I just returned from a visit to Italy. Traveling in Europe can often be depressing, even heartbreaking, if you know the modern history, especially of the World War II years. Italy, though, offers quite different themes, which are still not as well known as they should be. It’s an inspiring story.
I don’t want to exaggerate Italy’s distinctiveness from the dictatorships that surrounded it. Fascism was a horrendous and brutal system, and Italian treatment of colonial populations in Abyssinia and Libya was homicidal. In one crucial area, though, the Italians stand out magnificently, and that is in what was at the time termed the “Jewish Question.”
If you have not seen it, do track down the 1987 documentary Righteous Enemy by Joseph Rochlitz. Rochlitz grew up knowing that his father, somehow, had survived the Holocaust, and that he had nothing but good to say of the Italian people. This was odd because Italy was a faithful ally of Germany, and in 1938, Mussolini passed his own harsh racial laws. Yet the father’s survival was no matter of a couple of heroic people determined to save hunted Jews at the risk of their own lives. Certainly individuals like that existed, but Italian Jews (and those of nearby territories) owed their lives to a vast systematic conspiracy organized by the Italian army, with the support of highly placed civil servants and diplomats. The story is also told, in much greater detail, in Jonathan Steinberg’s wonderful 1990 study All or Nothing, which compares German and Italian behavior during the Holocaust.
Together, these conspirators saved many thousands of Jews, including those in countries under Italian occupation. They tried to bring under their protection other Jews who could be given Italian papers, even if they had not the slightest contact with the country. Ah, Mr. Mandelbaum! Such a pity that you and your family have lost your Italian passports. Never mind, though, I can easily supply you with temporary papers here and now.
Jews were in a particularly strange position under Vichy French authority. One man recalled being interrogated by French police, until he finally got bored and warned them that, unless they let him go immediately, he would call in the occupying Italian army, who had a bad habit of threatening to shell French police barracks. Yes, he was threatening to call in the Fascists. The French caved in.
Tragically, what ended this protection was the collapse of Italy in 1943, when the country came over to the Allied side. This left the Germans to occupy much of the country, and capture or kill many of the Jews who had earlier escaped.
The best thing about Righteous Enemy is the interviews. Have you ever seen ambush interviews on a show like 60 Minutes, where the journalist approaches some sleazy character to force him to answer embarrassing questions, while the culprits try to run and hide? Righteous Enemy is a bit like that, except that the interviewer is trying to force these aged officers and civil servants to admit just how many lives they saved, and just what heroes they were. I paraphrase: “Oh, young man, I did nothing! You must have the wrong person.” “But we know you did: we have the papers. You saved hundreds of people! Don’t deny it.” “Well, maybe a couple, but it was no big thing. Everyone was doing it.”
In my favorite exchange, a diplomat is pressed as to why he had so freely given out passports to Jews who, he well knew, were not Italian and were not qualified for citizenship. Well, he said, defensively, some of them had been to Italy.
One of these amazingly modest heroes was Giorgio Pelasca, an Italian businessman based in wartime Budapest. On the strength of some questionable papers, he fraudulently represented himself as a Spanish diplomat (taking the name Jorge) and issued ID papers that saved over five thousand Jewish lives. His story included personally facing down Adolf Eichmann. After the war, he kept his activities a close secret until 1987, when he was finally tracked down by the grateful families of some of those he had saved. You can run but you can’t hide…. (Pelasca’s assistant Suzanne Gelleri Dear died very recently, and her obituary is well worth reading).
No less curious is the story of the Italian concentration camps, which the Germans forced the regime to build in order to detain Jews. They reluctantly complied, but made the places as decent as was humanly possible in the circumstances. In one bizarre incident, reported in Righteous Enemy, the camp commandant used to attend synagogue services regularly, presumably because he loved the music. Joseph Rochlitz’s father recalled his time in Italian internment quite happily, for the good food and vigorous cultural life.
In the words of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, “The Jews in the Italian camp could not believe their treatment by the Italians. Jews were assigned a building for social and religious activities, and an elementary high school. While Nazis were murdering thousands of Jewish children, the Italian army supplied Jewish children with text books. Under the Italian flag, Jewish children studied history and Latin, philosophy and mathematics…. Eighty-five percent of Italy’s fifty thousand Jews were rescued from the clutches of the Nazis by Italian lay people, priests, nuns, farmers, soldiers, diplomats, generals.”
I repeat, we must not romanticize the regime or its army, and the general responsible for protecting the Jews so admirably was Mario Roatta, a notorious war criminal who committed horrible atrocities against Slav civilians. Generally, though, Italian people behaved with incredible courage and humanity at the worst of times.
One of the film’s interview subjects had an explanation of why they had behaved thus. It was the only right thing to do, he said, as a gentleman, and a Christian. He could not imagine other Christians behaving differently.
In the Christian Europe of his day, he was, of course, in a tiny minority. Not in Italy perhaps – or Denmark, or Bulgaria – but elsewhere, such voices were appallingly rare.