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:

Our train was blocked from continuing the journey at one point and we were stranded in Ustaša territory, where the Italian Second Army maintained garrisons. We asked for help from the first Italian soldiers we saw, and their sergeant took upon himself to escort us and several other fleeing Jews to the railroad station. We then boarded an Italian military train with the sergeant at our side; he managed to bring us across the demarcation line into the Italian zone. Ours was quite a typical story of how the lower ranks of the Italian army spontaneously saved Jews during the Ustaša terror of the summer of 1941.

Both The Italian Refuge and Jonathan Sternberg’s All or Nothing explain that it was not only the lower ranks for whom such behavior was typical. General Mario Roatta, General Mario Robotti, and General Giuseppe Pièche of the Carabinieri (gendarmes), and other commanders, defied the Germans, Croats, and the Duce by granting asylum to the Jews. In Italian-occupied southeastern France, General Vittorio Ambrosio and his staff, with the help of the Italian foreign ministry, successfully resisted repeated French and German attempts to deport the many thousand Jewish refugees huddled in the small Italian zone.

Italian junior officers besieged their government with letters protesting the inhumanity of Nazi persecution, and the generals and diplomats, who knew perfectly well that Jews were being gassed, put pressure on Mussolini not to go along with the Final Solution. Caught between the pressures of such Nazi diplomats as Martin Luther, Prince Otto von Bismarck (grandson of the Iron Chancellor), and Hans-Georg von Mackensen, who demanded deportation, and Italian Fascist Party leaders, foreign service officials, and military men who called for just the opposite, Mussolini hesitated, issued contradictory orders, and tolerated the sabotage of his anti-Semitic decrees, in which he himself did not really believe.

Both Sternberg and the authors of The Italian Refuge advance interesting explanations why all this happened. They refer to the liberal tradition of the nineteenth-century Italian Risorgimento, the small number of Italian Jews and their successful assimilation into Italian life, the fact that the Italian army had always included many high-ranking Jewish officers, and the importance of Jews in the early Fascist movement. No doubt, too, some Italian generals were jealous of German successes and enjoyed irritating their fanatical allies when it came to the treatment of the Jews. The authors refer, moreover, to the beneficial effects of the anarchic tendencies of Italian life and of the conservative mentality of the army officers. When a German general demanded that Jews be deported, General Paride Negri said heatedly, “Oh, no, that is totally impossible, because the deportation of Jews goes against the honor of the Italian army.”

The concept of honor must indeed have been important to these brave officers, yet conservative officers in Germany, Hungary, Romania, and elsewhere, equally proud of their honor, often condoned or took part in the murder of Jews. There is something to be said for Hannah Arendt’s view that what happened in Italy was “the outcome of the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people.” Yet it is also well to remember that the Fascist regime was capable of much brutality, that it was the Italian air force that first perfected terror bombing in Ethiopia, that Italian generals won the war there largely through the heavy use of mustard gas, and that during World War II the Italian military concentration camps in Yugoslavia could be hellish places for their South Slav inmates.3

Norway’s Response to the Holocaust, by Samuel Abrahamsen, is a book sponsored by the “Thanks to Scandinavia” Foundation (Victor Borge, national chairman), but having read this eminently objective account, I wonder why Jews should be particularly thankful, at least in the case of Norway. Nearly half of that country’s minuscule Jewish population of 1,600 (0.05 percent of the total population) was killed during the war and, as Abrahamsen, a professor emeritus at Brooklyn College in New York, points out, none would have died without Norwegian collaboration. Norway had only a few convinced Nazis but enough anti-Semites and law-abiding policemen and bureaucrats to make the Final Solution a near-success. To begin with, the small number of Jews in Norway was the result of a long and, at least to me, astonishing tradition of anti-Semitism combined with an extremely restrictive interwar immigration law that kept out nearly all refugees from Nazi terror. During the war, many Norwegians who would otherwise not have helped the Germans, took part in registering, arresting, and handing over Jews to the German authorities. As for the powerful Norwegian resistance movement, it resembled all the other European resistance movements in caring little about what happened to the Jews. Just as elsewhere, however, there were thousands of decent Norwegians who helped hundreds of Jews escape, for the most part across the Swedish border.


Poland having been the home of more European Jews than any other country, many studies are understandably devoted to the controversial subject of Polish-Jewish relations. One of them, Out of the Inferno: Poles Remember the Holocaust, is a collection of brief reminiscences by mostly simple people who did what they could to help Jews, most of whom they had never before met. As the book reminds us, the difficulties were almost insurmountable, and it was far easier for a Pole to be a part of the underground resistance than to help a Jew. The story of Barbara Makuch, a young member of Zegota,4 the Polish underground organization dedicated to helping Jews, can serve as an example.

Makuch became active in saving people in 1942 when her family took in Malka, a Jewish girl they had not known previously, and to whom they gave the Polish-sounding name Marysia. Soon Makuch had to flee from Sandomierz with Malka to Lwow, where she placed her protégée in a convent and at that time joined Zegota, as two of her relations had done before her. Sometime later she was arrested by the Gestapo while carrying huge packages full of forged documents and money. In prison, Makuch was whipped and beaten mercilessly and lost all her teeth. She was taken to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in 1943 from which she was liberated at the end of the war, by the Americans. Malka and her mother also survived the war; Barbara Makuch was honored by Yad Vashem for saving Malka’s life.5

My Brother’s Keeper?’ contains fascinating polemics by a number of Polish and Polish Jewish intellectuals on Polish anti-Semitism, on what Poles neglected to do during the Holocaust, and on whether or not they, and humanity in general, had an obligation to help. Antony Polonsky, the book’s editor, teaches history at the London School of Economics; he is also president of the Institute of Polish-Jewish Studies at Oxford.

The debate in Poland on past and present Polish anti-Semitism was given new force by the showing in that country of Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah; the film is often mentioned in the essays and exchanges contained in Polonsky’s collection. The book also discusses the wave of anti-Semitism that swept through Poland immediately after the war, leading to the murder of at least forty Jews in the July 1946 pogrom in Kielce. This and similar pogroms were provoked, as Polonsky points out in his introduction, partly by fears that the returning Jews would try to regain their property, and partly by the feeling that the presence of many Jews in the Communist regime was confirming prewar fears of Judeo-communism (Zydo-Komuna).

Much of the discussion in ‘My Brother’s Keeper?’ centers on an article by the prominent literary historian Jan Blonlski, which appeared as “The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto” in the dissident liberal Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny in 1987, and which is reproduced here. The article takes as its point of departure Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto,” written shortly after the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, and demands that Poles accept their share of responsibility for the death of the Jews. Polish guilt, Blonski argues, did not consist of mass murder but of withholding help that might have been given. This, in turn, was caused by a tradition of anti-Semitism: “Yes, we are guilty. We did take the Jews into our home, but we made them live in the cellar. When they wanted to come in the drawing-room, our response was—Yes, but only after you cease to be Jews, when you become ‘civilized’.”

Blonski’s article provoked a flood of protests, some of which are reproduced in this volume. His critics, especially those among them who were themselves prisoners in Auschwitz or other camps, feel that Blonski went too far in his accusations. The journalist Witold Rymanowski, whose 1987 article is reprinted in ‘My Brother’s Keeper?‘, demanded that Blonski be prosecuted under articles 178 and 270 of the Polish criminal code for “slandering the Polish nation.” Others are more moderate, and while the former underground fighter Wladyslaw Sila-Nowicki feels that Polish society did all it could during the war, the Catholic dissident Kazimierz Dziewanowski, now Poland’s ambassador to the US, and others are much less certain. As in Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, and France, national responsibility for the murder of the Jews is now being debated in Poland with candor, vehemence, and the participation of leading thinkers—a contrast with the muted treatment of the subject until fairly recently.

Finally, Józef Garlinski, whose 1975 book about the Warsaw uprising, Fighting Warsaw, became an international best seller, has published a much more personal story, The Survival of Love. Garlinski, then a young Polish officer, was wounded during the German attack in 1939. He later rejoined his British-born wife in Warsaw, and together they were in the resistance movement, he as the leader of a counterintelligence unit. Betrayed by a former schoolmate in April 1943, Garlinski was arrested by the Germans and taken to Auschwitz where, as he freely acknowledges, life for him as a member of a penal unit was often more bearable, because he was a Pole, than that of a Jew in a nonpenal unit. His wife survived also, and the two were reunited, in Glasgow, after the war. The photographs in the book are harrowing, and the author’s prose is simple and convincing—even the most suspicious reader will acknowledge that it is the work of a brave and humane person.

“The state of Croatia…no longer exists. It was a short-lived German satellite, set up by the Germans and the Italians after the collapse of Yugoslavia in April 1941.” So begins Menachem Shelah’s essay on genocide in World War II Croatia in A Mosaic of Victims.6 Clearly Croatia has shown much greater vitality than anyone would have imagined when the book was published in 1990.

To what degree if any is the new Croatia a spiritual heir of the World War II state, whose political leaders and Fascist militia, the Ustashas, committed unspeakable crimes? To what extent has Croatia and the rest of the region changed since World War II? One looks in vain for a reasonable answer in the political literature coming out of the former Yugoslavia today,7 which should have been all the more reason to welcome a new work on the subject of Croatia during World War II by the late Vladimir Dedijer, an internationally known scholar who spent the last decades of his life mostly outside Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, his The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican, while providing some insight into the horrors of the period, hardly helps us to understand the civil war during the 1940s or the crisis there now.

The crimes of Ante Pavelić’s Ustasha dictatorship are often mentioned today, especially in Serbian protests against those who now condemn their own barbaric program of “ethnic cleansing”; but it is still worth recalling that during World War II Croatian campaigns of extermination were waged against Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies, and that many Greek Orthodox Serbs whose lives had been spared were forced to convert to Roman Catholicism. Characteristically, Croatian Fascist propaganda asserted that most Greek Orthodox “are as a matter of fact Croats who were forced by foreign invaders to accept the infidel faith,” but the same regime then proceeded to the wholesale slaughter of these allegedly redeemable “ex-Croats.” Croatian clergymen, especially Franciscan monks, gave strong and enthusiastic support to the anti-Serb measures, directed as they were against “infidel” fellow Christians.

Dedijer, who died in 1990, had been Tito’s companion in the Partisan war; he wrote, among other books, a well-known biography of Tito, and held many state posts. When he fell out with Tito and the regime, he taught history at various US and British universities. One might have hoped that he was capable of writing a clarifying study of the horrible civil war among his countrymen, a conflict whose antagonists seemed to outsiders nearly indistinguishable from one another in appearance, language, and customs. What we get instead is over four hundred pages of anti-Croatian polemics, with wild conspiratorial theories about an eternally conniving, imperialistic, and bloodthirsty Catholic Church. Dedijer seems to divide the Croatian people into “Yugoslavs,” that is, the people of whom he approves, and the “Croats,” who are murderers and fascists (although in fact a considerable number of Croats joined the Partisan forces with Tito). Dedijer gives neither a general historical view of the subject or even a summary of his book, which consists simply of hundreds of examples of Croatian and Vatican treachery and brutality.

Dedijer writes that “over 200,000 people, mostly Orthodox Serbs, met their death” at Jasenovac camp, the Croatian “Auschwitz.” In a “Preliminary Note” to the same book, Mihailo Marković, the former dissident philosopher who is now closely associated with President Milošević’s regime, assures us that “750,000 Serbs were exterminated [at Jasenovac], together with Jews and Gypsies.” The claim that 750,000 Serbs were killed in a single Croatian camp is often made in Serbian propaganda publications, yet even the much more reasonable total of 200,000 is meaningless unless some evidence and careful estimates are produced to corroborate it. Marković refers to unnamed “German sources” to support his statement, yet we know that the Germans tended to exaggerate murder statistics, whether as part of an effort to shift responsibility onto their allies and local auxiliaries, or as a reflection of the internal power struggles so characteristic of the Nazi system. Fascist Croatia was a protégé of Ribbentrop’s foreign ministry, and so the German SS, often at odds with the foreign ministry, tended to take up the cause of the Orthodox Serbs against the Catholic Croats. In doing so, the SS wildly overestimated the number of Serbs killed by the Ustashas.

The irresponsible estimates of Serb propagandists allow Croatian apologists to minimize the number of victims at the Jasenovac camp and elsewhere. Nobody knows how many were killed at Jasenovac, but a rational guess would be somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000, still a horrendous figure, especially when we consider that the camp’s executioners lacked the sophisticated murder weapons available to the Germans. As Dedijer shows, the Ustashas used revolvers, a few old machine guns, hand grenades, knives, axes, hatchets, mallets, and any other instrument they could lay their hands on. In 1942, at the time of the worst massacres, they were led by a Franciscan monk, Miroslav Filipović-Majstorović.8 The viciousness and cruelty of the Croatian Ustashas, to whom thousands of Croats fell victim as well, were extraordinary even in our vicious and cruel age. The Croatian government and society have barely begun to acknowledge this terrible record, much less atone for it.9

Characteristically, Dedijer does not have a word to say either about counteratrocities by the Serbian Chetniks or about the massacre by Communist Partisans, at the end of the war, of many thousands of Chetniks, Croats, Slovenes, ethnic Hungarians, and Germans, whether they were fascist, nonfascist, or antifascist. Dedijer fell out with the Communist regime in later years but unlike his former comrade Milovan Djilas, he never forthrightly confronted the Communists’ massacres of their internal enemies before and after they took power. That Dedijer, a Communist internationalist and a cosmopolitan intellectual, produced at the end of his life so prejudiced and so nationalistic a book suggests how dim are the prospects for ethnic and religious reconciliation in the former Yugoslav republics.


Because of the generally high quality of the works that have been published, the terrible fascination of the subject, and humanity’s need to face its own inhumanity, I do not advocate an end or even a slowing down of Holocaust literature. Yet after having looked through more than fifty recent books on the Holocaust and Nazi and Soviet killings sent to me by The New York Review, I confess to a sense of hopelessness. To what end should we learn more about seemingly ordinary, everyday people, some fanatical, others not even believers, who visited such horrors on those who had done them no harm and whose “otherness” existed mostly in the imaginations of their persecutors?

Have people learned from this ghastly record, which has been the subject of so much commentary? When catastrophes to some degree comparable occur today, we tend to offer the same tired excuses for the international failure to act, and this time no one can plead ignorance. The process of “ethnic cleansing” goes on unimpeded in Yugoslavia week after week. It hardly marks a change for the better when UN soldiers descend on a country like Bosnia-Hercegovina only to make certain that when the inhabitants are killed it will not be on an empty stomach.

When Bosnia-Hercegovina declared its independence this spring, there was some reason to hope that it might become, in miniature, what the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire had been for several hundred years: a multicultural state in which regional loyalty would override narrow tribal and religious interests. The Jews, more than any other people, benefited from the existence of these empires and were among their most loyal subjects.

The attempt of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews, and Gypsies to live together is being destroyed, largely by outside forces. The Sarajevo militiaman who feels that he is a Serb first and a Bosnian second is being given powerful military assistance; his counterpart on the other side who feels that he is a Bosnian first and a Serb second is often lucky if he can get food for his family. As Bosnians continue to be killed, or to die in concentration camps, or be driven into exile, the tribalism once so powerfully represented by the Nazis registers another victory.

This is the last of three articles

This Issue

November 5, 1992