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Natalia Ginzburg’s Essay “The Jews” and Its Trials

Editor's note: The full version of this essay will be published in a new collection of essays: Natalia Ginzburg's Global Legacies, edited by Stiliana Milkova Rousseva and Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski (Palgrave Macmillan, 2024). [1]

For a long time Natalia Ginzburg avoided talking openly about her Jewish origins. She interrupted her silence, or rather, her reticence, for the first time in “The Jews” (“Gli Ebrei,” 1972), an essay published on the third page of the daily La Stampa, on September 14, 1972. Her collaboration with Turin’s newspaper had begun in December 1968.[2] Whether she addressed private matters or public events, her articles appeared on the third page (devoted in Italy to literature and the arts) as though written für ewig, for posterity, to use Gramsci’s expression. The more her texts manifested doubt or hesitation, the more determined and categorical her tone. This is how her friend Italo Calvino defined her approach: “Natalia has no doubts about what she thinks […] Her judgments are uncompromising: good, bad, beautiful, ugly. When Ginzburg says ‘I suppose,’ she in fact makes an assertion, using the expression in the sense of ‘I believe’ in English.”[3] To that point, her best critic, Cesare Garboli, declared: “Ginzburg has now become an outstanding journalist” (Garboli 1972, 2016). And then he expounded:     

We are becoming accustomed to the novelty of Ginzburg’s unbiased journalism outside the box, to the miracle of her publishing on the pages of a large-circulation Turin newspaper. Generations go by but Ginzburg continues to tell us about herself, her habits, her family, as if the world were the infinitely extended branches of a family tree, of a parentage, of an ancestral tribe whose offspring continues to carry the same blood so that every member of this endless community could be traced back to the womb whence everyone else originated. (Garboli 1972, 2016)

Garboli’s pronouncement is both fitting and visionary, and another aphorism of his about Ginzburg’s engagé journalism is appropriate. We find it on the flap of the cover of Imaginary Life (Vita immaginaria), her 1974 collection of essays which also includes “The Jews”:

Ginzburg’s first disruption (an utmost provocation) is innocence divorced from naivety. Preserving your innocence, your clarity and purity of mind without risking, at every step, making a fool of yourself, constitutes a virtue rarely found today (Ginzburg 1974a; Garboli 2016, 138).

The essay “The Jews” was prompted by an event that had occurred a few days earlier. In 1972 the Olympic Games were taking place in Munich, the capital of Bavaria, in what was then West Germany. In the early morning of September 5 eight Palestinian terrorists belonging to a group called “Black September” invaded the Olympic Village quarters of the Israeli team. Two of the Israeli athletes put up a fight and were killed immediately while nine others were taken hostage. In exchange for the hostages, the terrorists demanded that Israel release 234 Arab prisoners incarcerated in Israel. They further demanded the release of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, the leaders of the guerilla group “Rote Armee Fraktion” (Red Army Faction) who were detained in Germany. Both the Israeli and the German government refused to negotiate with the terrorists on these terms. In the late evening on the same day, a shootout at Munich airport resulted in the death of all nine hostages, five terrorists, and a German policeman. The Olympic Games were not suspended. These were the first terrorist attacks broadcast live on TV or on the radio for a world-wide audience.

Natalia Ginzburg’s essay with the blunt title “The Jews” came out nine days later, on September 14, on the third page of La Stampa. It situated the Munich massacre within a broader context. The opening paragraphs indeed touch on politics:

When disaster strikes, we tend to consider how we would have acted if it had happened to us or if we had held the power to act. And since power is a far cry from our hands, these considerations are merely vain fantasies. Even if they are merely vain fantasies, I will say nonetheless how I would have acted in the Munich events had I held the requisite power.

If I had been Golda Meir, I would have released the 200 prisoners, as the terrorists demanded. They say we must never give in to blackmail. But it seems to me that even blackmail can be accepted in the face of a common disaster. […]

If I had been the Head of the Olympic Games, I would have suspended the Olympics, as they became meaningless after the attacks.

Lastly, if I had been the Head of State, I would have asked America to withdraw its troops from Vietnam. Naturally, I would have already requested it, but I would have redoubled my requests in the wake of recent events. (Ginzburg 1974a, 174-175)

After discussing in more detail America and Vietnam, Ginzburg leaves an empty space.[4] In her autobiographical writing, just as in her reflective or political pieces (“The Jews,” as we will see, is all three), these apparent gaps have a precise meaning. On the one hand, the disruption of thought and the typographic break signal her difficulty in expressing and formulating concatenated arguments. On the other, this discontinuity indicates – by way of a non-verbal antiphrasis – the resoluteness of her approach. Having exhausted a topic by pronouncing her categorical opinion, Ginzburg confronts a new topic without preambles, zeroing in on the essential. This very break in her discourse and its restart from a non-consecutive point constituted much of the novelty readers perceived in Ginzburg’s articles. After the first empty space in “The Jews,” Ginzburg proceeds by describing what she feels towards what she calls the “guerillas”:

[A] kind of inhuman horror. A similar inhuman horror could be provoked only by inhuman desperation. […] The guerillas are perhaps the extreme example of our own selfsame desperation that in us is not yet inhuman, it’s dripping with compassion and indignation, a desperation not yet inhuman to which we have become accustomed. The key to understanding the guerrillas lies perhaps in our own desperation. They seem to have arrived from a world that is not ours. (1974a, 176-177)

The rest of this section is dedicated to the Palestinian “guerillas” who have entered the battle against Israel by attacking a group of defenseless Israeli athletes. Another empty space follows – a space which can be associated with Ginzburg’s almost complete silence up to this point regarding her “ancestral tribe,” as Garboli had defined it. Now begins the part of the article that has a personal, general, and moral scope. Ginzburg maintains the interweaving of these three elements throughout. 

I am Jewish. It always seems to me that anything that regards the Jews involves me directly. I am Jewish only on my father’s side, but I’ve always thought that the part of me that’s Jewish must be heavier and more burdensome than the other one. If I happen to meet a person who turns out to be Jewish, I instinctively feel we have an affinity. After a few minutes I might find this person unbearable, but I retain a sense of secret complicity between us. This is an aspect of my character that I find strange and that I don’t like at all because it goes against everything I have ever believed, because I don’t claim there exist affinities between Jews except some extremely superficial ones, because I think that people should go beyond the boundaries of their origins. This is what I think but when I meet someone Jewish, I can’t suppress this strange and dark feeling of solidarity.

When I found out about the Munich massacre, I thought they had yet again murdered people of my own blood. This is what I thought amidst a sea of other thoughts, but I thought it, nonetheless. And in forming that thought I felt contempt for myself because it was a contemptuous thought. I don’t believe that Jewish people’s blood is any different from that of others. I don’t believe there exist divisions by blood. (1974a, 177-178)

Ginzburg’s silence and her “secret complicity,” her fleeting argument about “blood” and her own rejection of that argument, form the notable components of her discourse. Years later, in an interview from 1986, she will shed light on this point:

For many years I had the impression that being Jewish did not mean very much to me. Now instead I think that being Jewish is like having a comma in your blood, a comma you are not aware of but it’s there still. However, I don’t believe it right to attribute a vital and essential importance to this comma in the blood. I think it should be cherished like a distant memory. (Ripa Meana, 1986)

It's significant that Natalia Ginzburg traces a “comma” of Jewishness in her own “blood,” a certain infra-linguistic feature, a signifier of meaning related to rhythm, to the pace of speech and breath, an active but silent element which interrupts rather than disrupts its own silence.


The publication of “The Jews” in La Stampa provoked immediate reactions ranging from enthusiasm to indignation. I will reference here only the ones that help illuminate Ginzburg’s thought. The first response appeared the next day in the same newspaper, signed by the deputy director Arrigo Levi who was of Jewish origins as well, but not related to Ginzburg whose maiden name was Levi. In 1948, during the first Arab-Israeli war, Arrigo Levi had fought as a volunteer in the Israeli army. The composed tone of his response did not conceal his explicit disagreement.

It was Ginzburg’s political assertions that incited the debate. The weak points of the essay were immediately identified: referring to the terrorists as “guerillas,” describing them as “desperate,” defining Israel as a country of Holocaust survivors with a “stray-dog walk” (passo randagio) and “shoulders weighed down by terror,” and the Arabs as “poor farmers and shepherds.” Her hope that Israel would exist as “a small, defenseless state” and that its citizens would retain “their frail, bitter, reflective, and solitary physiognomy” prompted further derision. Those who in the following weeks discussed Ginzburg’s hypotheses and political proposals criticizing them as approximative, uninformed, unrealistic, and romantic, in general did not comment on the essay’s moral point – which was the more important, more sound, and better argued point, for it was less tied to current events.

On September 16 Cesare Garboli took the floor in Milan’s newspaper Il Giorno (1972a, 3; Garboli 2001, 3-7). He too noted his friend’s mistakes in the area of politics. But he criticized her for not developing her moral argument to consider its utmost implications, writing instead an article “suspended half-way, like a stork that keeps one foot on the ground and one leg raised and folded over its belly, tied up with false hopes that are too embarrassed to die” (2001, 7). The “false hopes” that Garboli attacks citing the final words of Ginzburg’s essay he then formulates as follows:      

Until recently we could believe that power would come into the hands of the just, of those “who die or suffer unjustly.” It’s an illusion. Those who were born to die or suffer unjustly will never know power. In her quest for sublime and indestructible truths, Natalia Ginzburg perhaps had the duty to write this unpleasant truth as well, she only had to push her train of thought further, examining its ultimate implications. It would have sufficed to ask not what she, Natalia Ginzburg, would have done in the shoes of Golda Meir or the Head of the Olympics, but rather why, for what reason she, Natalia Ginzburg, is not in those shoes, occupying the seat of those who have the power to decide. As long as we are victims we are in the right, and we are in the right as long as we are victims. Tertium non datur…And power in and of itself, no matter how used or sought, remains in the wrong. (2001, 6)


Two of the most intense responses to Ginzburg’s essay were private letters that have never been published.[5] Ursula Hirschmann Spinelli (1913-1991) had suffered through both Stalin’s and Hitler’s persecutions. She married Altiero Spinelli, one of the fathers of the European Union and author, with Ernesto Rossi, of the 1943 “Ventotene Manifesto,” which planned a future European Federation. Ursula Hirschmann’s long letter to Natalia was dated “Brussels, 27/9/72.” Although she did not concur with Ginzburg’s descriptions of the Arabs as defenseless farmers and shepherds, nor with the possibility to give in to the terrorists’ blackmail and release their imprisoned comrades, she shared the same tangled feelings about other Jews, the state of Israel, its government and its politics. A visionary just like her husband Altiero Spinelli, Hirschmann yearned for a world free of the yoke of nationalism:

Dear Natalia,

I read with great involvement your article “The Jews” in La Stampa because much of what you say is what I think and feel as well. In the first place, the atavistic sense of kinship with the Jews together with its immediate rejection. Like you, I am on the alert lest anyone speak ill of Jews but at the same time I feel uncomfortable if anyone speaks of Israel with that tone of exclusive admiration that I find bothersome regardless of what country it refers to.

Along these lines, I am disposed to consider the kibbutz a more or less interesting socialist experiment – arguably so – but I don’t think this experiment has any special value because carried out by Jews. I feel an instinctive aversion when I hear that Jews are making an enormous effort in all areas of their life as a nation and I ask myself why I should admire in Israel the very thing that in the past 40 years I have learned to despise. I have seen in Germany, in Italy, in Russia, and in other countries these same enormous efforts exercised so as to weld into a single entity the citizens of a nation, and the corollaries of these efforts have always been first the rejection of tolerance, next, the intoxicating sense of superiority over others, and finally, aggression. It may well be that Israel didn’t attack first, and there is no doubt that it has the right to defend itself. But is it wise that it accompanies its defense measures with the deployment of its own nationalist cult? Anyway, although I was born to Jewish parents, I have the right not to agree with this national logic because I think it moves within a closed and nefarious circle. […] Are non-nationalist solutions possible? If we consider existing situations as immutable, then there exist no solutions for many of our problems. We too were taught at school that the national community is the highest form of unity humanity has reached. Then this form of unity collapsed and today many Europeans know that only a qualitative leap that takes us outside national structures can save Europe. The same holds true for Israel and the Arab world. Those who understand this and are capable of articulating it will give birth to a new utopia, a utopia that sooner or later will have to reckon with reality. The Jewish people who has been for a long time a fundamentally closed community, for a short time an oppressor, and for many centuries oppressed and persecuted, does not have only Moses, Joshua, and other leaders who urged it doggedly to remain closed off and self-contained, but also an entire, ideal line of prophets, both ancient and modern, who thought it their duty to speak for all of humanity and who knew how to preach justice, rejection of the status quo if unjust, and so forth. They were considered in their time Utopians or Defeatists, but it is their visionary spirit that has survived the exploits of that small people who obeyed their Lord of Armies. Let’s hope that their utopianism will again recover its force, reborn from the ashes of our time.

Next, I turn to Primo Levi’s letter, written a few days earlier, on September 23, 1972:

I feel and think like you about certain points, regarding others – I don’t. My attitude towards Jews in general, and Israeli Jews in particular, is ambivalent like yours (“je me sers de moi même avec assez de verve, mais je ne permets pas qu’un autre me le serve”).[6] I believe, like you, that if Golda Meir had asked my opinion, I would have released the 200 prisoners; but this is indeed, as you put it, “a vain fantasy,” because people like you and me are not consulted on these matters, they can never become prime ministers since they do not desire power – quite the opposite, they fear it.

I don’t believe, however, in the Palestinians’ “inhuman desperation”: those among them (and there are certainly many) who are inhumanly desperate do not become terrorists but submit to inertia, the way it happened in concentration camps where the few acts of rebellion were the work of the privileged. The terrorist has a different essential attitude: clever and strong, he has a goal; therefore, he is responsible and should be judged as such; or else (and I think this is often the case, as exemplified by the Japanese killers), he has been infected with violence transmitted by a higher authority, not the result of genuine indignation or desperation. In my opinion, an Israeli reprisal against the terrorists is justifiable within limits; on the other hand, I find utterly unjustifiable the decision to attack Lebanon with bombs containing napalm. War is an abomination and precisely for that reason any responsible government must impose and act within limits that under no circumstances can be crossed. (Levi 1972)[7]


The political argument Levi espouses in this excerpt from his letter to his friend Natalia anticipates the position he will take in the summer of 1982 when he openly criticizes the Israeli government’s military politics and specifically the Israeli army’s invasion of Lebanon, the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and the Israeli army’s failure to thwart those massacres.[8] Although Levi expresses his full agreement with the “vain fantasy” of being in Golda Meir’s shoes and with the hypothetical decision Meir would have made, the fulcrum of his letter lies in Levi’s essentially different position, emotional and political, on Jews. This passage is worth citing in its entirety:

You don’t like it that everything concerning Jews touches you directly; I find it natural, and the opposite for me would be strange, less human. Like you I think that all human beings have equal rights, but I also think that every person belongs to an established culture, if only because of the language he speaks, the country in which he lives, the history behind him. Each person is free to reject his own culture in favor of another to which he feels closer: a Jew can renounce his own Jewish heritage; but if you identify as Jewish, I don’t see why it should disturb you. We all have children, relatives, friends to whom we feel tied emotionally and whom we have “accepted” within us assigning them a privileged position; we are partial to them and we are not embarrassed by it. I know this partiality is not fair but I don’t believe it’s possible to go against human nature and eliminate it; the same partiality, albeit much milder, is what I, an Italian and a Jew, feel towards Italians and Jews: indeed, I don’t believe that the affinities between Jews are “extremely superficial” because otherwise I wouldn’t know how to explain their survival over 2000 years in desperately adverse conditions, nor the rapid and complete fusion of Spanish and Portuguese Jews with Dutch Jews that took place in 1500. If we were to judge based on facts, then the affinity between Palestinians and other Arabs is much more superficial. In Auschwitz I had Jewish friends of most diverse origins – and they were often how you describe them, frail and defenseless. I also had brief encounters with their civilization and I liked it wholeheartedly although I am not religious and come from such a radically different environment, an environment you know well because it’s yours too. Their civilization has almost disappeared: Hitler and Stalin have eradicated it, the Israelis are forgetting it or embalming it. It is sad that a civilization and a culture have disappeared, but it was the culture of ghettos. We can sentimentally long for it, we can (and we should) preserve its documents, but we cannot keep it alive as it was. I hope that Israel can soon cease being a bellicose state; I don’t think it’s likely it will be defenseless any time soon. I feel irked too when someone praises Israel for its military feats, to me they seem a necessary evil. I admire Israel for other reasons: for the simplicity of their traditions, for their innate inclination for socialism (have you ever visited a kibbutz? I think every socialist should do so), for their prompt and practical manner of confronting problems. (Levi 1972)

Primo Levi had been arrested on December 13, 1943, and two months later taken to Auschwitz. During the first weeks of the Italian Resistance against the Nazi-Fascist forces he had been a young partisan (connected, like Natalia Ginzburg, with the Action Party) who, however, lacked military experience or adequate arms so soon enough he was captured during a search by the militia of the Republic of Salò. Hence in his letter to Natalia, Levi’s appreciation of the military skills of individuals and nations alike, and hence his distinct attitude towards armed resistance and the passions that mobilize it. As far as the last lines cited here are concerned, Levi had visited Israel in 1968 and after his return in Italy wrote an article titled “Encounters in the Kibbutz.” The final lines of this article seem to respond directly, and proleptically, to Ginzburg’s question whether there could exist a system of power capable of liberating only those who are part of it and without oppressing anyone else:

If the numerical weight of the kibbutz has been reduced, its moral weight remains great: the workers in the kibbutz are the intellectual, technical, and spiritual aristocracy of Israel, they are respected by everyone and have no enemies. The air you breathe in the kibbutz is at once strict and serene, of commitment and joy. You breathe the air of the microcosmos and of utopia – possibly the only realized utopia which has nourished itself for many decades now, which has borne fruit, not victims. (Levi 1968; 2016, 1354-1356)

From today’s perspective we see that many of their erroneous assessments, approximative descriptions and evaluations can be attributed to the distance that separated those Italian writers of Jewish origins from the concrete circumstances in Israel and the surrounding region. The debate that unfolded in 1972 following “The Jews” became more significant the more it adhered to broader political and moral issues rather than the contingent situation. But then an Italian writer of Jewish origins took the floor to declare an understanding of his own roots unlike the one that, as the documents cited here show, brought Ginzburg, Hirschmann, and Levi closer in their thinking despite some different nuances. It was Alberto Moravia who entered the discussion (interviewed by Dacia Maraini) to express another viewpoint:        

In terms of my feelings, I have a Jewish father, like Natalia, and like her, I am an artist, but I have to say frankly that I have never heard, not even from a far “the voice of the blood,” whose strange existence I don’t deny; perhaps I don’t hear it because I never experienced what Natalia seems to have experienced – a cultural and social environment with a solid Jewish and middle-class foundation. My family, neither on my Jewish father’s side nor on my Catholic mother’s side, would qualify as socially or religiously solid; and I am the son of myself alone. (Moravia 1972; 1980, 22)     

Moravia pronounced Natalia’s essay “heartfelt and sincere,” but his appreciation was also limited:

Natalia has “privatized” and “personalized” the Munich tragedy with the courage and immodesty characteristic of artists when they search deep inside their souls for the origins of their art. Journalists publish to inform, artists talk about themselves. Natalia has told us about herself situating herself in a poetic, let’s put it this way, territory or if you prefer, an existential or creatural territory, and she was right to do so, since from within this territory, which is ultimately that of art, she can tell us authentic things – as it has happened. (Moravia 1972; 1980, 22)

According to the logic of Moravia’s argument being “artists” and saying “authentic things” can be accomplished only at the price of inefficacy on the practical terrain. The “creatural” position (which Ginzburg after all had long shared with writers such as Elsa Morante and Anna Maria Ortese[9]) seems to have value as pure testimony, as the deficient ideology of a caustic historian, if not entirely detached from history itself. Moravia seems to have reformulated Garboli’s critique, but in much harsher and sternly realistic terms. Garboli and Moravia keep together the political and non-political aspects of Ginzburg’s essay, but they attribute the inefficacy of the latter to the weakness of the former yet recognizing the moral (and possibly artistic) generosity of both aspects.

A way out of this gridlock can be reached only if we expand our purview and insert “The Jews” within its pertinent chronology. The essay occupies a clear position within the context of Ginzburg’s other declarations on ethics and politics which, examined together, allow us to reconsider Moravia’s and Garboli’s opinions. In fact, Garboli was wrong to claim that “The Jews” is based on an “unexpressed train of thought” which Ginzburg had to formulate more clearly and examine its ultimate implications. Likewise, Moravia was wrong to think that an event of an international political gravity had been reduced by Ginzburg to the dimensions of a personal and sentimental matter, albeit artfully narrated.

On October 4, 1970, Ginzburg had published another article in La Stampa titled (probably by the newspaper’s editors) “Why We Take the Loser’s Side.” Just a few weeks later she would include it in the volume Never Must You Ask Me (Mai devi domandarmi) with the title “Universal Pity.” Here is the opening paragraph:

I think the worst thing that has happened to men today is that it is so hard to identify victims and oppressors in the events that take place. Whatever happens, either publicly or privately, we try desperately for a while to see what caused it and who was guilty, but in the end we give up in bewilderment because there seem to be too many causes and what happened is too tangled, too complex, for human judgement. We have found that nothing, either private or public, can be considered and judged in isolation, because, when we dig deeply, there are any number of complications that have come before it and caused it. In this underground maze it seems desperately hard to discover the guilty and the innocent. Truth seems to leap about, to slither in the darkness like a fish or a rat. (1973, 159)

Natalia Ginzburg knew well that she had lived her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in a historical period which allowed for an easier distinction in politics between good and bad, honesty and dishonesty, humane ideas and actions and inhuman ones:

The oldest among us can quite clearly remember a time, not very long ago, when it was extremely simple to line up on one side or the other and to identify justice and injustice in the world around us. The image of truth was then clear, unmistakable and solid, and we knew just where we were. Never would we have thought, in those days, that a time would come when the truth would seem hidden and evasive. It was not just that the events which took place in those days were simple to judge, that they seemed to have a bright, sunny image of truth gleaming brightly above them and clearly visible; it was not just that the reality we were considering was less crowded and much smaller than it is today, and that we were quite sure of what we despised and what we agreed with. It was that we had not yet begun to see innocence and guilt as being inextricably linked, tied together in such tight knots that man, with his rough, inadequate criteria and his wretched senses, is quite unable to undo them. The idea that man feels weak and inadequate when faced with the complexity of what is happening had not yet occurred to us. The realisation that we are incapable of picking out and pursuing the truth, through its millions of implications, explanations and ramifications, now makes us profoundly unhappy. (1973, 160)

In these lines, just like in the whole essay “Universal Pity,” the layers of personal experience, universal morality, and international politics coincide. Regarding this, I would like to turn to a decisive assertion made by Carlo Ginzburg who discussed his mother’s works at the conclusion of a conference at the University of Jerusalem: “The context of this essay (published in 1970) is unequivocal: the aftermath of the Six-Day War. The striking victory of the Israeli army overturned the image of the Jew as a downtrodden victim: an image with which Natalia Ginzburg deeply identified.”[10] Three more excerpts from “Universal Pity” (the last one is the conclusion) confirm Carlo Ginzburg’s assertion:

With our own eyes we have seen, in public and in private actions, that those we loved and pitied could suddenly change; and appear to us loathesomely turned into cruel persecutors. Yet we cannot see them as other than the victims they used to be. Whether we must continue to understand them, and pity them as victims, or whether we are to judge them only as they now appear, we don't know. Besides, it seems horrible and incomprehensible that people who were once victims themselves can do violence to others like themselves, and fail to recognise, in these others, what they themselves once were. (1973, 162)

Being told to attribute no value to our moral judgement, and feeling ashamed of exercising it at all, we find nothing at our disposal today but great pity for ourselves and the whole universe. When we feel pity for everyone we are absolutely sure that we are not mistaken. It seems the only feeling we can indulge in without being mistaken. (1973, 161)

In a world like this, the victors very easily come to seem hateful. Victory becomes gigantic, monstrous and unreal, quite unconnected with the community of man. As our world is full of the unhappy and the weak, it hates producing victors because it knows that they will soon acquire inhuman ways and seem unreal, dismal and depressing. This means that we don't know which side to take, but we feel pushed on to the side of those who lose. In our desperate, muddled search for anyone to love without being mistaken, it is the only thing we can do. It is not a moral choice so much as a matter of obeying an instinct of affinity. We cannot even imagine a happy world in which the victors are not loathesome. It is only the losers that we feel we can recognise kindred spirits, because if they are called unfortunate, downtrodden victims, then at least for the moment we are quite certain of not being wrong. (1973, 162)

Published two years after, “The Jews” was a projection of “Universal Pity.” The more recent article was a demonstrative specification, a particular incident inspired by a historical event tightly linked to the events that had in turn inspired her 1970 essay, an essay which did not even mention explicitly any historical occurrence. These two essays should therefore be read sequentially: “The Jews” develops the ideas and allusions, both political and non-political, already present in “Universal Pity,” situating them on the “creatural” horizon and in the territory of journalism. It is true, as Garboli and Moravia sustain, that personal (and perhaps artistic) events cannot be separated from universal events, whether political or not, that bear upon it. However, this observation should not be read as restrictive since Ginzburg’s position provides a reliable index of an important part of Italian history that does not concern Italian Jews alone.

Natalia Ginzburg’s Jewishness, as she herself describes and defines it, could appear romantic and vague, and perhaps mythologizing as well, but it grew from the roots of her tragic lived experience. If she was no longer capable of reestablishing with the members of her “tribe” the complicity of times past, it is because many of those members were no longer defenseless, nor deprived of power.

This vision of history – or rather, this vision of the world and of human nature – originates for the most part from Simone Weil and runs parallel to the thought and literary development of Elsa Morante, Ginzburg’s great friend who was also her very opposite. In the period between 1970 and 1972, between “Universal Pity” and “The Jews,” Italian literature was on the verge of the appearance of Morante’s History. A Novel, published in the early summer of 1974, with a slogan on its cover that read “A scandal that has lasted for ten thousand years” (Morante 1974). When Morante’s novel appeared, Natalia Ginzburg praised it, defining it the most important 20th-century Italian novel.[11]

The phrase “was on the verge of” (sull’orlo di) has not been chosen at random. In “The Jews” Ginzburg evokes the “stray-dog walk” (passo randagio) of the Jewish people who, having escaped extermination, set out in search of a place to live. “Randagio” (stray, vagabond, vagrant) is an adjective Ginzburg uses often not only to describe Jews, but also literary characters, hers or other writers’, who are fragile and downtrodden and to whom she is more attached. The Italian word “randagio” comes from the Old German “rand” which means “edge, margin, verge” (orlo, margine). History’s victims are creatures living on the margins, fragile and homeless wanderers. In Ginzburg’s intimate lexicon the adjective “randagio” signifies “errant” or “wandering”: the Errant Jew. The “comma in the blood” that Ginzburg references in her writing consists precisely in this silent shift imprinted onto the meaning of a word.

Translated from Italian by Stiliana Milkova Rousseva

DOMENICO SCARPA is a literary critic, publishing consultant, translator, and lecturer. He has worked for the Turin-based Centro Internazionale di Studi Primo Levi since 2008. Scarpa has been researching Italo Calvino since the mid-1980s. The central chapter of his monumental centenary monograph Calvino fa la conchiglia. La costruzione di uno scrittore (2023) has been published by the Massachusetts Review. Scarpa has also been—for 25 years—the editor of almost all the books by Natalia Ginzburg published by Einaudi; he is currently editing the 1934-36 correspondence between Leone and Natalia Ginzburg. Other works by Scarpa include: Storie avventurose di libri necessari (2010), Natalia Ginzburg. Pour un portrait de la tribu (2010), and Uno. Doppio ritratto di Franco Lucentini (2011).


STILIANA MILKOVA ROUSSEVA is a Bulgarian-born writer, translator, and associate professor of Comparative Literature at Oberlin College (USA). Her scholarly publications include articles on Italian, Russian, and Bulgarian literatures, on literature and the visual arts, travel writing, trauma narratives, and literary translation. She is the author of Elena Ferrante as World Literature (2021), the editor of the special journal issue Reading Natalia Ginzburg (2021), and the co-editor, with Saskia Elizabeth Ziolkowski, of Natalia Ginzburg’s Global Legacies (2024). Stiliana is the author of a book of short fiction in Italian, Storia delle prime volte (2022), and the translator of works by Italo Calvino, Antonio Tabucchi, Adriana Cavarero, Dario Voltolini, and other Italian writers and literary critics. She edits Reading in Translation, an online journal which specializes in reviewing translated literature.


Borghesi, Angela. 2015. Una storia invisibile. Morante Ortese Weil. Macerata: Quodlibet.
Del Pozzo, Silvia. 1984. Cari amici, vi scrivo. Panorama, December 24.
Garboli, Cesare. 1972. Introduzione. In Natalia Ginzburg, Lessico famigliare [1963]. Milan: Mondadori.
––––. 1972a. Israele e la Ginzburg. Il Giorno. September 16.
––––. 1972b. “Contro il potere. Ma come e con chi?” Conversation with Dacia Maraini. Aut I (27), September 18-24.
––––. 2001. Israele e la Ginzburg. In Cesare Garboli, Ricordi tristi e civili, 3-7. Turin: Einaudi.
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––––. 1972. Gli ebrei. La Stampa. September 14: 3.
––––. 1973. Universal Pity. In Ginzburg, Never Must You Ask Me, 159-162. Trans. Isabel Quigly. London: Michael Joseph.
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––––. 1974b. Gli ebrei. In Ginzburg, Vita immaginaria, 174-181. Milan: Mondadori.
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––––. 1974d. I personaggi di Elsa. Corriere della Sera, July 21: 12.
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[1] This essay was originally published as “‘Gli ebrei’: Un articolo di Natalia Ginzburg e le sue vicende” in Gli intellettuali/scrittori ebrei e il dovere della testimonianza. In ricordo di Giorgio Bassani (Scarpa, 2017). The essay and all excerpts cited in the essay, unless otherwise indicated, are translated by Stiliana Milkova Rousseva.

[2] My essay on this topic, “Appunti su un’opera in penombra,” appeared as a postface to the new edition of Natalia Ginzburg’s Mai devi domandarmi (Ginzburg 2014, 213-246).

[3] Silvia Del Pozzo cites Calvino’s remark in “Dear friends, I am writing to you” (“Cari amici, vi scrivo”) in Panorama (1984).

[4] Translator’s note: in the original article published in La Stampa, each section in the essay is separated from the following by two asterisks and a blank space. The “empty space” Scarpa refers to here surrounds the two asterisks separating the second and the third sections of the essay.

[5] I am grateful to the following persons for giving me access to those letters and allowing me to cite excerpts from them: Carlo, Andrea and Alessandra Ginzburg for their mother Natalia’s correspondence; Renata Colorni and Barbara Spinelli for their mother Ursula Hischmann Spinelli’s letters; and Renzo and Lisa Levi for their father Primo Levi’s letters.

[6] Translator’s note: “I'll mock myself well enough, but I won't let someone else mock me." A reference to Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, Act I, Scene IV.

[7] Primo Levi, letter dated “23/9/1972,” typewritten and signed, on letterhead with the inscription “PRIMO LEVI½Dottore in chimica ½TORINO ½Corso Re Umberto 75 ½ Telef. 584677.” One sheet of laid paper. Bologna. Archive of Natalia Ginzburg’s heirs.

[8] I will note here Levi’s more important works (writings and interviews) on the subject, leaving out the commentaries they have generated: Primo Levi, “Chi ha coraggio a Gerusalemme?” La Stampa (1982a; 2016, 1528-1529); Giampaolo Pansa, “Io, Primo Levi, chiedo le dimissioni di Begin,” interview with Primo Levi, La Repubblica (1982b; 1997, 295-303); Gad Lerner, “Se questo è uno stato,” interview with Primo Levi, L’Espresso (1984; 1997, 304-311); On pages 312-312 of Conversazioni e interviste (1997) we find a synthesis of Levi’s subsequent remarks beginning in summer 1982).

[9] See Angela Borghesi’s fundamental volume Una storia invisibile. Morante Ortese Weil (2015).  

[10] Carlo Ginzburg, paper read at the conference on the occasion of Natalia Ginzburg’s centenary, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 31 October 2016. I am thankful to Carlo Ginzburg for permitting me to read and quote his unpublished paper.

[11] “Going out of the house and into the dirty and hot city, I thought that in this corrupt, disgraced, evil Italy, someone wrote History, the most beautiful novel of this century” (“Uscendo di casa nella città sporca e calda, ho pensato che in questa Italia corrotta, disgraziata, scellerata, è stato scritto La Storia, il romanzo più bello di questo secolo”) (Ginzburg 1974c, 3). See also “I personaggi di Elsa” (Ginzburg 1974d, 12; 1974a, 100-107).


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