Place is inextricably linked to identity and memory; that is part of what makes memories so fascinating and complex. Physical places shape our thoughts, feelings and relationships, and from these places stories are recalled and personal historical narratives are constructed.
This lesson helps students gain a deeper understanding of how historical narratives develop by exploring the relationship between place, memory and identity. Students will examine the faultiness and malleability of memory by viewing selections from director Tamar Tal Anati’s documentary film Shalom Italia. The film follows three elderly brothers—Bubi, Andrea and Emmanuel—Holocaust survivors from Italy, as they return to the Tuscan countryside to search for the cave where their family hid from the Nazis 70 years earlier. The film and the lesson invite students to reflect upon and discuss the critical role that place plays in creating life stories.
One 50-minute class period with optional extensions.
By the end of this lessons, students will:
• Be able to discuss and reflect on how place, smell, sound and other senses contribute to memory and personal history
• Analyze the relationship between memory and history
• Examine the challenges of relying on memory in the construction of a historical narrative
• Reflect on the role memory plays in shaping the identities of the Gnagnatti brothers
• Be introduced to, or review, the history of the Holocaust in Italy
Display method (varies by school) for showing the entire class online video clips and website resources. Computers with access to the Internet for student research.
If students are unfamiliar with the history of Italy during World War II and the Holocaust, have them complete this assignment the night before implementing this lesson.
Shalom Italia works well as an accompanying resource integrated into units on World War II and the Holocaust. To build this context, have students create and complete a K/W/L chart with the title “World War II and the Holocaust in Italy.” The K/W/L chart is a graphic organizer for students to draw upon their prior knowledge by asking themselves the following questions “What do I know?” (K) “What do I want to know?” (W) and “What did I learn?” (L). Have students complete the K and W columns before reading this source on the history of Italy during the Holocaust.
After completing the reading, students can collect their new learning in the L column and be prepared to share their reflections in class.
1. Understanding Place, Memory and Identity in Their Lives
Begin with students sharing what they know about Italy during World War II and the Holocaust, either from prior knowledge or from their completed homework assignment. Transition from building general historical knowledge to understanding the role of place and memory in the shaping of one’s identity.
Invite students to close their eyes and visualize places from their childhoods that have special meaning. They may be small spaces, such as a porch, fort, attic or bedroom, or places they enjoyed with family or friends. They may also be places they moved from or to, or beautiful places in their neighborhoods, cities or in nature.
Have each student spend a few moments describing the place they visualized in writing. What do they remember? What made it special? What are the smells, sounds and tastes they recall?
Is it possible that a person in their family remembers the same place differently, or assigns it a different meaning?
View and Discuss Clips 1 and 2: Salty Sardines and Memories of Home
Ask students to discuss their reactions to the clips and to discuss these questions:
• What are the different ways each brother recalls their time in the cave?
• What factors shape how each brother remembers their time in the cave?
2. Truth or Legend?
View and Watch Clip 3: Truth or Legend
As the brothers share a meal and discuss the villagers’ recollections of their lives as young boys, we hear Andrea say, “The absolute truth isn’t important now,” and we hear Emmanuel say, “[A]ll the history that’s written in textbooks is full of lies… We don’t know what really happened and we never will… There are different versions, and there are people who believe in these versions.”
Consider the significance of the brothers’ conversation and their points of view regarding history and memory, then select one or more of these questions to discuss with your students.
• What is reliable information in history?
• What sources do we use?
• Which perspectives need to be considered?
• Seventy years after an event, how can we continue to interrogate versions of it?
• How do we know whether history is absolutely true or partially true?
• Why might the villagers tell a story about helping the Gnagnatti family during the 1940s?
Read to students this excerpt from an article in The Guardian about how memory is formed and how it changes over time:
When you ask people about their memories, they often talk as though they were material possessions, enduring representations of the past to be carefully guarded and deeply cherished. But this view of memory is quite wrong. Memories are not filed away in the brain like so many video cassettes, to be slotted in and played when it's time to recall the past. Sci-fi and fantasy fictions might try to persuade us otherwise, but memories are not discrete entities that can be taken out of one person’s head, Dumbledore-style, and distilled for someone else’s viewing. They are mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now. Autobiographical memories are stitched together as and when they are needed from information stored in many different neural systems. That makes them curiously susceptible to distortion, and often not nearly as reliable as we would like.
Read these two accounts of the same event from two perspectives, one from a rescuer and one from Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Italy. What is similar and what is different? What insights about the construction of a historical narrative do these two testimonies offer?
Testimony of Ida Lenti, February 26, 1993
Zvi Yanai and Yehudit Eldar, September 16, 1992
3. Place and Identity
Before watching the final clip, project this quote from The People, Place and Space Reader on the board and read it out loud.
Place and identity are inextricably bound to one another. The two are co-produced as people come to identify with where they live, shape it, however modestly, and are in turn shaped by their environments, creating distinctive environmental autobiographies, the narratives we hold from the memories of those spaces and places that shaped us.
Watch and Discuss Clip 4: Place and Identity
Revisit each brother’s perspective and relationship to the cave by reading these quotes from the film out loud.
Bubi: “After almost 70 years, I’m Italian again. Well, half Italian, actually. Half the year in Italy, half in Israel. For years I’ve wanted to find that cave, the place to which we owe our lives.… I was about 4 1/2 years old, and I remember some things. I don’t know whether family stories and my memories overlapped. It’s all a bit vague.”
Emmanuel: “I agreed to Bubi’s request to search for the cave, so that he would be happy. Six years of misery, why search for it? I don’t want to remember.”
Andrea: “My little brother, Bubi, said, ‘Let’s go find the cave,’ and I immediately said ‘Sure, why not?’ Those were wonderful times. We lived in the woods, played Robin Hood and collected mushrooms. We were all together. I had fun during the Holocaust.”
• How did each brother’s experience of living under Nazi occupation, fleeing home and surviving in the cave shape his identity?
• Why would each brother have different recollections of this period in his childhood?
• Would you have wanted to go back to the cave?
4. Writing Assignment
Have students complete one of these writing assignments for homework.
1. Write persuasive essays defending how Shalom Italia changed or influenced their points of view regarding history and/or their understanding of memory.
I define history as _____.
What is memory? Memory is _____.
2. Ask students to write reflections about one of the following statements from Shalom Italia.
“History is full of doubts.” - Emmanuel
“We are made of memory.” - Emmanuel
“The absolute truth isn’t important now.” - Andrea
If students would like to explore personal survivor testimony further, they can delve into these sites:
University of Southern California Shoah Foundation - This educational website provides access to 1,500 life stories and testimonies from survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - This site contains testimonies, resources survivor stories, oral histories and more.
For a deeper look at the relationship between one’s senses and memory, have students consider this article to understand how smells can trigger memories.
Read this full article from The Guardian (excerpted above) and discuss with students different types of memory and the notion that memories are “mental reconstructions, nifty multimedia collages of how things were, that are shaped by how things are now.” Consider the following
• Semantic memory
• Autobiographical memory
• Flashbulb memory