As he felt the end of his life approaching, Arrigo Levi, who has died aged 94, did something strange in his hospital bed: he started singing. First he intoned Hatikvà, the Israeli national anthem, followed by a nursery rhyme from his native Modena. Then he asked to be allowed home to die.
A self-confessed “citizen of the world”, the multilingual, cosmopolitan journalist was equally at home in London as in Moscow or Buenos Aires, but Israel and Modena held a special place in his heart.
Modena, in northern Italy’s fertile plains, was where he was born; Israel was where, as a 22-years-old volunteer with the Negev Brigade, he had gone to fight for Jewish freedom. As he described in his 2009 autobiography, Un Paese non Basta (A Country is not Enough), “There were 120 of us, not all Zionists. What we wanted was to defend Israel’s right to exist. The right of 600,000 refugees, many of them Shoah survivors, to live in peace. The war over, we went back to Israel happy because we believed that, having won the war, we had conquered the peace.”
Arrigo Levi’s Jewish roots were very deep: his father Enzo was a well-known Modena lawyer who had been responsible for drafting the foundation agreement of the Ferrari racing team. His mother Ida Donati was a descendant of Donato Donati, an Ashkenazi merchant and banker who was reputed to have introduced buckwheat to the region in the early 17th century, thus helping save thousands of lives during the 1621 famine. An uncle, Pio Donati, was an anti-fascist lawyer and socialist MP who was forced into exile.
But when the 1938 Racial Laws (restricting the civil rights of the Jews) came into effect, the family’s influence counted for nothing and they were forced to leave Italy. They fled to Argentina and it was in Buenos Aires that the 17-year-old Levi first tried his hand at journalism, writing for Italia Libera!, the newspaper serving the local Italian community.
The end of the war and the rise to power of fascist sympathiser Juan Peron saw the Levis return to Italy. Arrigo graduated in philosophy from Bologna University — his dissertation would be on humanism and its roots in the Bible. But even throughout his student years he kept on writing articles and, of course, during his stint as a soldier in Israel in 1948 he filed reports for local papers, among them La Gazzetta di Modena.
Levi had found his calling and was on a roll. After a stint at Radio Londra, the BBC’s Italian station in London, he worked for a number of Italian papers: first La Gazzetta del Popolo and in 1953 the prestigious Corriere della Sera for which in 1960 he became Moscow and then London correspondent.
In 1966 he made history by becoming the first professional journalist in Italy to present a news bulletin — until then a job performed by announcers. His time with RAI, the Italian national broadcaster, raised his profile even further. However, after two years he returned to his first love, newspapers.
A correspondent for the Turin daily La Stampa (owned by the Agnelli family, also owners of Fiat cars) between 1969 and 1973, he then became the paper’s editor. His five-year tenure took place during a particularly dramatic time for Italy. Turin, in particular, was targeted by the Red Brigades, the extreme-left terrorist group, and in a gruesome first, Levi’s deputy, Carlo Casalegno, in 1977 became the first Italian journalist to be killed by the terrorists.
Levi would later call his years in Turin the most intense of his career: as if the terrorist threat wasn’t enough, there was the small matter of Libya buying a stake in Fiat in 1976. Gaddafi asked Agnelli to get rid of Levi, twice guilty as a Jew who had moreover fought for Israel. Agnelli, who trusted and respected his editor, refused point-blank.
After his turbulent time in Turin, the next few years were relatively relaxed for Levi: he had a regular column on international affairs for The Times and then Newsweek and worked on a number of factual TV programmes for Italy’s national broadcaster.
Throughout the years there were also 24 books, many on Russia and Communism — a subject that particularly fascinated him — but also the Middle East, inter-faith dialogue, Latin America and, of course, Italy. Age didn’t seem to slow him down and the title of a 1998 book, Old Age Can Wait, or The Art of Staying Young encapsulates his attitude.
The last major assignment of this much-travelled man saw him traipse not international capitals but provincial Italy. For 15 years, from 1998 to 2013, Levi was an adviser on external affairs to two Italian Presidents — Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Giorgio Napolitano. With Ciampi he went on a “fascinating” journey of rediscovery, visiting every single Italian province, talking to people and taking notes.
What he found was a country that was much better than her image suggested, more vital and driven than expected. It was, he said, an extraordinary experience that made him love his country and her people more than ever before.
In his autobiography Levi had explored his connection with the countries that had shaped him: Italy, Israel, Argentina, Great Britain. He described his roots as “Jewish, Italian and Modenese”, none of these identities excluding the others but all contributing to something richer, more powerful.
“Italian Jews have given a lot to this country,” he said. “For a long time they lived in an open and tolerant society. And after the dark years of persecution and exile came a renewed pride in our identity.”
Arrigo Levi married Lina Lenci; she predeceased him in 2017. He is survived by their daughter Donatella and two nephews, Ricardo Franco and Alberto.
Arrigo Levi, born July 17, 1926. Died August 24, 2020