by Steven Pisano
Italy is not the first country that comes to mind when considering the Jewish diaspora in Europe. The northern part of the country, however, has long been home to small outposts of Jews, most notably Venice and its segregated Ghetto. About an hour away by train from that famed city is the inland city of Ferrara, where one extant synagogue dates back to the 1400s.
In 1962, novelist Giorgio Bassani wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (later made into an Oscar-winning film by Vittorio de Sica) about a prominent Jewish family living in a lush, walled compound in Ferrara in the 1930s with ancient trees, tennis courts, and a sizable private library. But, all is not well. Much like the Von Trapps of Salzburg, the Finzi-Continis have seen what's coming since the Italian Fascists rose to power alongside the Nazis and implemented race laws against Jews, but believe they can ride it out from behind their high walls.
The two Finzi-Contini children, Micòl and Alberto, are privately tutored at home and therefore don't have much interaction with the other Jewish children of Ferrara. The exception is at Temple, where one day Micòl meets Giorgio, a middle-class Jewish teen, who briefly flirts with her. Nothing comes of it, and their paths don't cross again until years later when Giorgio, now a student at the prestigious University of Bologna, is riding his bike by the Finzi-Contini compound and Micòl beckons him to come inside and play tennis. They soon become friends, and over time, Giorgio develops an unexpressed love for her. But Micòl, who is both beautiful and intelligent - not to mention wealthy - stays aloof, both emotionally and physically. The novel goes on to explore Giorgio's unrequited love against the dark shadow of war.