The largely untold story: Rescuing Jews in Mussolini’s Italy

Holocaust Memorial in Como, Italy

WASHINGTON, May 30, 2014 — During World War II, Fascist Italy under Mussolini was allied with Nazi Germany. In Italy, Jews were persecuted first by Fascism and then by Nazism. Yet, next to Denmark, Italy had the highest survival rate for Jews in any Nazi-occupied country, much less a country allied with Hitler. Eighty per cent of Italian Jews survived the war–as did thousands of foreign Jews who found refuge in Italy. The story of their survival is one that has been largely untold.

“Jews have been a part of Italian history and the history of Rome for over two thousand years,” writes Ida Garibaldi in ISSUES. “Indeed, the first Jews arrived on the Italian peninsula in 586 B.C., and Jews have been living in Rome since the Second Century B.C.”

The Italian Jews were among the most assimilated in the world, benefiting from the absence of legal and social disadvantages that existed elsewhere. They were engaged in politics, served at high rates in the military and found success in every skilled profession. Cecil Roth, author of “History of the Jews of Italy,” writes that, “After 1870, there was no land in either hemisphere where conditions were or could be better. It was not only that disabilities were removed, as happened elsewhere during these momentous years, but that the Jews were accepted freely, naturally and spontaneously as members of the Italian people, on a perfect footing of equality with their neighbors.”

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By 1902, out of 350 senators, there were six Jews. By 1920, there were nineteen Jewish senators. And in 1910, Luigi Luzzatti, a Venetian Jew, became prime minister.  There were fifty Jewish generals in the Italian army in World War I. Jews were active across the political spectrum. Until 1938, many Jews were prominent in Mussolini’s Fascist Party, as well as in anti-Fascist groups. As World War II proceeded, Italy’s German allies were perturbed because Italians not only protected Jews on their territory, but when they occupied parts of France, Greece, the Balkans and elsewhere, they protected the local Jewish population.

On December 13, 1944, Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, wrote in his diary: “The Italians are extremely lax in the treatment of the Jews. They protect the Italian Jews both in Tunis and occupied France and will not permit their being drafted for work or being compelled to wear the Star of David.”

Even when Mussolini embarked upon his campaign against Italian Jews, the “final solution” embraced by Hitler was not on his agenda. Historian Meir. Michaelis wrote in “Mussolini and the Jews,” that although Mussolini “was too much of an Italian to approve of ‘the final solution’…he and his henchmen helped to create the conditions in which the Holocaust became possible.” His record can be contrasted favorably with that of Hitler or Marshal Petain in France, but that is a low standard indeed.

An important book, “It Happened In Italy” (Thomas Nelson) tells the story of how many Italians, from all walks of life, helped save Jews. Author Elizabeth Bettina is an Italian-American who, as a child, visited her family’s village of Campagna in southern Italy. After she met Holocaust survivors in New York who told her stories of surviving World War II in Campagna and surrounding villages, she began to study the story of heroism of many Italians as they confronted the Nazi goal of eliminating Europe’s Jews.

In the early 1930s, Hitler was prepared to let Jews emigrate, but other countries were unwilling to receive them. Only Italy, with Mussolini in power, permitted German and Austrian Jews to enter the country without visas. They lived peacefully until, as a result of Italy’s alliance with Germany, foreign Jews were to be interred.

Elizabeth Bettina tells the story of Giovanni Palatucci, “the Italian Schindler.” An Italian police officer in the early 1940s, he actively defied orders to implement Hitler’s Final Solution.  For his heroism, Palatucci was killed at Dachau. In 2002, he was recognized for his efforts and was beatified, a step before sainthood, by the Vatican.

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Bettina writes: “His role in Fiume was Questore, which can best be described as part police chief, part immigration officer, and part census officer. All foreign residents of Italy were required to register…and this gave Palatucci access to their documents and personal information, including their religion….Palatucci hid the list from the Nazis because he knew that…it was a map that led directly to almost certain death for the Jews on the lists. He enabled people to leave Italy by supplying false documents, and if they couldn’t leave Italy, Palatucci arranged to send them to an official Italian government internment camp in Campagna, the former Convent of San Bartolomeo, where his uncle Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, was the bishop…Once the Nazis figured out what Giovanni Palatucci was doing, they sent him to Dachau, where on February 10, 1945, he died the death from which he saved thousands of Jews (some estimates are as high as 5,000). Just two months later, on April 29, 1945, Dachau was liberated.”

In occupied Europe, approximately 75 to 80 per cent of the Jewish population was executed. Yet in Italy, approximately 75 to 80 per cent of the Jewish population survived.

Bettina interviewed many Jews who survived the war in Italy. One was Walter Wolff, arrested by the Germans and sent to Dachau on November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht. His brother Bruno was sent to Buchenwald. Their crime was being Jewish.

Walter and Bruno found their way to Italy and in June 1940 Walter was arrested in Genoa. Again, his crime was being Jewish. Walter said more than 65 years later: “Now I was back in the same boat, except the Italian camps were nothing like the German camps. There was no forced labor in the Italian camps. We could do whatever we wanted during the day…to pass time, we played cards, took walks around the little village, read books, or played soccer at a field just outside town. We even had our own orchestra and performed for the local residents.”

“It Happened In Italy” is filled with such stories. An earlier book, “The Assisi Underground: The Priest Who Rescued Jews” by Alexander Ramati as told by Padre Rufino. Niccacci, tells how 300 Jews were sheltered and protected by a peasant turned priest, Father Ruffino Niccacci.  He dressed many of them as monks and nuns, taught them Catholic rituals, and hid them in monasteries.  The town printing press, which during the day printed posters and greeting cards, at night clandestinely printed false documents for Jews all over Italy.

Addressing the nuns of a cloistered order, Father Niccacci said: “Once more we live in the Dark Ages. The men and women who come to you today to seek refuge and protection are the lepers of the modern world. They are Jews who are being persecuted  by the Germans and the Fascists, sent to concentration camps, then tortured and put to death. We are God’s sons and daughters and we, brothers and sisters, have much more to answer for than ordinary people. We must take these lepers in our arms, offer them our protection, and hide them from our oppressors…”

Father Niccacci asked Cardinal Della Costa, Archbishop of Florence, why Pope Pius XII had not made a statement condemning the Nazi persecution of the Jews.  The Cardinal replied: “Instead of making meaningless declarations that would only antagonize the Germans and perhaps even make them occupy the Vatican itself, he issued orders to save Jewish lives.  The Pontiff could not issue an express order. But we received his message loud and clear. How would Pietro Boetto in Genoa, Niccolini in Assisi, I here, and so many other archbishops and bishops all over Italy, provide a sanctuary for the Jews, if we did not feel that this was what His Holiness would wish us to do?…In his own diocese, and don’t forget the Pope is also Bishop of Rome, over a hundred convents and over fifty churches and theological seminaries are hiding 4,000 Jews, half of the Jews of Rome.”

The role of Pope Pius II and the Vatican  during World War II  will continue to be a subject of debate. What cannot be debated, however, are the stories told by Elizabeth Bettina in her book. While some Italians acted badly, participating in the Nazi assault upon Jews, others acted well, and bravely. It is from these that all of us can learn lessons for the future.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.
  • Hunta Mod

    It does not come as a surprise that despite the infamous “racial laws” in italy, Jews were treated well by most Italians and even saved & defended by several high-ranking fascist officials,such as Italo Balbo, De Bono and others. Mussolini himself had for a long time a Jewish girlfriend/muse, (Margarita Sarfati) whose contribution in the foundation and dissemination of the fascist ideology can not be under-estimated. It is also commonly admitted that in the 1920’s and early 30’s a good ‘35% of the Italian Jewish men, were members of the PNF (Partito Nazionale Fascista) until the introduction of the infamous “racial-laws” in late 1938…nearly 20 (!) years after the creation of the Fascist movement ! In short, unlike Nazism, racism and anti-semitism are not an integrant part of the Fasisct ideology and mentality, but something that has been “built-in” afterwards and without conviction by Mussolini, most probably in order to trigger sympathy and respect by his allied Nazi Germany. In fact, only shortly before the introduction of these shameful laws, Mussolini was publicly making fun of the racists ideologies of the Nazis, quote : “we can look disdainfully at some doctrines originating from beyond the Alps, from people, who ignored the writing, at a time when Rome had Virglio, Caesar and Augusto” unquote. One is always more intelligent afterwards and it is easy to say that today, but it was part of his unfortunate misevaluation of the situation and his fatal conviction that Italy’s fate was linked to Germany, which is in turn the logical consequence of the rejection of Italy by all “civilized democracies”, on the grounds that Italy dared doing exactly the same as said “civilized democracies” have been doing for centuries : daring to have colonies in Africa and wishing to have “un posto al sole” (= a spot in the sun, means : have access to wealth, power and respect ). All this does not excuse anything, but it does indeed explain them. 68 years later, it would maybe be about time to tell things as they really were ?