Italian Jews and the 20th century at the MEIS
Dario Disegni: Knowledge is an antidote to prejudice

“Jews in twentieth-century Italy,” the newly opened exhibition at the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah – MEIS in Ferrara, begins with Italian Jews’ acquisition of full rights at the end of 19th century, retraces the troubled events of the “short century” and even casts a glance into the new millennium. Curated by Vittorio Bo and Mario Toscano, this temporary exhibition is the fourth part of the MEIS permanent exhibit and focuses on one hundred years of history with particular attention to “the challenges of an era, the wounds, the rebirth and the evolution of the concept of citizenship.” It consists of seven sections and is enriched by contemporary artworks, photographs from public and private archives, historical documents and family objects.
An original copy of the Albertine Statute opens the exhibit. The statute is the symbol of an era of possibilities that Fascism would betray with the racist laws of 1938. Such exhibition could not but deal with the Shoah and the Italian responsibilities in its fulfilment, from the initial persecution of rights to the persecution of lives that came as a consequence. The exhibit is also about the contribution of the Jewish world after the Holocaust, from the laborious post-war reconstruction to the instances and stimuli of the present times.
“This is an exhibition that has much to tell, it raises questions and invites reflection. We need to understand what the 20th century meant for Italian Jews, keeping in mind that knowledge remains the strongest antidote to prejudice,” said MEIS president Dario Disegni presenting the exhibition to the press with director Amedeo Spagnoletto, curators Vittorio Bo and Mario Toscano and architect Antonio Ravalli, who took care of the exhibition design. “We live in terrible times after all, with a virulent resurgence of antisemitism,” Disegni pointed out. “What we want to give, also because of this, is a testimony of knowledge and culture.”
The exhibition “aims to provide a broad and articulate overview of the Jewish condition in Italy during the 20th century, with an awareness of the extraordinary richness and frightening drama of this tragic,” the curators point out in the introductory essay of the exhibition’s catalogue. In this sense, “the specific Italian affair is rooted in the great history of the century,” and the guiding criterion of the narrative “is represented by the transformations of the contents of the concept of citizenship in the transitions between liberal regime, fascist dictatorship and democratic republic.” An approach that allows to focus at the same time on “the choices and responsibilities of the State and civil society during this century” and the responses by the Jewish minority, “which must be seen in its facets and complexity.”
Jews in twentieth-century Italy also features a multimedia table, at the end of which a video station continuously projects reflections by authoritative figures in Italian society on the meaning of the word citizenship, starting with Italian President Mattarella, who granted the Quirinale medal to the exhibition. In the video, he explains that citizenship is synonymous with coexistence, urging people to keep in mind that “one’s own freedom, one’s own wellbeing, cannot be really full if others do not also have adequate freedom and live in adequate conditions.”
Citizenship means Constitution, observed Senator for Life and Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre recalling that within a century, overcoming “the tragic wave that from San Rossore (where in 1938 King Victor Emmanuel III signed one the first decrees supporting discrimination against Jews in Italy) hurled us against the gates of Auschwitz,” we went from Article 24 of the Statuto Albertino “in which all subjects were equal before the law” to the “unsurpassed formulation of Article 3 of the Constitution.”
The above-mentioned article is “about both formal and substantial equality”. And it is also a guarantee “of a future.” That same future that all Italian Jews aspire to. During the press conference, Vittorio Bo expressed the hope that young visitors “won’t feel differences, except the ones that each one brings of himself.”

Translated by Alida Caccia, student from the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, trainee in the newsroom of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.