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Bicycle Thieves Of Italy, Yesterday and Today

The 1948 neo-realist cinematic masterpiece can be a key to understand Italian society today. With a digital twist.

Riding (not stealing) a bicycle in Bologna
Riding (not stealing) a bicycle in Bologna
Gabriele Romagnoli

-Essay-

BOLOGNA — "This is not a movie, it's reality..." A filmgoer in Milan wrote those words to director Vittorio De Sica after watching Bicycle Thieves when it was released 71 years ago. I for one had always thought the same: that the 1948 neorealist masterpiece movie was a good representation of reality of how life was back then — neorealism as a mirror of the past that cannot be applied to the future. I was wrong.

A few days ago, I went to the Lumière Cinema in Bologna to watch the film restored by the Film Archive. I went with a friend from school, who arrived with a bright blue bicycle and tied it to a pole. When we left the theater after the movie, the bike was gone. My friend seemed unfazed, telling me that bicycles disappear continuously in the city.

"I'll look for it tomorrow," he said.

I imagined him searching street by street through outlying neighborhoods like the desperate Antonio Ricci does in the film, but then he added: "On the Internet."

bicycle_thieves_ladri_di_bicicletta

Original poster for the movie Bicycle Thieves – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He explained the two options: either post the photo on the Bikewatch.com website and wait for an alert, or go through the used bike announcements and see if someone was already (he thought the term was appropriate) "recycling" it. He knows someone who went to the seller of his own bike with the carabinieri police. The guy defended himself by saying that he had bought the bike from a stranger for 15 euros and got away with a citation. The stories are endless, including the one where a bare-chested 40-year-old got on the bus carrying a bicycle from the city's bike-sharing system that he intended to sell on the other side of town.

I started thinking that in order to understand reality in Italy in 2019, we could simply start with the bicycle thieves, like in 1948. Figures show the consistent occurrence of the phenomenon. The last survey, conducted in 2012, shows there were 320,000 bike thefts that year. Last year there were more than 400,000 for a value of 100 million euros. Half of bike owners had theirs stolen at least once. They became fatalist and disheartened, since most avoid reporting it, thinking police investigations will not help them recover their belonging. A third of the thefts are the work of drug addicts, another third of organizations that carry out mass nocturnal withdrawals with vans, the last third is pure improvisation. As a man in Parabiago told the policemen who arrested him while he was climbing over a fence with somebody else's bike on his shoulder: "Oh well, come on, I screwed up!"

There is a bicycle theft every day and everyone has a story to tell.

I needed to identify the epicenter of this phenomenon and I think I unexpectedly found it in Saronno, a quiet town in Lombardy about 30 kilometers from the border with Switzerland. It has about 40,000 inhabitants, 12% of whom are foreign residents with legal papers, and it is run by the far-right League party after a long period of center-left administration. In Saronno, there is a bicycle theft every day and everyone has a story to tell and a picture of reality (didn't we start off from neorealism?).

Cameras have increased, surveillance groups have been created on Facebook, a proposal has been made to create bike plates, but all in vain: Nothing and no one is spared.

Inevitably there is someone who says: Things have gotten worse with all these migrants. It is true that a 33-year-old Tunisian man was caught loading the dismantled pieces of 30 stolen bikes into a van, to send them off to the port of Genoa and then on to Tunisia. But it is just as true that a group of migrants staying in the parish house of Piazza della Libertà had their own bikes stolen after they'd received them as a gift donation.

The most significant episode took place a month ago, late in the afternoon, next to the sanctuary of the Beata Vergine dei Miracoli. A woman saw two men struggling to break off a cable lock. They were almost done when — as Antonio Ricci did in vain in the De Sica film — the woman shouts: "Stop thief!" This is where the scene changes. The two thieves split, the woman tries to chase one, but is left behind. A young Senegalese man runs after the other, and two Ukrainians eventually catch him.

Looking at the film of reality, it seems that war and theft among poor people, no matter their nationality, have never ceased — and distrust of the justice system continues. The only difference is that today, you might catch your thief on the Internet.

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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