Interview with Shulim Vogelmann, editor of Giuntina

Shulim Vogelmann was born in Florence in 1978, two years before the Giuntina publishing house was founded by his father Daniel. After an experience in Israel, recounted in his book Mentre la città bruciava (While the City Burns), Shulim took over his father’s publishing business, restructuring and expanding it. All of the group’s books are related in one way or another to Jewish tradition, culture, history and literature. Giuntina represents today the unique case in Italy of a small publisher specialized in Judaism that is fully inserted in the cultural debate and ideas.

 

Shulim Vogelmann

 

Giorgio Berruto: Giuntina was born in Florence in 1980. But perhaps it was born earlier, much earlier, with your father Daniel or perhaps even with your grandfather, whose name you bear. What are the origins of your publishing house and to what extent are they linked to events in your family?

Shulim Vogelmann: My grandfather Shulim Vogelmann came from Galicia. During the First World War the family moved to Vienna and then my grandfather left for Palestine when he was sixteen. At the train station in Vienna, his parents told him: “We don’t expect you to eat every day with a knife and fork, but at least to be honest.” He left and never saw them again. He lived for three years in Palestine, he would have liked to stay with the pioneers, but he could not find a job. He joined the British army but he was not comfortable there. His brother Mordechai Vogelmann, who was a rabbi and taught at the rabbinical college in Florence at the time, invited him to come to Italy. Shulim arrived in Florence, where he looked for a job that would allow him to observe the Sabbath. There was a printing shop owned by a Jew, Olschki, where he began to work, first as a laborer, then as the manager of the printing shop. In the meantime, he married the daughter of the rabbi of Turin, Dario Disegni. A rather rare case for a Jew, at the time of the racial laws and at a time when Jews were selling and liquidating the businesses they owned, he was able to take over the printing shop with a partner.

After September 8, 1943[1], Shulim and his family attempted to flee to Switzerland but were stopped by the Fascists at the border and deported to Auschwitz, where my grandfather’s wife and daughter were immediately killed. He was saved, the only Italian to be included on Schindler’s list. When he returned from deportation, he went back to work at the Giuntina printing business and found the strength to start a new life. He met a widow at a Hanukkah party in the Jewish community, remarried and my father Daniel was born. Growing up, my father suffered from all the typical problems of the second generation, that is, children of survivors whose fathers did not say anything. He was not interested in printing, but one day he entered the Feltrinelli bookstore and, in a box of foreign language books, his eyes fell on a small volume by Elie Wiesel, Night. He read it and discovered what his father had never told him. He decided that he absolutely had to translate and publish Wiesel’s book. Since he was still connected with the Giuntina printing house, he printed it and then his publishing adventure began. At first, one or two books came out a year, almost all of them essays or testimonies about the Shoah, but in 1987, Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize and this boosted the sales of Night. My father continued on, but in 2007 the printing house closed for various reasons, including the economic crisis and the advent of digital technology; I, who had just returned to Italy after six years in Israel, decided to take over the business so that it would not close, giving up the responsibility for the printing house and redesigning the publishing house with a leaner, more independent structure.

Daniel Vogelmann, Shulim’s father, who carries the portrait of his own father.

GB: Elie Wiesel’s Night was therefore decisive in the origins of the Giuntina. I once heard you gently reproach your father for not having bought the rights to all of Wiesel’s works in the early 1980s, before he won the Nobel Prize and when he was practically unknown in Italy.

SV: In the beginning, my father published many books by Elie Wiesel, but he was a purist: for him, publishing a book meant finding something really special. He did not have a commercial vision, nor a publishing vision in the industrial sense of the word, with a project capable of looking to the future, so he chose only a few texts by Wiesel. Book publishing was at a crossroads between a passion, an existential necessity and the happy circumstance of being able to count on the printing press. The production effort to be maintained was much less central than today.

GB: From the beginning, with Wiesel and other authors, witnesses or scholars but also novelists, Giuntina has paid great attention to the Shoah. This was before Lanzmann’s documentary and the great wave of films on the subject, before the institution of the Day of Remembrance, introduced in Italy by a state law in 2000…

SV: La Giuntina began to take an interest in the Shoah much earlier than other Italian publishers. When we establish the publishing program each year, we say to ourselves that the Holocaust has been sufficiently detailed, but it always happens that we publish one or two books because the depth of the theme touches the root of the most fundamental human problems such as evil, survival, the transmission of pain, memory and narration. In any case, on the publishing market – in January around Remembrance Day, but not only – it remains central to everyone. A crazy amount of books on the Shoah are coming out, even if many are minor and cater exclusively to commercial purposes. It is sometimes frustrating to publish an important book and have it absorbed in this ocean of new releases. We voluntarily decide to release books on the Shoah at a time other than January. For example, we have published six books by the Israeli writer Lizzie Doron on the subject of the second generation in Israel. We have just published a very unique book by Piero Stefani, Le parole a loro (Words for Them), with a montage of texts in which students, teachers and witnesses express themselves. We do not set limits on genre or style. When a book has an original voice, we decide to breathe life into it and publish it. Next year, we will launch a new young adult series with a book by English writer Keren David, What we’re scared of, which is not about the Holocaust but about twins confronting contemporary anti-Semitism. It’s a page-turned, and I’m very curious to see how it will be received.

GB : The collection that bears the name of your grandfather and yours, “Shulim Vogelmann”, is the most important of your house and is still being enriched with new titles. Is this the collection that best sums up the identity and objectives of Giuntina?

SV: A few years ago it certainly did, not least because it was our only real collection, and all genres were included: fiction, poetry, drama, personal accounts, essays. I introduced a novelty by distinguishing non-fiction from fiction through two new collections, “Israeli” for Israeli literature and “Diaspora” for the rest of the world. But even today, the collection that bears my grandfather’s name is the one that makes the publishing house most recognizable. Most of the best-selling titles in the catalog are in it, and our loyal readers, regardless of the specific content, draw mainly from it.

GB: You are also the author of a book that is dear to me, Mentre la città bruciava[2]. I remember receiving it as a gift from my parents in 2004, when they returned from the Turin Book Fair.

SV: It was a unique experience dictated by the need to tell the story of my experience, not a book imagined by someone with the ambition to be a writer. The book was very successful, but right after it was published, I knew I didn’t feel the urgency, the impulse, the desire to tell other stories, which I think defines a writer. Maybe I’ll write something in the future, but that’s not my path, which is instead publishing.

To make aliyah, one needs an ideological strength, to feel an impulse capable of making this place the only one in the world for oneself that one will not abandon under any circumstances. All things considered, this strength was not in me.

GB: It was upon your return from Israel that you chose to become a publisher. Was it the natural evolution of a decision you had already made or was there a real turning point?

SV: I had become an Israeli and had done my military service, I thought I would build my life in Israel. But then I read a book in Hebrew and translated it, The Rosendorf Quartet, which became the first volume in the “Israeli” series. For me, this was the first step into the world of publishing. No less important, I met my future wife, who was studying in Barcelona at the time, and that brought me back to Europe. When it became clear that the publishing house was going to fall with the closure of the printing house, it was not only a matter of launching one project but also of saving another. I came back from Israel and started working at Giuntina. I never asked myself whether taking over the publishing house was a matter of choice or destiny, but I often wondered whether or not my move to Israel was a success and why. For me, it was an experience that was important to start but also to finish. Perhaps to make aliyah, one needs an ideological strength, to feel an impulse capable of making this place the only one in the world for oneself that one will not abandon under any circumstances. All things considered, this strength was not in me, and circumstances created a rift.

GB: In 2004, you launched the series “Israeli”, which contributed to the success in Italy of fiction from Israel. How do you explain this success

It’s a mystery. I think there is only one other country where Israeli literature is as successful as it is in Italy, and that is Germany. It makes you think… Who knows if there is not a psychological aspect of reparation among Italian and German readers compared to those in the rest of the world. In other countries, some Israeli novels are successful, but there is no real established literary movement. In Italy, Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman led the way, with Yehoshua remaining the mystery of mysteries because he is only really appreciated in Italy. Before the arrival of mass distribution in Israel, I received books that were more or less beautiful and successful, but never useless or stupid. In my opinion, the content of Israeli texts is determined by the context, that of a country composed of immigrants, young people, with a history of wars and the Shoah behind it, where social and cultural crossroads between different worlds are numerous. With such a society, literature has an advantage: it has something to say. Added to this is the typical Israeli pragmatism, with authors who rarely talk about the details and trivialities of everyday life and instead try to tackle big themes. Even when they describe life on a small scale in a kibbutz, for example, they manage to reach the universal in an obvious and direct way. The reader feels it and is fascinated.

Israeli society is becoming more uniform, as the traumatic aspects of the first period of the state’s history seem to be fading. The question I ask myself is whether Israeli literature will continue to be a strong literature in the future.

GB : In your opinion, what is the relationship between Jewish literature and Israeli literature today ?

There is a connection but also a decoupling, because Israeli literature is part of Jewish literature, while Hebrew literature is not necessarily part of Israeli literature. The role of language, namely Hebrew, is fundamental to the point that in Israel, local literature is called sifrut ivrit, “literature in Hebrew”. However, the more time passes, the more Hebrew becomes a colloquial language with fewer and fewer biblical quotations and ultimately poorer. The fact that Hebrew is less and less connected to its biblical roots and to the cultured language coincides, in my opinion, with the progressive detachment of Jewishness in the texts. This worries me, as large distributors are pushing more and more poor quality books. At the same time, Israeli society is becoming more uniform, as the traumatic aspects of the first period of the state’s history seem to be fading. The question I ask myself is whether Israeli literature will continue to be a strong literature in the future. If I look at the quality of the texts over the last thirty years, I see a line that is slowly descending.

GB: What about the relationship between Jewish literature and European literature? In Giuntina’s catalog, we find authors such as Zweig, Benjamin, Arendt, Scholem… Is there still something like a European Jewish literature today?

SV: It must be said that the twentieth century was the Jewish century in terms of intellectual production, and there would be many more names than those you have mentioned. In my opinion, the twenty-first century is no longer in the same situation, partly because everything is running out of steam, partly because of globalization, partly because the search for Jewish identity seems to be ossified either in belonging to Israel or to a diaspora that is much less alive and independent than in the past. This leads to a kind of cultural stagnation. There are and always will be Jewish intellectuals and writers, but today Judaism is a minority that mixes with many other minorities, with multiple cultural expressions from around the world, each with something to say. Often in the twentieth century, Jews, through their ability to network, were able to become a vehicle for the spread of ideas and culture and had an innate Europeanist and universalist vision when others pursued particularist and nationalist goals. In the volume we recently published of Stefan Zweig’s letters to a student named Rosenkrantz, there is a passage in which Zweig reproaches the young man, who is editing a book, for focusing too much on Germany and not making the book European enough. This is the early 1930s. At that time, this vision was typical of the Jewish world. Today, this role is no longer the prerogative of the Jewish world, which is instead in danger of abandoning its universalist impulse to limit itself to the Israel/diaspora dichotomy, with deleterious effects on cultural and literary production.

GB: In 2016, you began publishing the Babylonian Talmud. A feat that seems gigantic for a small publisher.

SV: It is colossal. But we took care of the printing, while the translation, editing, and revision are managed by the state-funded Babylonian Talmud Translation Project – and that’s a choice of great value on Italy’s part, a choice of dialogue stronger than any word. To decide to publish in Italian what is the fundamental work of Jewish culture and identity, perhaps even more than the Torah, is a gesture of great generosity. From the Jewish point of view, the written Torah without the oral Torah is not comprehensible. According to the masters, behind each verse of the former is a verse of the latter, the Mishnah, which completes and explains it, and which is then discussed and commented upon in the Talmud. Those who wish to do so have access to the text in Italian, even if the need for a teacher to penetrate the cryptic pages remains. Although this has already been done in other languages, it is a courageous act because, according to tradition, the Oral Torah should not be translated. Our edition is based on the Hebrew edition with punctuation edited by Rabbi Steinsaltz. It is a great honor but also a great burden because the production is very expensive and will take a long time. In any case, it is a privilege for our publishing house – which joins the small group of those in the world that have taken on such an undertaking – and for me personally. I must say that the sales are very good, even if, proceeding naturally with the volumes that follow the first one, they tend to decrease, sign that the Italian readers interested in the subject have felt the importance of the cultural operation and have decided to keep at home a book that contains one of the great millennial stories of the human adventure.

GB: What is the daily work of a publishing house like Giuntina?

SV: We have a very lean structure. There are four of us, a young woman who takes care of the secretarial and administrative work, we have an editor, a third person takes care of the graphic design and then there is me. However, we have many collaborators: translators, agents, proofreaders. For a long time I organized the festival of Jewish literature in Rome, but after ten years I decided to stop because the literary aspect had taken a back seat and I wanted to look for new stimuli. La Giuntina is also the closeness and friendship of people who collaborate with their ideas and proposals, understanding that behind the work of the publishing house there is not only us, but also a history and a future that can be significant for the Jewish cultural presence in Italy.


Interview by Giorgio Berruto

Giorgio Berruto, a philosophy and history teacher, from 2017 to 2020 held a weekly column on the Italian Judaism portal Moked and for three years directed the magazine of the union of young jews of Italy HaTikwà. Today he collaborates with Hakeillah, JOImag, La rassegna mensile di Israel.

Notes

1 Translator’s note: Date of Badoglio Proclamation confirming Italy’s armistice with the Allies.
2 Mentre la città bruciava (Giuntina 2004), at the intersection of diary and chronicle, tells the story of life in Israel for a young Italian Jew. The protagonist’s search for identity is set in the dynamic and tense social context of the years of the second Intifada.

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