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Holocaust Heroes

Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism

by Alexander Stille
Summit Books, 365 pp., $25.00

Norway’s Response to the Holocaust: A Historical Perspective

by Samuel Abrahamsen
Holocaust Library, 207 pp., $13.95 (paper)

Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust

edited by Richard C. Lukas
The University Press of Kentucky, 201 pp., $25.00

The Survival of Love: Memoirs of a Resistance Officer

by Józef Garlinski
Blackwell, 231 pp., $21.95

The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican: The Croatian Massacre of the Serbs during World War II

by Vladimir Dedijer, translated by Harvey L. Kendall
Prometheus Books/Ahriman-Verlag, 444 pp., $27.95


Jews have been in Italy since Roman times. At the end of the fifteenth century, they were expelled from southern Italy, then a Spanish possession, at the same time as the Jews from Portugal and Spain. Consequently, many southern Italians were hardly aware of Italian Jews even in the Fascist period. Jews were never expelled from Rome and other papal possessions in central Italy, in part because the Church needed them as living reminders of the sufferings of Christ. Yet life was not easy for Jews in Rome, at least not after the sixteenth century, when a ghetto was set up there. They were then forced to attend church to hear weekly sermons exhorting them to convert, and to be exposed to the taunts of the populace.

Jews fared best in the north, where enlightened princes brought in many of them to promote commerce and where Jewish emancipation began early in the nineteenth century. The Royal House of Savoy, which united Italy between 1860 and 1870, was especially philo-Semitic. In return, as Alexander Stille points out in his excellent book, the assimilated and prosperous Jews of Turin, Genoa, and other northern cities were fierce royalists. Italian Jews became bankers, doctors, lawyers, judges, cabinet members, police chiefs, and army officers in numbers and proportions exceeding those in all other countries, except perhaps the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. During World War I, fifty Jewish generals served in the Italian army, a bewildering figure, for it means that more than one out of every thousand Italian Jews was a general. This surely exceeded the proportion of generals within even the Prussian Junker class.

After World War I, such educated and assimilated Jews who did not happen to be Socialists, and not many were, enthusiastically embraced fascism, which presented itself as a necessary defense against Bolshevism and anarchy. Two hundred and thirty Jewish Fascists marched on Rome with Mussolini in October 1922; Jews sat in the Duce’s cabinet and in the Fascist Grand Council. As late as 1938, at the time the first anti-Jewish measures were adopted in Italy, more than 10,000 Jews, or about one out of every three Jewish adults, were members of the Fascist Party, a much higher proportion of party membership than among the gentile population. Even Jews who were not party members took part in holiday parades wearing Fascist uniforms of one kind or another, as, of course, did much of the rest of the Italian population.1 Within the party, a few Fascist leaders had been anti-Semitic from the start, while others were philo-Semitic, but for most Fascists “the Jewish question” simply did not exist. Nor did it concern the general public, among whom the 47,000 Jews (one tenth of 1 percent of the total population) were distinguished neither by physical characteristics nor by language, and only a little by customs and habits.

Mussolini does not seem to have had strong feelings about the Jewish issue, except when it suited the interests of this most accomplished of all opportunists. He carried on a long affair with Margherita Sarfatti, a Jewish journalist whom he first met in his Socialist days and cast aside in the 1930s. During the first fifteen years of his rule, he welcomed Jews into the Fascist ranks, in part because he felt, quite naively, that they had influence in the Western democracies. Even after he had broken with Great Britain over the Ethiopian war in 1935 and 1936, the Duce would alternately support the Fascist Jews and incite them against other Western European Jews and against Zionism, or he would shunt aside the Jewish Fascists and flirt with Zionists, saying that he and the Zionist movement would together conquer the Middle East.

All this changed under the influence of Mussolini’s growing friendship with Hitler, which led to the adoption of Italy’s first racist laws in 1938. What happened next to the Italian Jews is the subject of three fine new books: Benevolence and Betrayal, a quietly written yet exciting and heartbreaking account by Alexander Stille, an American writer whose paternal grandparents were Jews who emigrated to Italy from Russia after World War I; The Italian Refuge, a collection of twelve essays mostly by Italian, American, and Israeli writers; and All or Nothing, which deals with German Nazi influence on Mussolini’s policy toward the Jews.

Of the 44,500 Italian citizens who were defined by the law of 1940 as Jews, 7,682 perished during the Second World War, most of them in Nazi concentration camps. Very few among them would have died without some form of Italian collaboration in the Final Solution, yet this still meant a survival ratio of 83 percent, surpassed only in Denmark, Finland, and Bulgaria.

The generally benevolent behavior of the Italians toward the persecuted Jews has been discussed by, among others, Susan Zuccotti in her valuable The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue and Survival,2 but the three new books provide much more detail and they attempt to give new explanations why Italian Fascist society, so destructive in many ways, proved to be racially more tolerant than many non-Fascist societies in Europe.

In Benevolence and Betrayal, Alexander Stille describes the lives of five Jewish families, in some cases large clans, who lived in four different Italian cities: the Di Verolis of Rome, the Teglios of Genoa, the Schönheits of Ferrara, the Foas of Turin, and the most controversial and fascinating of all, the Ovazzas of Turin. Some of these families lived in modest circumstances, others were very rich; some produced a number of militant antiFascists, others many ardent Fascists, but even the poorest among them, the Di Verolis in Rome’s ancient Jewish ghetto, were Italian patriots. They all believed that “it could not happen here,” a belief that doomed many of them, for they refused to seek shelter even after their non-Jewish friends and neighbors offered to help them to flee abroad or to hide.

As in the rest of Europe, the anti-Jewish measures hit poor people the hardest: whereas the better-off Jews were at first often able to circumvent the law, the Di Verolis suffered acutely from being forbidden to peddle goods in the Roman streets. This was one of the absurdities of organized anti-Semitism, which, according to its own theory, ought to have directed its attacks not at poor Jews but at those who had risen above such traditionally permissible occupations as peddling.

The worst effect of the early anti-Jewish measures was psychological, and none suffered more in this respect than the Ovazzas of Turin, who were among the most enthusiastic Italian patriots. Three Ovazza brothers and their father had all served with distinction during World War I; one brother later became a career cavalry officer, and another, Ettore, a banker, writer, and ardent Fascist, edited a Jewish Fascist paper, La Nostra Bandiera (“Our Flag”), which praised Mussolini’s “corporative” state and his attempts to revive national pride. In 1929, Ettore finally was given an audience with Mussolini, which he later described as follows:

His Excellency Mussolini remembers having read a book of mine, Diary of My Son, and asks me: “And your son?” I answer: “He is six years old, Excellency!”…But when he learns that Il Duce asked me about him! Marvelous faculty of a Man so absorbed by the important affairs of State, to remember so clearly and follow the needs of his faithful!…

On hearing my affirmation of the unshakable loyalty of Italian Jews to the Fatherland, His Excellency Mussolini looks me straight in the eye and says with a voice that penetrates straight down to my heart: “I have never doubted it.”

When the party turned against Ettore Ovazza and his family, he accused not the Duce or the party’s anti-Semites but the Zionists and foreign Jews who had, he said, caused anti-Semitism in the first place. Having criticized the Zionists in his newspaper for many years, Ettore, during the fall of 1938, led a squad of patriotic Jews to the offices of a Zionist paper in Florence and burned it down. In October 1943, he and the immediate members of his family were caught by the German SS while trying to flee to Switzerland; they were executed the next day.

The political climate became particularly dangerous for the Jews as a result of Italy’s prematurely announced surrender in September 1943, after which the Germans, in effect, captured the Italian army and set up a radical neo-Fascist puppet government in northern Italy. Some of those whose lives are discussed in Benevolence and Betrayal became the victims of these neo-Fascists; many more were captured, deported, or killed by the Germans. Yet the difference between Italian and German behavior was striking. Whether they were ordinary working people, nuns, priests, or policemen (the Germans considered the Italian police, unlike their counterparts in France and most other countries, to be hopelessly unreliable), the Italians very often helped Jews. Compared with people in other countries, fewer Italians were indifferent to the persecution of Jews and, often, even the anti-Semites among them could be bribed. This was not so of the Germans, who were supremely methodical. They invested enormous amounts of time and energy in hunting down a few Jewish women and children hiding in a convent; they transported a dying woman, at least ninety years old, all the way from Fossoli camp in Italy to Auschwitz, though they knew that she would die a few minutes after being thrown into the cattle car.

The Bulgarian authorities, it has often been observed, refused to surrender a single Bulgarian citizen to the Nazis, and therefore not a single Bulgarian Jew was killed. But it is perhaps less well known that the same officials handed over all the Jews in the territories occupied by the Bulgarian army in Greece and Yugoslavia. By contrast, the Italian diplomatic service and army high command fiercely protected all Jews in the territories occupied by Italian forces in Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, and France. Thus, in contrast to the situation in the rest of Hitler’s Europe, the Italian authorities as well as ordinary Italian gendarmes, policemen, and soldiers went out of their way to save the lives even of Jews who were not their fellow citizens. In Budapest, for instance, persons as assimilated and educated as the fictional Italian Jewish family in Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis as well as Vittorio De Sica’s celebrated film of the novel, would have generally survived the war in relative safety and comfort, but poor refugee Jews from abroad generally did not survive in Hungary. The Italians, however, saved about the same proportion—80 percent—of the 40,000-odd non-Italian Jews who were living under Italian protection as they did of Jews who were Italian citizens.

Ivo Herzer, the editor of The Italian Refuge, survived German and Croatian Fascist persecution thanks to the Italian army. As he writes in the introduction, he was born and lived in Zagreb until the Croatian Fascist Ustasha state was created in 1941. He and his family then attempted to flee:

  1. 1

    A good many Italian Jews were not enthusiastic followers of II Duce. The early anti-Fascist movement known as Giustizia e Libertà (Justice and Freedom), founded by Carlo and Nello Rosselli, who were from a prominent Tuscan Jewish family, included many Jews, and the manifesto of anti-Fascist intellectuals, edited by Benedetto Croce and published on May 1, 1925, had several Jews among its signers. The arrest of eleven young Jews in Turin in the spring of 1934 for anti-Fascist activities, which led to the first serious manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Italian press, split the Italian Jewish community. “Patriotic” Jews hastened to reassure Mussolini of their loyalty; others became even more hostile to fascism. Following the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, many Jews, including Primo Levi (the author of, among other books, Survival in Auschwitz) joined the Partisans in the mountains to fight the Germans and the neo-Fascist Republic of Salò.

  2. 2

    Basic Books, 1987. Zuccotti’s book was reviewed in these pages on March 31, 1988.

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