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La Forza del Destino

Fascist policy during wartime was far from lenient toward the Jews. Indeed, it was often deliberately cruel: during the process of internment, for example, families were often broken up by design. However, in one respect Fascist Italy did perform a great service for the Jews of Europe. Because Italy was Germany’s leading ally, Hitler was reluctant to put pressure on Mussolini to conform to his program and to assist in the Final Solution. With the connivance of both army officers and civilian officials, including those of the Fascist party itself, a large number of Jews were saved from deportation by escaping to areas under Italian military occupation. The most important refuge was in the south of France, where perhaps as many as 30,000 Jews fled to the Italian zone. Many Yugoslav and Greek Jews also escaped in this way, and even in Poland a handful eluded the Holocaust by obtaining Italian citizenship. Local officials were moved by simple feelings of humanity. But at a higher level patriotic Fascists, and even Mussolini himself, seem to have tolerated or encouraged assistance to the victims of German persecution as a way of demonstrating their independence from their overbearing ally.

During 1942, Mussolini did respond to complaints from the Germans about the situation in the occupied territories, but this only meant that the Italians resorted to evasion instead of outright refusal. In Croatia, the Italian army rounded up three thousand Jews, many of whom feared the worst. But the army had no intention of delivering them to the Germans, and indeed took active measures to secure their safety. After September 1943, however, the puppet Salò Republic had little room for maneuver. Hitler’s determination to apply the Final Solution in Italy was probably heightened by the conviction that laxity toward the Jews was typical of those weaknesses that had caused Mussolini’s fall in July. The time of terror for Italian Jews now began, and the Jews in Greece and the south of France lost their last refuge.

No episode in the Holocaust has provoked more violent controversy than the arrest and deportation of the Jews of Rome. The argument centers, of course, on the silence of Pope Pius XII, which was memorably denounced in Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy. However, the Israeli historian Meir Michaelis5 came to the conclusion that the condemnation of Pius XII’s inaction was misplaced. The Church helped as many as four thousand Roman Jews to escape, and it is arguable that any public protest would have put them in greater danger. The occupation by German forces of the Vatican itself was not unthinkable. What seemed to be the most dramatic expression of the Vatican’s failure was actually the one occasion on which it offered the Jews concrete help. However, other charges are harder to answer. Why did the Vatican not take more care to warn the Jews of the impending roundup? Vatican officials had been warned a week in advance by the German ambassador to the Holy See, Von Weizsäcker. Both before and after the German occupation, Pius XII had far more favorable opportunities to speak out, but he failed to publicize or condemn what he must have known to be the truth about the Final Solution. His predecessor, Pius XI, had been far more forthright in his repudiation of racism, and it is hard to imagine that he would have remained so passive in the face of the policy of extermination.

If the Vatican failed to give an adequate lead, nevertheless the attitude of the Church was decisive in helping many Jews to survive. The most effective escape networks were organized by priests like the Milanese Don Paolo Liggeri, who was deported to Mauthausen in 1944. A French Capuchin monk, Father Maria Benedetto, took over the running of the Jewish refugee agency (Delasem) in Rome when its leaders had to go underground. By June 1944 his network was supporting four thousand Jews in hiding. In most cases, the bishops actively assisted the efforts of their clergy; the cardinal archbishops of Genoa, Florence, and Milan were all closely involved. In Genoa the support organization was run by the cardinal’s own secretary, Don Repetto. The die-hard pro-Fascist archbishop of Modena was a conspicuous exception in his refusal to help; his silence and passivity were all the more regrettable since the main internment camp for Jews awaiting deportation to Auschwitz was situated in his diocese.

However, some of his clergy helped to pull off the most remarkable of all the rescue operations carried out in Italy. During 1942 and 1943 Delasem had succeeded in founding an orphanage in the Villa Emma, near the village of Nonantola. It harbored ninety-two orphans from families of German and East European Jews, survivors of the massacres in Croatia. In September 1943, a local Fascist led the Germans to the villa, but what happened next, as Professor Zuccotti writes, was “little short of miraculous.” All ninety-two children had vanished and none was ever caught by the Nazis. Many of them were sheltered by local peasants, but the help of the rector and priests of the Nonantola seminary was crucial. The largest single refuge was in the seminary itself, and the priests arranged the escape of a number of orphans to Switzerland.

Dr. Zuccotti points out that many clergy who sympathized with Fascism nevertheless helped the Jews; for example, a chaplain of the Fascist militia in Florence sheltered Jewish refugees. Her conclusion is moving and impressive; the clergy who helped the Jews “viewed the holocaust as above and beyond politics. They understood their duty as children of God, as Italians, and as human beings, and they had the courage of their convictions.” One might wonder whether politics were always irrelevant, though. Many priests, after all, had in the past been connected with the democratic and anti-Fascist Popular party. What is beyond dispute, however, is that most of the clergy had accepted Fascism and that they viewed Nazi barbarity with horror.

All classes of Italians helped the Jews. Poor people in town and country made extraordinary sacrifices to shelter fugitives; one poor peasant from the province of Padua took in a family of thirteen. In rural areas the example and advice of the clergy were certainly important factors, though not the only ones, in maintaining an extraordinary degree of solidarity in the face of the persecutors. Whole villages failed to yield a single informer and were able to keep the presence of Jews in their midst completely secret. “There was so much union that no one sold the others.”6 The foreman of a Florence shoe factory owned by a Jewish family refused to reveal the whereabouts of his employer’s wife under torture.

More surprising is the number of officials, policemen, and even Fascist mayors who did their best to sabotage the machinery of persecution by destroying or falsifying records. When ordered to arrest Jews, the local officers of the carabinieri often informed them in advance, giving them time to escape. Dan Segre’s father was warned in this way; he disguised himself as a peddlar and survived three arrests, thanks to the complicity of the mayor and the absolute secrecy preserved by the villagers. This is a typical story. Segre writes of a “visceral, almost animal solidarity” toward the Jews which was unique in the Western world. His words convey a sense of astonishment at a collective decency that seems to defy any easy explanation.

There is, of course, a darker side to the story of the Italian response to the Holocaust, which is rightly stressed by Zuccotti in her firm and admirably just conclusions. It is right to dwell on the absence of popular anti-Semitism, and the courage shown by Italians in helping the Jews. But any valid account of the relationship of Italians to the Holocaust must also deal with the reality of Italian collaboration.7 As elsewhere in occupied Europe, the SS were short of manpower and they could not have sent as many Jews to their death without the cooperation of local police forces and civilian informers. On December 1, 1943, the minister of the interior, Buffarini Guidi, authorized the Italian police to arrest all Jews and confine them to internment camps.

Dr. Zuccotti easily demolishes the argument that the Fascist internment measure was designed as a serious alternative to deportation. Between December 1943 and February 1944, it is true, Jews interned by the Italian authorities were not deported or handed over to the SS. Those who carried out the first arrests may not have known that they were consigning Jews to their deaths. The commandant of the Fossoli camp promised the inmates that they would never be handed over to the Germans; but on February 8 the SS took over the camp and deportations began within a fortnight. The three months during which action against the Jews was “conducted primarily by Italians according to Italian rules” was only an interlude, and it did not exempt the victims from Nazi ferocity. On the contrary, it clearly extended its range and efficacy. “Italians made laws abetting the Holocaust,” Zuccotti writes. “Italian militiamen, police and carabinieri made arrests, helped load the deportation trains, and occasionally accompanied them as far as Auschwitz itself. They cannot escape responsibility.”

Nor was collaboration always unwilling or hesitant. Zealous officials, criminals, and Fascist fanatics participated actively and wholeheartedly in the anti-Jewish terror. The Salò Republic brought to the top men like the national chief of police, Tullio Tamburini, a former protagonist of violent squadrismo. Tamburini instructed his subordinates to cooperate closely with the Germans and if necessary to ignore the exemption granted to the old and the seriously sick. The Rome chief of police, Pietro Caruso, appointed in February 1944, brought a particular ruthlessness to the hunt for Jews in the last months before the liberation. Twenty thousand Italians joined the SS. Bands of Fascist militia often cooperated with the SS in their manhunts. The last Jews to be killed on Italian soil were victims of Italian militiamen, shot in Cuneo on the day of liberation.

In spite of these sad exceptions, the reaction of the Italians to the Holocaust compares favorably with that of other European peoples. Eighty-five percent of Italian Jews survived. This was a higher proportion than in any other nation occupied by the Germans except Denmark. It is true, admittedly, that it would be too simple to attribute this result simply to the moral attitudes of the Italian people. Other factors, such as the relatively short duration of the German occupation, the presence of the Allied armies in the south of the peninsula, and the possibility of escape to Switzerland played their part.8 It may have helped, too, that the Jews were only one element, and not the largest, in the mass of displaced and hunted fugitives in the Italy of 1943–1944, along with Allied prisoners of war, deserters from the Italian army, those seeking to evade forced labor service in Germany, and refugees of all kinds. Solidarity and concealment were probably easier in these circumstances.

Nevertheless, Jewish survival would be hard to explain without taking into account certain features of Italian culture. The Italians did not trust the state. They showed an attitude of disobedience and skepticism toward the law and the duties of the citizen. They frequently acted at odds with their expressed beliefs, incurring the charge of cynicism. They lacked a true “civic culture.” Italians have been widely criticized for these deficiencies, and they have internalized these criticisms to form a pessimistic view of their national inadequacies. But the truth may be seen somewhat differently. The Holocaust casts a dark light on previously received notions of civic virtue. Jews went to their deaths everywhere because people obeyed orders, trusted the state, and acted unhesitatingly in accordance with their political convictions. All those characteristics of the Italians that are usually viewed as negative were of vital importance in saving lives and in mitigating the effects of official anti-Semitism. In a most revealing comment, Eichmann complained that the Italians lacked “the minimum of honesty necessary” in order to carry out his program. In its human consequences, the Italian tolerance of “disorder” proved infinitely preferable to the German love of order, which has been so memorably castigated by Primo Levi. One cannot easily dissociate such allegedly negative attitudes from the positive characteristics of “courage and pity.” The other side of skepticism toward civic and political duties was a respect for human ties and universal values.

One cannot deny, however, that the destiny of Italian Jews was a tormented one during these years, even when so many escaped the worst. The spontaneous and almost unqualified gratitude of foreign Jews toward their Italian helpers could not be shared without reservation by those Italian Jews who had suffered the trauma of racial discrimination.9 The tone of Segre’s beautifully written autobiography, which reads like a Bildungsroman, is certainly ironic rather than tragic. The second half of the book, which deals with his experiences in Israel, contains some memorable images of incongruity. He arrived as “a fascist cadet in Zion,” elegantly dressed and carrying a Boy Scout hat. His adjustment to life in a kibbutz was difficult and never complete. “The result was a split in my psyche soon manifested by a stutter, which I tried to overcome by going into the fields to declaim Italian poems by Carducci at the top of my voice.” But the origin of this split identity can be traced back to an earlier incident, when he was rejected by the father of a girlfriend in his school days:

You are a Jew,” he said, without resentment or any particular spite. “I and Annemarie are Italian. I understand that you are on the point of emigrating. You are right to do so, but it would not be good either for you or for my daughter if you two continued to see each other. I preferred to tell you this personally, as man to man. Do you understand me?”

It was this encounter that forced Segre to acknowledge for the first time his “Jewish destiny.” But it would never be possible for him to accept this destiny as something exclusive. The attachment to Italy remained. An ambiguous destiny and a “twisted legacy”: these are the images that seem best to sum up the history of the relations between Jews and other Italians in a period that was certainly tragic and terrible but that did not succeed in destroying the roots of friendship.

  1. 5

    M. Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews: German-Italian Relations and the Jewish Question in Italy, 1922–1945 (Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 372–377 ff.

  2. 6

    An excerpt from the moving testimony of two sisters from a mountain village in the Piedmontese Alps, which concludes the film II coraggio e la pietà, made by Nicola Caracciolo for Italian television.

  3. 7

    This side of the question is not taken up in Caracciolo’s film.

  4. 8

    See M. Marrus, “The History of the Holocaust: A Survey of Recent Literature,” Journal of Modern History, Vol. 59, No. 7 (March 1987), pp. 137–141.

  5. 9

    See the preface by R. De Felice in N. Caracciolo, Gli ebrei e l’Italia durante la guerra 1940–45 (Rome: Bonacci, 1986), pp. 14–15. This book contains the text of the many interviews that Caracciolo used in his film; they make up a fascinating record of the human experience of the Jews and their helpers during these years.

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