Naples is a beautiful city. It has great pizza. The culture is fun and mischievous. The weather is warm. The art is very unique. All I can remember about Naples are the swastikas.
A couple of hours into our class trip, I saw the first one out of the corner of my eye. My stomach lurched, a visceral, unbidden response. I turned my head to see a massive swastika spray-painted on a nearby wall. No one but myself had noticed. The letters N.A.R. were spray-painted beneath it. As I would later learn, this stands for Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari. A neofascist group.
I told my professor what I had seen, hoping he would provide the next steps. How to file a police report, perhaps, or an anti-hate NGO to contact. Instead, he seemed entirely unfazed, intrigued even, and began telling me about contemporary Italy’s relationships to fascist symbols. “But can we call the police?” I asked. My professor looked at me in a sort of pitying way, like, oh, this naive American, and explained that although the city of Naples has a police force, it is functionally controlled by the Italian mafia, and they won’t do shit if you don’t give them a bribe, and besides, it would be hell to deal with the bureaucracy. I felt embarrassed, like I was overreacting, causing a fuss over some dumb graffiti.
I was 10 years old when I learned what a swastika was.
They found it outside my synagogue on a late autumn day, a swastika carved into a pumpkin. A sort of jack-o-lantern, I suppose, carved with the most terrifying symbol my people knew. Another swastika, made of sticks, was found on the ground in front of it. I never saw them. My mother explained it to me calmly, slowly: I had nothing to be scared of, just some kid who didn’t understand what he was doing, some teenager who wanted to scare people. I believed her.
This was not the anti-Semitism of Russia, where my mom got spat on in the streets for her curly brown hair, where the word IVREI, Jew, printed in her passport barred her from the good universities. This was the anti-Semitism of America, quiet and frivolous, a teenager with a pumpkin and some sticks, and everyone in town said this was bad, we should condemn this bad thing, and the bad thing made the front page of the town paper and all the churches in town agreed that it was bad and at Hebrew School they told us we didn’t need to feel scared, and so we moved on and were happy, because this was America and it was just one kid with some messed up ideas and really, we could all get on with our lives here in America and everything would be okay.
Our tour of Naples continued. Less than an hour later, another swastika. I pointed it out to my professor. He nodded in a sort of intrigued way, complimented me on my eye for graffiti. I don’t have an eye for graffiti, I thought. I have an eye for people who want me dead. I was shocked that no one else noticed or was particularly upset when I pointed it out. The one other Jewish student in the class didn’t seem as troubled as I was.
In the afternoon, I spotted some police officers standing around, doing nothing in particular, at a packed tourist spot. My Italian was good enough to understand but not nearly good enough to speak, so an Italian guide that had come with us asked on my behalf. “What should we do if we saw a fascist symbol on a wall?” The officers looked at each other and shrugged. “If a police officer did not see the crime, there is nobody to arrest. There is nothing that can be done.” The guide turned to me and translated with an apologetic but unsurprised expression. “This is how it is here. In Naples, there are bigger problems.”
That night at dinner, a third swastika. My professor described Naples as a romantic city of underdog tricksters. My friends laughed and enjoyed their three-course meal. I kept thinking, why does nobody care enough to just take the swastikas down?
The next day, I began noticing another common piece of graffiti, a sort of a circle with a cross through it. My professor didn’t know what it meant, so I Googled it. The Celtic Cross is a neo-Nazi symbol, associated with the Italian New Force party. A modern swastika. These are everywhere in Naples. I really mean everywhere. I don’t think I encountered a single street corner without one of these symbols. On one wall, I found a whopping five Celtic Crosses, a swastika, and the words “Viva L’Italia” and “Viva i Fasci.” Long live the fascists.
I can count my personal encounters with American anti-Semitism on one hand. A joke about ovens. My brother’s classmate who told him he was “nice, for a Jew.” Someone shouting, “End the Holocaust in Palestine” on Yom HaShoah in Boston. Graffiti outside the high school that read “Jude” in yellow spray-paint. There may have been others that went over my head or under my radar. I knew people hated Jews the way you know that the earth is round. You know it, but unless you’re paying attention, you usually can’t see it.
After our class trip to Naples, I returned to Florence, my host city for the semester, with an entirely less romantic view of Italy. I began noticing the Celtic Crosses in Florence, too, lining nearly every street. I counted 15 on my way from my homestay to my campus. I could not help but think of them as cross-hairs, as skinheads hiding behind these city walls, pointing guns at my Jewish body. A few weeks later, my friend found a swastika at the Florence train station. I visited the concentration camp of Fossili for a class trip, and when I told my homestay mom, she was surprised. She said she didn’t know there had been concentration camps in Italy.
That October, the world had abruptly shown me its curvature. Pittsburgh broke the facade of a benevolent America. The great lie, the false safety of America, crashing in. The fear, the overwhelming fear that someone I knew was dead or dying. I spent that week in a daze. I went to vigils. I hugged my Jewish friends, held on for dear life. Many of my professors didn’t mention it, seemed to be continuing with business as usual. My non-Jewish classmates seemed unaffected, life just went on, went on, went on, while we grieved. My mother texted me. I thought we left this behind in Russia. I thought America would be safe for you kids.
My friends and I went on a trip to Rome. A local guide gave us a tour of the Jewish quarter. Told us about the Ghetto in Rome, about the round-ups of Roman Jews during the Holocaust, about how it still isn’t properly taught in the Italian schools. She told us how the state media still says in its Christmastime programming that the Jews killed Jesus. I visited the Arch of Titus, where Roman pillagers are depicted proudly carrying away the spoils of Jerusalem, among them the Great Menorah. I visited the colosseum, said to have been funded by those very spoils. I kept noticing the swastikas, but each time my stomach lurched a little less, and I was able to move on clear-headed a bit more quickly. I was becoming accustomed to the sensation of being hated.
Easter Sunday came, and I wanted to escape the hordes in Rome, so I took a solo day trip to Tivoli, a town famous for its striking nature and sprawling villas. Not far from the train station, someone had spray-painted “I HEART FASCISM.” I didn’t think much of this, except that I thought it interesting that someone had gone to the trouble of writing it in English. I continued on my way.
Then, I spotted it.
The one symbol I will notice faster than a swastika is a Star of David. It was right there. How were all the other tourists just walking past it, blindly, not even giving it a passing glance? A six-pointed star, crossed out. To the left of it, the words:
AS ROMA AMERICANA
STELLA AL PETTO
E STRISCE SUL PIGIAMA
I knew enough Italian at this point to roughly translate the graffiti. A.S. Roma Americana (an Italian soccer team). Stars on the chest and stripes on pajamas.
I stood there, waiting, staring, hoping that anyone — Italian, American, French — would see me staring and say something, anything. Would acknowledge that this was something worth being upset about. No one came. Eventually, I took a photo and left. I didn’t think to tell the local police department.
A week later, a shooter killed one and injured three at the Chabad of Poway, California. I found it difficult to feel shocked. It felt like a natural progression.
When people ask me how I liked Italy, I usually say that I loved it. I did. I loved the food, the smiling people, the lyrical language. I loved the warm Tuscan air and the medieval churches and the Renaissance art. It is difficult for me to explain that it was also deeply painful. To marinate in the birthplace of fascism, where these symbols are so common as to be unremarkable, where hatred of Jews is so normalized as to be an expression of soccer fanaticism. How can I possibly reconcile this with what a semester abroad is expected to be for a college student, what I imagined it would be, a sort of uncomplicated celebration of the freedom of youth and the unbridled exploration of a foreign culture? Nobody warned me about this. Nobody told me to expect this, the daily confrontation with the evidence of a persistent neo-fascist Italian Right, a constant reconciling with my own people’s fraught history in this land. Nobody told me that I would see so many swastikas that I would stop being scared of them.
In Italy, I found my identity prickling up beneath my skin on a daily basis, four months spent feeling the way I had in the wake of Pittsburgh. Like my heart was pumping a different sort of blood than the people around me. I cannot say that this was an enjoyable part of my semester abroad, but as someone who cares about Jewish identity and Jewish peoplehood, I found it profoundly eye-opening.
The great blessing of the American diaspora is that it allows the Jew to forget, if only for a moment, that he is a Jew. We cover up the swastikas, we delete the tweets, we condemn the shooters. We say to ourselves, “This is not Europe, of Ghettos and Nazis and Blood Libel, this is the New World, the Free World.” But the people who paint the swastikas in Naples, they are cut from the same cloth of hatred and bigotry as those who post manifestos on 8Chan and who chanted in the streets of Charlottesville. They marinate in the same vile conspiracy theories and ancient prejudices as those who commit murder in our synagogues, our Chabad houses, our kosher supermarkets, and our homes. America does not protect us. America merely allows us to forget. To forget, in the momentary bliss of social and economic welfare, of comfortable and easy assimilation, our history of trauma and mistrust, of marginalization and othering.
Italy forced me, if only for a time, to stop forgetting. To look my history and my present straight in the eye, to grab it by the shoulders and to shake it. To stand face-to-face with a few dozen swastikas, and to come out changed.
Header image: Italian policeman looks at a door where swastikas were drawn in the old Jewish ghetto of Rome, July 11, 2006 by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images