Italy and the Holocaust

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini

Fascist Italy, led by Benito Mussolini from 1922 to 1943, was the model of Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian state, as well as Germany’s major European ally before and during World War II. But unlike Hitler, Mussolini was not a rabid antisemite and had Jewish followers and friends. Indeed, Mussolini praised Italian Jews as good citizens and rejected Hitler’s notion that race was a central factor in the creation of nations. But since Mussolini was a rank opportunist who sought a closer alliance with Germany, he betrayed the Jews of Italy by enacting antisemitic legislation in 1938 based on Germany’s Nuremberg laws.

Although Italy’s 47,000 Jews, comprising less than one percent of its population, were subjected to a whole range of degrading and humiliating restrictions, they were physically safe. The Italian government did not send its Jewish citizens to concentration camps, much less extermination camps, but the 10,000 foreign Jews residing in Italy, mainly refugees from Germany and Austria, were ordered to leave the country by March 1939. Those who remained behind were interned in a dozen camps, the largest of which was Ferramonti Tarsia in Calabria.

With the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, following the Allied landing in Sicily, Italy was split into two, occupied by the Allies in the south and by Germany in the centre and the north. Germany began deporting Italian and foreign Jews to Auschwitz, and Mussolini’s new Salo Republic, a German puppet state, was complicit in these deportations. More than 6,500 Italian and non-Italian Jews were murdered in Poland, yet the survival rate of Italian Jewry was 80 percent, a shining testament to the risks humane Italian Catholics assumed to save Jews.

In Croatia, a pro-Nazi state, Italian soldiers and diplomats came to the rescue of Jews. From April 1941 to July 1943, Benjamin Wood writes in Defying Evil: How the Italian Army Saved Croatian Jews During the Holocaust  (History Publishing Company), Italy saved some 3,500 Jewish men, women and children, much to Germany’s consternation.

The Independent State of Croatia was created in 1941 after Yugoslavia was invaded and then dismembered by Germany and its allies, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. The Croatian regime, fascist to the core, disenfranchised, demonized and ghettoized Jews. It also established a network of concentration camps, with Jasenovac being its most infamous one.

Nominally sovereign, Croatia was in fact under occupation by Germany and Italy. On April 22, 1941, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, signed an agreement that divided Croatia into German and Italian spheres of influence. The vast majority of Croatia’s 40,000 Jews found themselves stuck in the German zone, but with news filtering out that they had a better chance to survive in the Italian zone, they fled into the arms of the Italians.

Wood, in this well-crafted volume, points out that individual Italian soldiers intervened to save the lives of Jews – and Serbs – threatened by Croatian forces. As he writes, “These isolated acts would develop into a conspiracy at the highest levels of the Italian government and military to save Jews from deportation and death at the hands of the Nazis.”

Junior Italian army officers took the initiative to help Jews, but Wood is certain that their superiors were aware of their efforts. Working with senior army officers, Italian diplomats sought to buy time for Jews through a number of delaying tactics.

Germany tried to arrest Croatian Jews protected by Italy, but to no avail. Germany tolerated Italy’s interference because Hitler admired Mussolini. “In Hitler’s eyes, no other European leader commanded the level of respect as did Mussolini,” Wood observes. To prove his thesis beyond any reasonable doubt, Wood cites an entry in the diary of Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, who noted that “the fuehrer is very much attached to Mussolini” and regarded him as the “only guarantor of German-Italian collaboration.”

In conclusion, Wood speculates that the Italians lent Croatian Jews a helping hand out of simple compassion and a resentment of German arrogance.

Certainly, the milk of human kindness was a factor in Gino Bartali’s decision to render assistance to Jews in wartime Italy. Bartali, an Italian cyclist who won the Tour de France in 1938 and again in 1948, sheltered a Jewish family in an apartment he owned and smuggled counterfeit identity papers to Jews past Nazi checkpoints.

Bartali’s exploits are related by Aili and Andres McConnon in a fine book, Road to Valour: A True Story of World War II Italy, the Nazis and the Cyclist who Inspired a Nation (Doubleday).

They claim he risked life and limb to assist Jews after a heart-to-heart discussion with the archbishop of Florence, Elia Dalla Costa, who was sympathetic to the plight of Italian Jews. Although Bartali could have been imprisoned or killed for helping Jews, he threw caution to the wind and aligned himself with a grand humanitarian effort. But he was a reluctant hero, preferring to remain silent about his heroism after the war.

His silence was hardly unique. From the late 1940s until the late 1950s, Italians tried to forget the war years and Italy’s mistreatment of Jews, says Robert C. Gordon in The Holocaust in Italian Culture, 1944-2010 (Stanford University Press). Gordon, a professor of modern Italian culture at Cambridge University, notes in this informative and scholarly work that major Italian publishers rejected manuscripts by the novelist Primo Levi and the memoirist Ettore Siegrist, both Holocaust survivors.

According to Gordon, the first significant attempts in the Italian language to memorialize the Holocaust occurred in 1944, when the Jewish intellectual Giacomo DeBenedetti wrote an impassioned account of the 1943 roundup and deportation of more than 1,000 Jews in Rome.  In 1948, the Sicilian poet Salvatore Quasimodo wrote what Gordon describes as the first major poem in Italian on the Holocaust. Perhaps he was influenced by the unveiling, in 1946, of a monument in Milan dedicated to the victims of Nazi genocide. Gordon claims it was one of the very first public monuments in Italy specifically built in their honour.

From 1958 onward, the Holocaust was recalled in a profusion of literary and personal works, ranging from Levi’s If This Is a Man to Piero Caleffi’s It’s Easy to Say Hunger. Holocaust diaries by Polish survivors David Rubinowicz and Emanuel Ringelblum were published, too. And in 1962, Giorgio Bassani’s novel, Garden of the Finzi-Continis, appeared. Meanwhile, the filmmakers Roberto Rossellini and Carlo Lizzani made General della Rovere and The Gold of Rome. Years later, Roberto Benigni’s feature film, Life is Beautiful, won an Academy Award.

Italy’s decision to establish a national Holocaust memorial day was the result of lobbying by the journalist Furio Colombo. The day chosen to commemorate the Holocaust was Jan. 27, the date of Auschwitz’s liberation by the Red Army in 1945. Oct. 16, the day Jews in Rome were rounded up in 1943, seemed too close to home for Italian sensibilities, he adds.

A genuine breakthrough occurred in 2001 when Italy’s president, Carlo Ciampi, wrote a public letter acknowledging Italy’s complicity in the persecution of Jews. “The racial laws of 1938,” he noted in a simple yet profound comment, “marked the most serious betrayal of the Risorgimento and of the very idea of the Italian nation, to whose success the Jews had contributed in crucial ways.”