By Romina Monaco
To this day Italy’s involvement in Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” is still a topic of heated debate. Mussolini’s affiliation with Hitler resulted in the annihilation of 7,680 Italian Jews (including Jews residing in Italy) and as a collective the country is guilty of crimes against humanity. However, in life we can always find paradoxes; within darkness we find light, within hate we are graced with the power of love. The universe shows us that there is duality in everything.
Following its pact with Germany, Italy implemented discriminatory legislation against Italian Jews such as name registry and internment. However, the Italian Fascist government refused to participate in the “Final Solution”. Jews in Italy, including Jews in the Fascist-occupied territories of Southern France, Croatia and Greece were spared deportation to the death camps. Due to this resistance, Italy became a haven for European Jews. Prior the Armistice of September 8th, 1943, whereupon Mussolini was overthrown and Italy surrendered to the Allies, all Jews arrested in Italy and later sent to death camps were done so by the SS.
After the armistice Italy became a country divided; Allies to the south of Rome and the Nazis and Fascists occupying the north. Utilizing the registry implemented by Mussolini, all Jews in northern Italy, including those in the Italian-occupied territories, were quickly rounded up by both Fascist and Nazi officers. They were killed instantly or sent to the death camps in Eastern Europe.
Civilians caught harbouring or assisting Jews were instantly put to death. However, in the midst of moral collapse there were the Righteous. These are the heroes who risked their lives so Jews could live. Yad Vashem, the Israeli national remembrance authority for the Holocaust, recognizes and commemorates these individuals. Cases are constantly being reported and evaluated by the authority. Currently there are 10,000 “gentiles” recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
Italians come to mind - a renowned cyclist, countless clergymen, peasants, policemen as well as young children. There are also the controversial “enemy heroes”, still under investigation by the Yad Vashem Authority, such as high-ranking Fascist officers, dignitaries and the most controversial of all – a Vatican Pope.
Recently some of Italy’s heroes were honoured by the Jewish and Italian communities of Toronto. Held at Vaughan City Hall, “Saluting Italian Heroes” was an evening to remember the people who fearlessly chose to challenge the forces of evil. Listed are some of those honoured:
Unknown before 1987, Giorgio Perlasca’s story unfolded when a group Hungarian Jews appeared at his doorstep. His bewildered son listened to the strangers explain how they were saved by his father. Known as the Italian Oscar Schindler, Perlasca was responsible for saving over 5000 Jews. Posing as the Charge’s D’Affair at the Spanish Embassy in Budapest (he had escaped Fascist Italy and due to his involvement with the Spanish Civil War was given Spanish citizenship) he issued false passports and visas to Hungarian Jews- offering passage to neutral countries. He also stood up to the notorious Adolf Eichmann, in order to save Jewish twins from deportation and hid Jews in “safe houses” - risking his life daily. He died in Italy in 1992 and is recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations.
An Italian police commander in Fiume in northern Italy, Palatucci saved thousands of Jews facing deportation. He destroyed documented records of 5000 Jewish refugees living in the town, issued false documents and provided them with money. He sent the refugees to an “internment camp” protected and hidden by his uncle Giuseppe Palatucci, the Bishop of Campagna. Once his activities were discovered by the Nazis, he was deported to Dachau Concentration Camp where he died in 1945. There are streets, parks and town squares named after him in Israel and Italy. He is recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.
The Italian cyclist who won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948 as well as being a three-time Giro d’Italia winner, secretly used his fame to assist Jews. Gino Bartali smuggled false identity documents including other information, hidden in the frame of his bicycle, past military checkpoints. Telling patrols it was part of his training he pulled a wagon with a secret compartment. From Florence he would cycle hours to meet secretly with the Italian Resistance. Bartali also sheltered a Jewish family in an apartment he financed with his cycling winnings. Eventually he was questioned by authorities and his life threatened. Bartali died in 2000 at the age of 85. He is recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations.
Pope Pius XII
Eugenio Giovanni Pacelli, better known as Pope Pius XII remains a controversial figure. Although he made several impactful speeches before, during and after the war abhoring the maltreatment of Jews, his seemingly lack of action and seemingly complacent attitude led to public outrage. He did not interfere when countless Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz and refused to return baptized orphans to Israel. This stigma followed him right until his death in 1958.He has been refused the honour of Righteous Among the Nations.
However, in 2012, with new information, the Authority is now reconsidering the Pope’s nomination. According to this information, he allocated 180 hiding places for Jews within the Vatican – the number of people is anywhere from 4000 to 7000. An unknown number were sheltered at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. He released monasteries and convents from the cloister rule (forbidding entry to outsiders) so that they could be used as hiding places. On October 16th, 1943 Gestapo Chief, General Kappler demanded 50 kilograms of gold from the Jews of Rome – or 300 Jews would be murdered. With the Pope’s approval 50 kilograms of Vatican gold was given to Kappler so that Jews could be saved.
In the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, Rabbi J. Stern stated that Pius XII “made it possible for thousands of Jewish victims of Nazism and Fascism to be hidden away…”
In the Jewish Post in Winnipeg, William Zukerman, a former American Hebrew columnist, wrote that no other leader “did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope”.