Letters to the Editor
Apropos Edward Alexander's article, "The New Yorker's Holocaust Problem" (Midstream, May/June 2001), I believe his pique to be misplaced.
Alexander is justified in his position that Hannah Arendt in her article that The New Yorker published in 1961 may have a "Holocaust problem"; and he may be fair in attributing a similar problem to Ian Buruma in his article in the April 16, 2001 edition of the magazine. However, those opinions do not warrant the allegation that The New Yorker has a Holocaust problem.
The New Yorker has only recently published any letters to its editor -- and the fact that they haven't published any letters on this subject proves nothing.
I cannot resist pointing out that Midstream in its Statement of Purpose claims that ... the publisher and editors [do not] necessarily identify themselves with the views expressed in its pages."
William H. Engelman
Your two-part series "Jew in Rome" (Midstream May/June, July/August 2001) by Richard Ellis of the University of Massachusetts made for interesting thoughts that perhaps can add some amplification to his. Of course the Italian Jews, as the oldest Jewish community outside of Israel still in existence, have a complex history. I have been leading serious tours of Italian Jewish sites for the past several years during my own academic vacation periods, and many of our visits and itineraries connect with his observations. I could suggest that his decision to tour the important Roman ghetto area with a Catholic organization rather than the Jewish groups almost assured he would be hearing special views.
His "Hercules Harry" guide in the Vatican should simply not be giving tours any longer if he continues to recite the story of [the] Jews' responsibility for the death of Christ. Looking back, perhaps Professor Ellis could have noted the man's name and spoken with whoever supervised his work, since all guides are strictly licensed and examined. But be assured he is not alone. In recent trips, I was casually informed by the bus driver who was taking us around the country that Jews did not like to pay for anything they didn't have to (casually said while looking for a parking space near the ruins of the ancient synagogue of Ostia).
This past summer, I attended a rather swanky reception at a leading cultural institute in Florence and engaged an educated young lawyer in conversation on subjects of general interest. When I mentioned my tours through the Roman ghetto neighborhood, she blithely assured me that many smart Romans still prefer to visit shops in the area since Roman Jews control all the economy of the city and have the smartest goods available for themselves. If one is clever enough, she informed me, "we" can also profit from their merchandise. Naturally, it was all said with non-malice and the sense of sharing a commonly held truth.
Holocaust education is very, very scanty in Italy, and the widespread success of the vapid and in fact misleading Lip is Beautiful fair-tale/ "fable" [film] of Roberto Benigni that captured Oscars and all manner of awards internationally is a clear demonstration of how little is known or indeed sought to be known. There is a certain smugness that this is not an Italian problem but yet another example of the peculiarities of Germans and other northerners, whom the Italians often scorn.
Yet Italy is famous for virtually no ingrown antisemitic tradition and for the admirable rate of survival of its Jews in World War II. So how serious are these offhand (offbrain?) remarks that one hears in a country such as Italy? If an official guide is saying them, pretty serious, considering his large audiences.
Mark Bernheim. Dept. of English Miami University of Ohio
I am writing concerning my two-part essay, "A Jew in Rome: Christian Antisemitism and the Holocaust," which was published in the May/June and July/August 2001 issues of Midstream. …