Why we must remember: Antonio Salvati tells the story of the “Pentcho”


By John

Antonio Salvati he is a magistrate with the “vice” of writing. Civil judge in Reggio Calabria and founder of the very original “Festival of Law and Literature” which is held every year between Palmi and Reggio with guests of the highest level jurists, actors and authors from all over Italy. Salvati has signed a book, published by Castelvecchi, which tells the story the story of the “Pentcho”, a boat used by a large group of Jewish refugees to escape the Nazis.
The novel recounts, through the voices of the protagonists, the escape, along the Danube, of 400 Jews of different nationalities from a Bratislava now resigned to the invasion of Hitler’s troops. With a shabby boat with an unlikely name, Pentcho, after having traveled the entire course of the river, the refugees aim to reach Palestine. Endless vicissitudes will instead lead them to Calabria, to Ferramonti, the main concentration camp for foreign Jews in Italy.
The personal details of the characters are real, the events of the journey actually happened, the pain and hope that accompanied it are real: everything else is pure invention. The preface to the volume is by Paolo Rumiz.
Antonio Salvati explains: «The story of the Pentcho, as I have told it, is like a portal that opens onto a universe of questions, each of which leads to another question, and then to yet another. The first, and the most important, seems extremely relevant today: what is memory really for? What is its role, if it still really has one, in the formation of a civil conscience? We live in a strange time, in which the multiplication of initiatives to keep the lights of memory on historical events or issues of particular collective interest does not correspond at all to greater attention, a more widespread awareness of the fundamental values ​​for peaceful coexistence. On the contrary, the watchwords of this liquid time, to quote Zygmunt Bauman, seem to be different: distrust, disillusionment, pessimism. And hate, of course: to the point that we have invented a new category: that of haters, precisely.”
Is it really useful to remember? Or is the supreme divinity of these times, speed, now capable of emptying memory of meaning, reducing it to a simple ritual, to the repetition of days that are increasingly the same as each other?
«The Pentcho, my novel, obviously does not have a single answer to such a question. During the many meetings with readers I noticed that the character who most struck readers in my age group was Julia Kustlinger Presser, the lawyer who refuses to remember the odyssey of that little thing because, she says, it’s useless delude yourself: there are and will always be other Pentchos ready to leave, somewhere in the world, with their load of pain and suffering.”
His is a harsh and uncomfortable, deliberately provocative stance: an indictment that demands very serious reflection on the role of memory.
«The inspirer of the European Day of the Righteous, Gabriele Nissim, in a recent essay that I greatly appreciated entitled “Auschwitz never ends”, says it very clearly, almost ideally holding out his hand to my Julia: if the story of what has been does not remain open to show all its universal value, and on the contrary is debased by being bent to this or that particular need, then really remembering and telling is of no use. It is the lesson of Primo Levi, which it is no coincidence that I ask to appear suddenly, towards the end of the novel, to intertwine the path of one of the fugitives of the Pentcho, Albert Freund, who really traveled to his death in the same convoy as author of “If This Is a Man” being registered just nine issues after the Turin writer».
«We must not believe that this theme – adds Salvati – has only a historical value: just think, for example, of all the times in which the memory of the words of Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino has been used, I was about to say rehashed, to polemical purposes or for purposes of short-sighted utility”.
The theme of memory is also central for the South, and for Calabria in particular.
«The way in which we reconstruct the past, even before the very complex unification of Italy, clearly influences the narrative of the present. I am thinking, in particular, of that sense of estrangement from the center of history which seems to me to degrade this land, relegating it to the continuous representation of itself as alone and abandoned, always far from the places, movements and events that matter.”
And what could then be the key to overturning this interpretative scheme?
«Through a more complete and less enslaved reading of the stereotypes of the great, bitter and losing Calabria, we could recover a much more truthful reality: that is, that this land has always been well at the center of the flows of history, and this is both on a cultural level than on the more directly political one. I am certainly not the one who discovered, for example, that it was a Calabrian, Barlaam da Seminara, who opened the doors of the universe and ancient Greek thought to Petrarch and therefore to Humanism; or, that Rossano was for centuries the capital of the Byzantine possessions in Italy: in practice, as it has been defined, the Ravenna of the South. I will immediately anticipate the observations on this point, saying that it is obvious that all this will not increase jobs in Calabria will not stop the dramatic flight of our young people towards a better organized or simply smarter elsewhere. It is undeniable, however, that by removing the tattered mantle of the land that has always been absent from the call of history, the image of Calabria, here and today, would only have to gain: and this is no small thing, in a world in which image is everything.”
«The parable of the Pentcho, and this time – concludes Salvati – I am referring, to tell the truth, more to my book than to the historical fact of the journey of that handful of desperate Jews, on closer inspection therefore has precisely the theme of memory as the central point of reflection, as the knot from which all the other threads of the ball start. Continuing to remember, to recall, can be both a powerful anesthetic and a strong stimulus to try to change the state of things at the same time: it is only up to us to decide how to use this natural human impulse.”