Between Italy and America: Exile and Suspension in Ebe Cagli Seidenberg’s Il Tempo dei Dioscuri

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UCLA Department of Italian


In 1938 Mussolini’s government approved the so-called racial laws against the Jewish community that had been present in Italy for centuries and totaled over forty thousand out of a population of forty-three million. In July, a manifesto signed by ten Italian scientists declared that Jews did not belong to the Italian race, and in the following months a series of discriminatory measures were put into effect. The Jews were deprived of the civil rights granted to Italian citizens: they could not attend public schools, own property over a certain value, work in public offices and banks, practice their profession, or mix with the “pure Italian race” through marriage. They were also suspended from their academic appointments, which forced many scientists and intellectuals to leave Italy and seek refuge in countries like the United States, Switzerland, France, England, and Belgium. Among the six thousand Italian Jews that emigrated were Emilio Segrè, Arnaldo Momigliano, Enrico Fermi, Giuseppe Levi, and his assistant Rita Levi Montalcini. The latter, as a woman, also had to struggle with a patriarchal society that assigned to women the subaltern role of wives and mothers and thus considered it unsuitable for them to pursue the medical profession that she had chosen. Today, Rita Levi Montalcini is respected as a world-class scientist and her political role as senator for life in the Italian Senate testifies to her strong ties with her native country. Anti-Semitism has nevertheless weighed upon these ties, making her feel connected with the Jewish victims of Fascism, and distant from those emigrants that she met after the war in St. Louis, Missouri, and who identified their patriotic feeling with the Fascist ideology.1 Rita Levi Montalcini’s life course, the experience of exile due to the racial laws, the long American parenthesis punctuated by frequent journeys to Italy, and the permanent return to the native land, call to mind the biographical path of another Italian Jewish woman much less famous but just as fascinating, Ebe Cagli Seidenberg.