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April 15, 1988 - Image 48

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-04-15

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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48

FRIDAY, APRIL 15, 1988

Italian Scientist, Author
Share Experiences

RUTH E. GRUBER

R

ome — One is an a-
ward-winning author,
another a Nobel Prize-
winning medical researcher.
But writer Natalia Ginzburg
and scientist Rita Levi Mon-
talcini share many influences
and views, as revealed during
a recent interview.
Both were born to upper
middle class Jewish families
in Turin, in northwestern Ita-
ly. They are two of Italy's
most honored and respected
women. Levi Montalcini, in
fact, who won the Nobel last
year, was a student of Ginz-
burg's father, histologist
Giuseppe Levi.
Following the publication of
78-year-old Levi Montalcini's
autobiography Eulogy of Im-
perfection, the Italian
newsweekly L'Espresso asked
the two women, who have
known each other for decades,
to talk together about their
lives, their roots and their
feelings about the contem-
porary world.
It was, said L'Espresso, a
meeting between two leaders
of the intellectual scene who
have experienced dramatic
and memorable events, such
as anti-Jewish persecution
and fascism.
During the conversation,
Ginzburg noted that she was
moved most in Levi Mon-
talcini's autobiography by the
description of her childhood.
"When you, as a little girl,
asked your father if you were
Catholic or Jewish, and he
answered, 'We are free-
thinkers' — this detail .. .
moved me greatly, because I
recall asking the same ques-
tion as a child," she said.
Asked by Levi Montalcini
what her father had respond-
ed, Ginzburg replied:
"He told me, 'We aren't
anything? But this didn't con-
vince me. I wanted to be
Jewish like my father or
Catholic like my mother. The
problem is that my parents
were both materialists. They
didn't go to church, but they
didn't go to synagogue either.
"For me it was painful to
hear it said that God did not
exist. I thought to myself, .
there may not be proof that he
exists, but there are no proofs
either that he doesn't exist."
Levi Montalcini said her
parents never denied to her
the existence of God, but her
education concentrated on
ethical problems and passed
over religious matters.
She noted that her relation-
ship with her father was

uneasy, but that this helped
push her into her career as
one of the century's most
noted medical researchers.

"My father was very
authoritarian, severe," she
said. "According to him, we
all had to do what he thought.
I didn't tolerate this aspect of
his character, I wanted to be
independent . his in-
telligence crushed me: I was
constantly in terror that he
would consider me a fool.
"I respected him enormous-
ly, but there was a wall bet-
ween us. I felt unable to ex-
press myself either intellec-
tually or affectionately," she
said.
Levi Montalcini carried out
most of her research in the
United States, journeying
there on her own. She said
her life was almost totally
dedicated to her work, which
her family at first considered
unsuitable for a woman.
"I don't believe I ever was in
love with anyone," she said. "I
was never attracted to the
idea of a married life. I never
felt the maternal instinct. I
don't think I ever held a baby
in my arms.
"Even my nieces and-
nephews, whom I adore — I
only began to love them, to
understand them, when they
were five or six years old,
from the time, that is, that
they began to express
themselves."
Levi Montalcini turned to
the view of another close
friend and Turin Jew —
chemist and author Primo
Levi, a man who survived to
write eloquently about the
Holocaust, but committed
suicide last year in a fit of
depression. Levi said that one
should mistrust messages
and prophets, she noted.
Swastikas and anti-Semitic
slogans have been scrawled
on walls and Jewish leaders
have received hate mail. "Un-
fortunately, the rebirth of
racism today is expressed not
only against the Jews," said
author Ginzburg. "Look at
the case of the gypsies, of
homosexuals. Nonetheless,
it's monstrous."
Said Levi Montalcini: "Cer-
tainly there is racism today.
But I have never felt touched
by this. Not even in the
hardest years of the
persecutions.
"Now, racism is obviously a
barbarous phenomenon — but
it's like water off a duck's
back, not even to be taken in-
to consideration. If I despise
someone, that someone for me
does not exist."

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