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La Forza del Destino

Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew: An Italian Story

by Dan Vittorio Segre, translated by Dan Vittorio Segre
Adler and Adler, 273 pp., $16.95

The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival

by Susan Zuccotti
Basic Books, 334 pp., $19.95

The ironic title of Dan Vittorio Segre’s autobiographical sketch, Memoirs of a Fortunate Jew, offers a clue not only to his own history but to that of Italian Jews in general. Between 1870 and 1922, under the liberal regime, the good fortune of Italian Jews was unique in Europe. Nowhere else did Jews find such an easy entry into the ruling class. They were present in the highest ranks of the army, the navy, and the diplomatic service.1 Social discrimination was negligible, and the idea of persecution unthinkable. The weakness of Italian nationalism helps to explain the convergence between the Jews and Risorgimento liberalism. The enthusiasm of the Italian liberals of Cavour’s generation for Jewish emancipation had been at first somewhat ambivalent in its motives. They had a negative view of traditional Jewish culture and regarded emancipation as a way of reforming the character of the Jews so that they could become worthy citizens of the new nation.2 However, Jewish reformers also wished to make a clean break with the demeaning misery of the ghettos, and were therefore ready to accept the liberals’ terms.

The Italian Jews had, indeed, every reason to welcome unification. The treatment of Jews in the Papal States, in particular, shocked the whole of liberal Europe. The issue was dramatized by the notorious Mortara case, when a Jewish child who had been secretly baptized by a Catholic maidservant was forcibly removed from his family and brought up as a Christian. The Jews of Rome were the last in Western Europe to be released from the ghetto, when Italian troops entered the city in 1870. On the other side, Italian patriots found themselves after unification in the situation of a beleaguered if powerful minority. Literate Italian speakers made up less than 10 percent of the population of the new kingdom, and for most of its inhabitants local or religious loyalties came first. The Jews, as Segre points out, were among the few groups willing to serve the nation with “unlimited enthusiasm and faithfulness.” Although there were very few in number (about .01 percent of the population), they played an important role in public life, and, more surprising, their successes aroused little or no resentment.

The Italian Jews tried to preserve a dual identity, as Jews and as Italians. However, Segre is very frank about the fact that for many Jews this became little more than a comfortable illusion. They acquired the prejudices of the most conformist members of the Italian bourgeoisie, and their Judaism became something purely formal, devoid of its ancient values. Their Italian identity seemed beyond question; there was a singular absence of the kind of threats and exclusions that elsewhere maintained a keener sense of Jewishness. Even clerical prejudice could seem to be a thing of the past; when Segre’s father, the mayor and the largest landowner of his village, got married, the parish priest led a torchlight procession in his honor and the nuns of a local orphanage embroidered a present for the bride.

With hindsight, of course, one can say, as Arnaldo Momigliano wrote in these pages, that “the Jews were less a part of Italian life than they thought they were.”3 In The Italians and the Holocaust some of Susan Zuccotti’s informants relate instances of anti-Semitism in their childhood. There were parents who advised their children to keep quiet about being Jewish. Nevertheless, when the position of Italian Jews changed radically for the worse, it was not in any way the direct result of an increase in specific anti-Semitic prejudice. It was instead the destruction of the more general values of tolerance and justice by Fascism that opened the way for a return of discrimination and persecution.

At first the advent of Fascism seemed only to confirm the sense of security of the Italian Jews. If even an aggressive nationalist dictatorship accepted the Jews’ status as good Italians, what could they possibly have to fear? Jews joined the Fascist party in significant numbers, and some even held high positions under the regime. All the same; Susan Zuccotti overstates the case when she writes that “Mussolini’s movement was as free from anti-Semitism as any other political party in Italy.” Zuccotti herself mentions sporadic anti-Semitic incidents provoked by Fascists during the 1920s. The frequent attacks by Fascists on the evil influence of Italy’s greatest bank, the Banca Commerciale, also had anti-Semitic overtones. The leading anti-Semitic propagandist in Italy, Giovanni Preziosi, first made his name during the period of Italy’s entry into the First World War by his denunciation of the bank as a fifth column for Germany; its founders and first managing directors were Jews of German origin.

It is true that Mussolini chose Aldo Finzi, a Jew who had close connections with the Banca Commerciale, for the key position of undersecretary of the ministry of the inferior in his government. However, in 1924, during the crisis provoked by the murder of the Socialist deputy Matteotti, Finzi was sacrificed to the suspicions of the extremist wing of Fascism, who hinted darkly that the whole affair was the fruit of the machinations of “cosmopolitan high finance.”

Mussolini himself certainly showed no signs of anti-Semitism in his personal relationships. By far the most important of the many women in his life was his Jewish mistress, Margherita Sanfatti; she was coeditor of Mussolini’s own ideological review, Gerarchia, and she exercised great influence on the regime’s patronage of the visual arts. However, if Mussolini took care to dissociate himself publicly from anti-Semitism, it was probably more out of prudence than out of sympathy. He believed in the stock clichés about the power of international Jewish finance, but he drew the conclusion that it was unwise to provoke such dangerous enemies. In his best Machiavellian style, he declared that “one must never touch either the Jews or the Church.”

But for all his public caution, he did not discourage the anti-Semitic polemics of the journalist Telesio Interlandi, who later became editor of the chief racist newspaper in Italy. La difesa della razza. Interlandi was commonly regarded as Mussolini’s unofficial mouthpiece. When Hitler came to power, Mussolini did not delay long before giving the anti-Semites their head. There is little doubt that he approved the press campaigns in 1934 against Jewish anti-Fascism and Zionism.

Some Jewish Fascists did not despair easily, however. The periodical La nostra bandiera, edited by Dan Vittorio Segre’s cousin Ettore Ovazza, redoubled its efforts to win the regime’s favor by condemning democracy and Zionism. Ovazza was prepared to carry his conformist zeal to extraordinary lengths. In true Fascist style, his group mounted a regular punitive expedition against the offices of the Jewish community’s most important publication, the pro-Zionist Israel. This happened after the introduction of the racial laws in the autumn of 1938, which had excluded Jews from Italian schools and forbidden civil marriages between Jews and non-Jews. This episode convinced Dan Segre’s father that he should encourage his son to leave for Palestine as soon as possible. Ovazza had sought the elder Segre’s approval, but even though he was a former officer of the Fascist militia, he had given a firm refusal. He explained that:

As Italians we had lost our sacrosanct rights inscribed in the constitution, but as Jews nobody could take away our sense of dignity and honor. To attack coreligionists in such hard times…in order to ingratiate ourselves with a regime that had betrayed us was to act as slaves, not as free men.

This exemplary story shows both how some Italian Jews had really become alienated from their heritage and how for others discrimination revived their sense of pride in being members of a special community.

The later horrors of the Holocaust have overshadowed the inhumanity of the Fascist racial laws. They appear almost trivial in comparison. But in the circumstances of 1938 their gravity should not be underrated. They were scarcely less severe than the Nuremberg Laws themselves. Later, Fascist legislation was probably taken as a model by German satellites such as Romania. As Zuccotti rightly emphasizes, the distinction that Fascists tried to draw between their “spiritual” anti-Semitism and the biological concepts of the National Socialists was an empty one. The only serious difference was that between racial and religious anti-Semitism; the Fascist measures, in both name and content, belonged to the first category. Converts were treated as Jews, provided neither of their parents was Christian.

However, the Italians made poor fanatics, as Mussolini often complained, and it was a long-established premise of the national culture that laws demand exceptions. Humane sentiment, corruption, and Mussolini’s own hesitations, dictated by changing political circumstances, all conspired to mitigate the harshness of the racial laws to some extent. Certificates of “Aryan descent” could be bought. Farinacci, the leading pro-Nazi in the Fascist movement, refused obstinately to fire his Jewish secretary. As many as 10,000 Jews had fled to Italy from Germany and Austria. The racial laws provided for their expulsion within a year. All grants of Italian citizenship made since 1919 were revoked. But about one third succeeded in obtaining an extension of their stay for one reason or another, and three thousand more refugees actually arrived between 1938 and 1941.

With Italy’s entry into the war, the condition of both foreign and Italian Jews worsened significantly. Foreign Jews were interned in camps as enemy aliens, irrespective of their national origins. Families were often deliberately broken up. The largest of the camps was at Ferramonti, in a particularly poor part of Calabria.4 Conditions were primitive and extremely unhealthy, thanks to bad diet and housing, endemic malaria, and medical neglect. But the prisoners were not deliberately harassed or mistreated, and they were allowed to organize their own communal services. The camp acquired something of the atmosphere of a kibbutz; it reminded one visitor of Jewish Palestine.

The location of most of the camps in the south may have been punitive in intent, but it had fortunate consequences, since it meant that the internees never fell under German control. Not all foreign Jews were interned in camps. Some suffered the relatively mild fate of enforced confinement in small villages (confino), a measure previously used against anti-Fascists. The Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg, deported to a small village in the Abruzzi with her husband and children, remembered her stay there as a period of calm and happiness. When Mussolini fell from power, she and her children stayed on in the village voluntarily until the Germans came.

The Italian Jews who remained at liberty also suffered new indignities. In some of the cities with important Jewish communities—Trieste, Ferrara, Casale Monferrato—there were serious acts of violence by Fascist thugs. Beating up Jews and setting fire to synagogues was a safe way of trying to revive the mystique of the armed squads of early Fascism (squadrismo). Jews were not allowed to serve in the armed forces, and this unfairly exposed them to the criticism that they were shirking the burdens of the war. In May 1942 they were made liable for compulsory labor service. The regime expected that this measure would meet with popular approval, but in fact it reawakened sympathy for the Jews. The program of forced labor gradually fell apart. In all, only about 2,000 Jews out of 15,000 who registered were actually drafted.

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. 1

    See A. Momigliano, “The Jews of Italy,” The New York Review, October 24, 1985.

  2. 2

    See A.M. Canepa, “Emancipation and Jewish Response in Mid-19th Century Italy,” European Historical Quarterly, October 1986, pp. 403, 429. The absence of popular anti-Semitism in Italy should not be taken for granted. There were serious anti-Semitic outbreaks during the period of the French occupation, and even in 1848 crowds in some places rioted against Jewish emancipation. No one has as yet provided a convincing explanation of its disappearance at a later date.

  3. 3

    The Jews of Italy,” The New York Review, October 24, 1985.

  4. 4

    See C.S. Greco, Ferramonti: La vita e gli uomini del piu grande campo d’internamento fascista (Florence: Edizioni La Giuntina, 1987).

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 7

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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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