The Holocaust, Italy and the Jews

Heroism subverting hate


Sharon E. Freedman, P.S.W


Ms. Freedman is a professional social worker in Montreal with 28 years of experience covering a range of concerns from anti-poverty work in underprivileged areas to patient advocacy in major medical centers. She is currently on the social work staff of the Jewish General Hospital. She is also active in inter-faith dialogue and inter-community organization.


At a time of rising anti-Semitic incidents in Canada and the world, there are some people who feel that the topic of the Holocaust has been exhausted. But with school fire bombings in Montreal, attacks against Jews in France, the horrible deaths of innocents in Israel from suicide bombers and Iran’s President making no secret of his desire for the extinction of the Jews and of the State of Israel, the reality is that the world is once again witness to a new onslaught of anti-Semitism.


This is an important time to examine some history few know about, but once examined reminds us that individual heroism and resistance to hate is possible under what are seemingly the most untenable conditions. That story is the role of the Italians during the Shoah and how they saved some 85% of Italy’s Jews while under Nazi alliance and, after 1943, partial occupation.


Some theorists have suggested Italians saved the Jews because their overall numbers were small or that many Jews were assimilated. How then does one rationalize that thesis with the fact that the German Jews were the most highly assimilated group in a country with the most educated backgrounds yet had the highest rate of anti-Semitism? Most Germans lent support to the anti-Semitic legislation, initiatives and policies of their country.


Yes, 6000 Jews were murdered in Italy mostly by the occupying Germans and some fascist Italians; however, overall, many Jews owe their lives to the ordinary citizens, some clergy, and military personnel who risked their lives at great peril to themselves.


Who were these special people who took enormous risks and because of their daring, deeds, and moral dedication, saved countless Jewish lives? Why is it that few people know about these individuals? Despite many Holocaust centers and Museums, literature and countless speakers, little is known or displayed about these unsung heroes.


Their examples of standing against prejudice and intolerance are invaluable; particularly to our youth as evidence of what Camus meant when he wrote that in today’s world, “Merely being human is being heroic.” These Italian heroes were very human indeed and force the question of why so much of the rest of the world stood by during this genocide. The same questions continue to haunt us today as we contemplate Rwanda, the Balkans and Darfur.

Despite the deafening silence of the Pope, many Jews were saved through individual acts of bravery by Catholic clerics. Many were hidden in convents and monasteries. In Florence one such group was taught to say the daily Catechisms as a cover in the event the Gestapo came to the door.

In 1944 with the tide of the war turning, President Roosevelt made a symbolic gesture and sent Ruth Gruber to Italy to bring back 1000 war refugees. They were brought to a military base near Oswego, New York. Their story was written up in Life magazine and a film about Ruth Gruber and her 1000 refugees was recently released.


This past August Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital Foundation honored the Italian community by highlighting the story of war-time Italian diplomat Giorgio Perlasca, who risked his life to save over 5000 Jews in Hungary. He has been called the “Italian Wallenberg”. As an active member of the organizing committee, I had the humbling experience of speaking to several survivors who were pulled off death trains headed for Auschwitz at the very last moment by Perlasca. As a matter of fact the Foundation is presently in the process of raising funds for a permanent tribute, either a room or a floor-naming, in honor of Perlasca and all the other Righteous Italians.


Perlasca used a cover as the Spanish Charge D’Affaires. Like so many ordinary Italians, he overtly opposed the policies of ethnic cleansing and extermination and disobeyed the racial laws against Jews. Perlasca risked his life so others could live, this at a time when evil was rewarded and helping Jews meant punishment and often death.


In the guise of acting attaché at the Spanish Embassy, he distributed forged Spanish Passports and protected Jews in “Safe Houses” putting his own life in daily peril. Through a combination of diplomatic coercion, bribery, sheer daring and courage, Perlasca succeeded in saving thousands. His bold resolve allowed him to rescue 2 Jewish boys from capture right under the nose of Adolf Eichmann.


Perlasca lived by the motto “I am my Brother’s Keeper” He sanctified that phrase by demonstrating that one person can make a difference. Perlasca saved lives because that’s what he thought was the right thing to do, never thinking of himself as a hero. He lived in relative obscurity until many years later when some people he rescued sought him out. He was then recognized by the State of Israel as one of “The Righteous among the Nations” at a ceremony at Yad Vashem.


What drives individuals to make moral decisions that risk their lives for strangers? What, if any were the common factors held by these people who saved Jews? Did they all come from a particular social class, gender, political affiliation or religion or was it an eclectic group who shared similar humanistic values?


From the best evidence we have the rescuers put their lives on the line because inaction went against fundamental values that they were taught or adopted because they had witnessed them in others. They believed that all people are equal and developed a tolerance towards people who were different. It was also their personal perceptions of themselves in relation to their visceral disgust with the mistreatment of others, that left them no choice but to act. The tales of the Italian Rescuers are heart-rending indeed.


On October 16th 1943 General Kappler, Gestapo Chief in Rome demanded 50 kilograms of gold from Jews or 300 Jews would be murdered. Israel Zolli Rome’s chief Rabbi appealed to Bernardino Nogara, the Vatican’s treasurer, for help. With the Pope’s approval the 50 kilograms of gold was supplied.

The Bishop of Assisi hid 300 Jews for over 2 years and even set up a synagogue in the St. Francis’ monastery for them to worship. Padre Benedetti, who turned his monastery into a rescue agency issuing Baptismal and false passports, became known as “father of the Jews”. Here were human beings actively involved in mankind’s transcendent yearning for redemptive change.


Another fact that most Italians and Jews are unaware of is that despite the German-Italian alliance that lasted until Mussolini’s overthrow in 1943, the Nazis often found that local Italian Officials and the army were unreliable in turning over Jews. The police and town authorities who were supposed to round up Jews for deportations, often just didn’t do it despite orders.


Giovanni Palatucci was an Italian police commander in Fiume in northern Italy who saved thousands of Jews, even after the fall of Mussolini, despite his area being under Nazi occupation. From as early as 1940 when he was chief of the foreigners’ office, he forged documents and visas to Jews threatened by deportation. He managed to destroy all documented records of 5000 Jewish refugees living in the town, issuing false papers and providing money. He sent the refugees to an “internment camp” protected and hidden by his uncle Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, the Bishop of Campagna.


When the Nazis learned of his activities Palatucci was offered safe passage to Switzerland but sent his Jewish fiancée instead. He was deported to Dachau where he was murdered in 1945. He was officially honored by Yad Vashem in 1990 and there are streets, parks, town Squares named after him in Israel and Italy. He is currently under consideration for beatification by the Church.


Even in territories occupied by Italians there were stories of rescue. In Yugoslavia the Italian army protected Jews from the anti-Semitic Ushtasis. One Italian armored unit rescued a group of Jews from them, by hiding them in Italian Tanks.


In 1943, 3577 Jews were taken to the prison camp of Rab {Arbe}. Mussolini repeatedly insisted that the Generals deport the Jews. But General Roatta and other like minded military commanders refused and rescued tens of thousands of Jews in Croatia and Southern France. They deliberately used bureaucratic obstacles to drag their feet. Through a series of lies, exaggerations and deceit they kept Mussolini at bay and never delivered the Jews to the Nazis.  They did tell Mussolini that the Jews were in a “camp” except in this camp Jews were given food, clothing, shelter, and schooling.


The outstanding film called ‘The Righteous Enemy” directed and produced by Joseph Rochlitz recaptures his father’s experience and survival at “Camp Rab” If the subject of the Holocaust was not so outrageously painful one can see the humour in the military’s tactics to save all the 3577 Jews. It clearly demonstrated that the Germans could not control their allies and enforce their vile policies without compliance. And when compliance was not forthcoming, they could not succeed.


In Italian occupied Greece and southern France, General Carlo Geloso refused to force Jews to wear the yellow star. The Nazis demanded deportations, the Italians refused. The stories of Italian heroism are nothing less than extraordinary and almost unique in the European experience of that horrible time. The Italians, like the Danes and Bulgarians, refused to be complicit executioners in the Nazi butchery. The Italians saved over 40,000 Jews from Annihilation in their occupied Zones alone.


Marek [Marco] Herman formally from Lvov, Poland [now Ukraine] was 12 years old when the Nazis invaded his country. Day by day members of his large family were murdered. Italian Troops while on route to the Russian Front encamped in Lvov. The behaviors of these soldiers did not resemble the Germans. They were good hearted, gave food to the starved children outside their fence, and hosted a dozen orphans, Jewish and Christian in their barracks. Many soldiers gave their meals to the people lined up around their fence with outstretched hands.


In 1943, the Italians were recalled from Lvov to Italy and they took Marco and other orphans with them under the disbelieving eyes of the Nazis. Throughout the upheaval, some Italian soldiers adopted several Jewish orphans and the commander of the base gave them money for traveling and other expenses. These precious guardians were named Giovanni Ferro and Luigi Sebastiani.


Once in the village of Canischio, Marco was given a home by the Ferros and treated as their son. He was also offered refuge not only with the Sebastianis but found hospitality, generosity and safety from the whole village. They are now his adoptive and only family. The Ferros also arranged for Marco to study at a church school called” Collegio Dei Salesiani” where he was taught by Monks from the St. Giovanni Bosco Monastery. Even when school was out he was permitted to remain within the “Collegio Walls”.


Marek repaid the villagers for their generosity, and for his life, through his active participation in their struggle for liberation as a fighting partisan with the group called “Corpo Volontari della Liberta” in Northern Italy. “Never say that you have reached the End” is the first line of the Song of the Partisans and Marco with his multiple knowledge of languages, intelligence, quickness, and burning desire to stay alive and bear witness, became indispensable to those  who helped and defended Jewish orphans.


After the war Marek left Italy to train and fight in the Palmach, the Elite arm of the Haganah. In December 1981, The city of Conischio made Marek an honorary citizen as a “gesture of debt to all innocent victims of Nazi-Fascist cruelty” and for his passionate fight for freedom and justice.


Even after the war as many borders including Canada’s remained tightly shut the Italians took in and cared for Jewish refugees. The book “The Selvino House”, which was a rich resort for Italian children, describes how it was turned into an orphanage for 1000 orphaned Jewish children waiting to go to Palestine.


Yad Vashem has honored 371 Italians as “Righteous Among the Nations”. There are surely many more whose stories are not known. And they probably do not see themselves as Heroes but just ordinary human beings doing the right thing. Just being human.  But as we wrote at the beginning of this article, let us never forget Camus’ piercing words that, “Just being human is already being heroic.”