Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Just a Girl: A True Story of World War II by Lia Levi, pictures by Jess Mason, translated from the Italian by Sylvia Notini

Born in 1931 in Turin, Italy, Lia lived a pretty comfortable life with her parents, younger  sisters Gabriella and Vera, and Maria, their nanny. Lia was a shy girl so when Mussolini declared that Jewish children could no longer attend Italian schools, she is quite happy. That is, until she finds out that she would be attending a Jewish school. It isn't long before Lia's father loses his job because he is Jewish and the family is forced to live on their savings. 

When war is declared by Germany, Italy joins with Hitler and goes to war also. Within three hours of declaring war, French planes are dropping bombs in Turin. When Lia is in third grade, the family savings run out, and her Papa needs to find a job, but no one is allowed to hire Jews. The family decides to move to Milan, but when a promised job for Papa falls through, they are on the move again. This time, they are off to Rome.

Lia and her sisters have a grandmother who isn't Jewish and their first summer living in Rome, they are sent to stay with her during their summer vacation for three months. But the following summer, the war is getting closer to Rome, with the Americans landing in Sicily. And one night, they wake up to learn that Mussolini is no longer Italy's prime minister. Which should have been good news for Italy's Jews, except the Germans moved in and occupied the country. And where the Italians weren't always so good about enforcing Mussolini's laws, the Germans are quick to enforce Hitler's. 

Lia's parents decide to send her and her sisters to  live in a Catholic boarding school for safety's sake. By now, Lia is in her second year of middle school. She is given a false last name, Lenti instead of Levi, and must learn Catholic prayers. Then, in October, Lia's mother shows up at the school. She tells them that the Germans raided the Jewish quarter in Rome and took everyone away, but she doesn't know where her husband is. Luckily, they are all able to spend the rest of the war living at the boarding school.

This memoir, translated from the Italian by Sylvia Notini, is told in simple language though the deprivations, fears and anxieties the family experienced are made very clear. Graphic details are not included, and has caused one of my colleagues to complain that she felt it diminished the Holocaust. I don't agree. It is a unique story, but it is one person's actual experience and until Mussolini was removed from office, things were not as bad for Italian Jews as for Jews in Nazi occupied countries. 

I did like reading Lia Levi's recollections about living through the war. I thought she included a lot of small, but interesting details about what life was like for her family which are parts of history the books don't always tell you about. And Levi used two voices to tell her story - one is the first person account of young Lia and the other is the first person memories of the older Lia giving more information that the younger Lia wouldn't have known, but which helps readers to understand what was happening. My only complaint is that the timing was hard to follow. There aren't many dates mentioned and a timeline would have been very welcome. 

This is a poignant narrative, full of love, laugher, sadness, and loss, but an ideal way to introduce the Holocaust to young readers. And, right now, I think these stories need to be told and read.

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