they were divorced from political events, deprived of the means to communicate with the mainland, and settled among generally indifferent or nonpoliticized local populations. The Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, the Socialist leader Pietro Nenni, and the liberal thinkers Giovanni Amendola and Piero Gobetti all were sent into internal (island) exile before 1938.
The mechanism of il confino was quite simple: Those affected were required to remain within a certain area (usually within the town limits) and to sign in daily at the local police station. They were responsible for finding their own housing and providing their own means of support aside from the stipend provided from the Fascist government. Correspondence was censored, and in many locales gatherings of confinati were banned. Sentences could run as long as five years (renewable), although in practice many were commuted before their end dates.
In 1938, in an effort to appease Hitler and keep pace with his German ally, Mussolini promulgated a series of “racial laws” applied specifically to Italy's Jewish population. Nearly forty-seven thousand strong, it also included roughly seven thousand foreign Jews most, like Erich and his mother, refugees from Nazi-ravaged Europe.
The native-born Italian Jews, spread among several dozen central and northern Italian communities, worshiped in either the Italian or the Sephardic rite, fell mostly into the middle class (though there were notable wealthy families, such as the Olivettis of Ivrea, as well as pockets of desperate poverty, (especially in and around Rome), and were extraordinarily assimilated into Italian political, cultural, and everyday life. The Fascist racial laws directed at them were at once overarching and picayune, vexatious and devastating. As of autumn 1938, for example, Jews were forbidden from marrying Aryans (non-Jewish Italians), from holding any sort of state job, serving in the military, or employing an Aryan domestic, or even from owning land over a certain value or a factory with more than a certain number of workers. Jews could not list obituaries in their local newspapers or own a radio. Jewish students were banned from public schools, including the universities, and Jewish teachers, attorneys, doctors, and others were banned from their professions. Exemptions were allowed within certain limits; nonetheless, the impact on the Italian Jews—both psychological and material—was crushing.
Foreign Jews suffered to an even greater extent when Italy entered World War II in June 1940. A previous 1938 law had required them to leave the country, although few had obeyed; those remaining were subject to internment camps or il confino. Thus, in 1940, Erich and his mother, like thousands of Jews who had left Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Romania for the relative safety of Italy, were caught up in the Fascist regime's new policies. Thus far, Lamet and his mother's peregrinations from Vienna to Milan, to Paris, to Nice, and to San Remo had kept them one step ahead of the authorities. But in June 1940 all that ended with Italy's entry into World War II and their relegation to “confinement” in Ospedaletto. As we shall see such a fate-unbeknownst to them—likely saved their lives.
The crux of A Gift from the Enemy centers on young Lamet's and his mother's struggles in backward Ospedaletto. Urban sophisticates, they faced often arduous adjustments to harsh new climes, new customs and cultures, and new language systems—the often impenetrable dialects of the Italian mountain communities. Once residents and part owners of a premier Viennese hotel, they were now straining to find suitable housing, to scrounge for food, and to procure some sort of education for twelve-year-old Enrico, all futile searches, as it turned out. Lamet echoes the observations of other internees, notably Carlo Levi and Natalia Ginzburg, both Italian-Jewish authors and former confinati; Lamet's memoir, like Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli and Ginzburg's It's Hard to Talk about Yourself, notes that relegation to the primitive mountain confino villages was akin to stepping back in time.
Just as mother and son struggled, however, they were also favored with new friendships and new ties. Lamet's portrait of the ragtag group of Ospedaletto confinati sketches characters at times amusing, endearing, and maddening. It also introduces Pietro Russo, a fellow exile who was so to change Lamet's life that he dedicated this memoir to him.
In the fall of 1943, General Mark W. Clark and his Allied troops began Operation Avalanche, the long slog up the Salerno coast that eventually liberated southern Italy. Enrico and his mother rejoiced at their liberation by American soldiers that October. At that time they could not have known that il confino, in a strange twist of fate, had saved their lives, for had they been interned in northern Italy instead of sent into internal exile in southern Italy, they would have come under the jurisdiction of Nazi troops and most likely would have found themselves among the seven thousand Italian and foreign Jews who were deported to Auschwitz and other Nazi Lagers. Of those deported, only three hundred Italian Jews and five hundred foreign Jews survived.
Erich remained in Italy for several years after liberation, until he, his mother, and her second husband—that same Pietro Russo—settled in the United States in 1950. His memoir traces a little-told story: of child refugees in Italy, of foreign Jews in Italy during World War II, of the hardships imposed by the confino system, of the southern Italian mountain villages, and of the mutual respect that often developed not only among confinati but between unsophisticated peasants and urban intellectuals both struggling under adversity.