Luce d’Eramo

Translated by Anne Milano Appel

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux 18 September 2018

368pp,hardback, $27

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

Click here to buy this book


This is a most unusual book, a sidebar to the ever-expanding literature of the Third Reich but unlike any other I have read. D’Eramo, French born but Italian, who died in 2001, was the daughter of bourgeois parents who allied themselves with – and worked for – Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Luce describes herself as a Fascist too, but began to question her beliefs and in her late teens, in 1944, chose to find answers for herself. The way she did it was to volunteer, initially under an assumed name, to be a worker (i.e. quasi slave) in various camps and factories in Nazi Germany.

There, in various locations, including Dachau and the IG Farben factory, a grade or two above the Untermenschen/subhumans  – the Jews, gays, and others – she worked, starved, suffered beatings, attempted suicide, bickered, became ill and infested, escaped, returned, and all the time watched and questioned.

An extraordinary personality, not exactly fearless but not cowed either, she formed alliances with other workers and prisoners from many nations and challenged herself and them, all part of a process of trying to understand the meaning of the politics that had engulfed them. The result is this book, described as fiction but as much a memoir as a novel. First published in 1979, it was an instant bestseller but has only now appeared in translation.

D’Eramo’s account of the work camps, of the Munich refuge where escapees and other lost souls gathered, of confronting her captors, of joining the strike efforts at IG Farben, of traveling on a transport back from Italy to Germany after choosing to be recaptured – all these episodes are full of grim detail and personalities, recorded with an unblinking gaze. The author’s intellectual curiosity is inexhaustible, her self-scrutiny relentless.

She emerges as a figure of astounding fortitude, besting her challengers and the various men who enter her life. But perhaps the greatest test is yet to come. As the war is coming to an end, while helping to rescue people from a bombing raid, D’Eramo, aged nineteen, is badly injured when a building collapses on her. She comes close to death repeatedly, and permanently loses the use of her legs. Now her pages are filled with descriptions of the pain, the many surgeries and the emotional torture of her situation, as well as the doctors and nurses who attend to her, the surrounding patients and corpses, her addictions to painkillers and morphine and the agonizing business of detoxing. But, despite it all, she refuses to lose control of her life.

Marriage, divorce, friendships, work, a child, all of these ensue. But the later part of the book is also an attempt to understand why she suppressed some of her experiences until well after the war.

The structure of the work – which was written over some decades – is dislocated, partly to reflect the piecemeal nature of D’Eramo’s understanding. Thus its chronology can seem confusing, but the author’s unquenchable spirit burns bright throughout, self-analyzing, offering support to others, always working to comprehend. Is she, a product of her class, ever able to escape her privilege and attitudes? She sieves her memory, psychology and inner voices with a fine mesh.

‘First I blame my decline on the struggle related to my physical affliction, then when that alibi failed, it was the overwhelming battle against my social environment instead. And always this innocence, this ineradicable nobility of intention and genuineness of feeling that are so typical of me. Choleric, fraudulent, muddleheaded, dangerous – but so human, maybe too human. Seemingly a worm, but essentially of such refinement, sensitivity, goodness. Wait, I’ve got it, an inveterately elite worm.’

D’Eramo died in 2001 but her voice survives, blazingly, in this impressive, bonkers book which tells a startling story of life and commitment, taken to the extreme.

Comments are closed.