Cambridge University Press
0521841011 - Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi rule, 1922-1945 - Edited by Joshua D. Zimmerman


Joshua D. Zimmerman

  The Jews represent the only population which has never assimilated in Italy because it is made up of racial elements which are not European, differing absolutely from the elements that make up the Italians.
  Manifesto of Racist Scientists
  The [Gestapo] had our precise and up-to-date address, just as they had the address of every Jew, a gift from the “mild” Italian racial laws to the German allies.
  Aldo Zargani, For Solo Violin: A Jewish Childhood in Fascist Italy

Until recently, the subject of Italian Jewry under Fascist rule received little attention in English-language Holocaust historiography. A combination of factors, including the size of the community and the relatively small number of victims – about eight out of every ten Italian Jews survived the war – partly accounted for this neglect in the historical literature. With the third highest survival rate after Denmark and Bulgaria, a consensus emerged that Italian Fascist persecution of Jews was not only mild but that Mussolini, the Italian armed forces, Italian civilians, and many church officials consistently protected Jews throughout the war years. Many scholars do not dispute the fact that while Nazi Germany began its genocidal assault on European Jewry in June 1941, Fascist Italy, as long as it remained a sovereign state, became a haven of safety and security not only for Italian Jews but for thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in both the peninsula as well as the Italian-occupied zones of France, Greece, and Croatia.1

   Yet when the Germans occupied Italy in September 1943 and placed Mussolini at the head of a puppet Fascist state known as the Republic of Salò, tragedy struck Italian Jewry. In collaboration with Mussolini’s republic, the Nazis implemented their Final Solution on Italian soil. Over the next twenty months, Italian and German authorities hunted down Jewish men, women, and children in German-occupied northern Italy, which led to the arrest of 8,529 Jews of whom an estimated 6,806 were deported to concentration and death camps.2 Historians have not until recently drawn attention to the degree of Italian complicity in the implementation of Nazi Jewish policy on Italian soil. Rather, they highlighted the degree to which many officials of the Salò Republic, while outwardly and officially complying with Nazi demands, strove as much as possible to obstruct German roundup and deportation actions by warning Jewish communities in advance of impeding mass arrests. Thus, when comparing Italy with other European countries, historians of the Holocaust often characterized both the Italian government and the Italian people as shining examples of heroic resistance to Nazi barbarism.3

   The decidedly positive evaluation of Italy during the Holocaust was articulated at a 1986 conference in Boston dedicated to Italian rescue efforts during the Holocaust. One historian maintained,

  the Holocaust is to a considerable extent a study in the potentialities of human evil and inhumanity. However, within all the horror, there were still sparks of good and hope....Italy was one of these sparks which illuminated human good, compassion, and tolerance....While the evil [of the Holocaust] cannot be forgotten, its darkness all the more serves to contrast with the light of the Italian response.4

An Italian-born Israeli historian earlier put forth the thesis that during the German occupation, “the Jews once more had an opportunity to experience the deep and courageous sympathy of the Italians, who did not hesitate to expose themselves to great peril to help the persecuted.”5 The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s characterization is similarly representative: “Simple gestures of human decency were the hallmark of Italian rescue efforts even by Italian police officials who were forced to cooperate with the deportation.”6

   The favorable view of Italy rested, in part, on the tendency to use Nazi Germany as the only gauge against which Italy is measured, a method that has inevitably downplayed the gravity of Fascist Italy’s own anti-Jewish persecution. By confining analysis to the period of the German occupation in 1943–5, which saw the deportation of Italian Jews to death camps, historians largely excluded from scrutiny a distinct phase in the persecution of Italian Jewry – the period of state-sponsored Italian anti-Semitism.

   During the years 1938–43, prior to the loss of Italian sovereignty, Fascist Italy waged a debilitating campaign against its Jewish population. The passage of anti-Jewish laws, introduced primarily before the Second World War and without German interference, dealt a sharp blow to the Italian Jewish community. Soon after the Manifesto of Racist Scientists appeared, which attempted to prepare the public and provide a theoretical justification for the coming anti-Jewish campaign, a law of September 5, 1938, declared that Jews could no longer send their children to public or private Italian schools or be employed in any capacity in any Italian school from kindergarten to university;7 a law of November 15, 1938, further decreed the immediate and permanent removal of all textbooks by Jewish authors from the Italian classroom.8

   Two months later, the Council of Ministers passed a sweeping set of racial decrees. Signed by Mussolini, King Victor Emmanuel Ⅲ, the minister of justice and others, the Royal Decree Law of November 17, 1938 – titled “Laws for the Defense of the Race” – decreed that intermarriages between “Aryans” and “non-Aryans” were henceforth illegal (Art. 1), a law that applied equally to Jews and blacks, or any other non-Aryan people, regardless of nationality, thus forming part of a larger racial policy in the wake of Italy’s conquest of Ethiopia;9 Jews could no longer perform military service in peace or wartime (Art. 10a); Jews were banned from being guardians of non-Jewish minors (Art. 10b); Jews were henceforth barred from any state employment and from owning or managing any business with more than one hundred employees or which received defense contracts (Art. 10c); Jews could no longer own land that had a taxable value of more than 5,000 lire or urban buildings worth more than 20,000 lire (Art. 10d, 10e); Jews were banned from employing domestic servants “of the Aryan race” (Art. 12); and Jews could lose legal parental control over children “who belong to a religion different from the Jewish religion, if it is demonstrated that they give them an education which does not correspond to their religious principles or to the national purpose” (Art. 11).10 In addition, Italian citizenship granted to Jews after 1919 was henceforth revoked (Art. 23) and all foreign Jews – with the exception of those over sixty-five years of age or those married to Italian citizens – were ordered to leave the country within four months or be forcefully expelled (Art. 24 and 25).

   Additional regulations to the “Laws for the Defense of the Race” sought the complete segregation of Jews from Italian society. On June 29, 1939, a new law banned Jews from the skilled professions, affecting some 1,599 Jewish doctors, lawyers, architects, journalists, dentists, and engineers.11 Other additions included prohibitions on Jews frequenting popular vacation spots, on placing advertisements and death notices in newspapers, on owning a radio, on publishing books, on public lecturing, on having their names listed in telephone books, or on entering certain public buildings.12

   On the eve of the racial laws in 1938, the Italian Jewish population of approximately 46,50013 had been highly integrated into the general society, was overwhelmingly urban, and, on the whole, was solidly middle class. In the mid-1930s, 43.3 percent of Italian Jews worked in trade, 22.1 percent in industry, 11.6 percent in public administration, 8.8 percent in the liberal professions, 5.9 percent in credit and insurance, 3.6 percent in transportation and communications, and 1.5 percent in agriculture. In contrast, about half of the general population in 1936 was employed in agriculture, 8.2 percent in trade, 29.3 percent in industry, 0.6 percent in the liberal professions, 0.6 percent in credit and insurance, and 3.8 percent in transport and communications.14 Despite the Italian Jews’ overwhelmingly urban and middle-class character, there were significant regional, social, and religious variations. Most significant in this regard was the Jewish community of Rome, Italy’s largest center with a Jewish population of 12,494 in 1938.15 A significant portion of Roman Jews inhabited the old quarter of the former Jewish ghetto, were largely poor and working class, and had retained a high level of religious observance and social isolation. The contrast between the Roman Jews and other major Jewish centers can be illustrated by the divergent rates of intermarriage. Although the percentage of Jews marrying outside the faith in interwar Italy was 43.7 percent16 as a whole and even higher in such large cities as Trieste (59 percent) and Milan (56 percent), only 8 percent of Roman Jews intermarried during the same period.17 The Italian racial campaign, which effectively revoked the emancipation of Italian Jewry achieved during 1848–70, thus constituted a profound rupture in the modern history of Italy, interrupting a century-long pattern of growing social integration.

   The immediate effect of the racial laws was the abrupt disruption of jobs and education. Within weeks of the racial laws, many Jews were fired from their jobs, including over 100 Jewish elementary school principals and teachers, 279 Jewish high school principals and teachers, 96 tenured professors, 133 university adjuncts, and several dozen part-time faculty.18 At the same time, 1,500 university students (both Italian and foreign), 4,000 junior and high school students and 2,500 elementary school pupils were affected.19 But the impact of three Jewish responses to the racial laws – conversion, withdrawal from the Jewish community, and emigration – permanently altered the character of the community. In an effort to circumvent the anti-Semitic decrees, it is estimated that between 4,528 and 5,429 Italian Jews formally left the Jewish community in the years 1938–41, either through conversion or officially removing their names from the registry books of the Union of Italian Israelite Communities, a number that reached close to 6,000 by the period 1943–5.20 In addition, the permanent emigration of some 5,966 Italian Jews in the years 1938–41 depleted Italy of some of its most brilliant minds.21 Thus, prior to the German occupation of northern Italy in 1943, Italy’s anti-Jewish campaign had reduced the Italian Jewish population by a staggering one-fourth by conversion and emigration alone.

   The first historian to draw attention to the severity of Italian race laws was the internationally renowned Italian scholar Renzo De Felice (1929–96).22 De Felice’s pioneering 1961 study, The Jews in Fascist Italy: A History,23 was based on exhaustive research conducted in previously inaccessible Italian government archives of the Fascist period as well as of previously untapped Italian Jewish archives.24 In this comprehensive account, a full and complex picture emerges of Italian Jewry under Fascism. Regarding the period 1943–5 – under the German occupation and Mussolini’s puppet Fascist regime – De Felice argued that attempts to shift all responsibility for the murder of thousands of Italian Jews on the Germans alone was a distortion of the historical record and had to be revised. He documented not only the degree of Fascist complicity with Nazi Germany but also the widespread confiscation of Jewish property by Italian authorities during the German occupation.25

   The vast majority of De Felice’s study, however, was devoted to two distinct periods prior to the German occupation: Italian Jews under Fascism to 1938 and the dramatic deterioration of the Jewish position after the racial laws in 1938–43. Here, De Felice examined the nature and scope of Fascist racial policies and the motivations surrounding their introduction. He concluded that, while Mussolini and Italian Fascism bear much responsibility for the introduction of anti-Jewish laws in 1938, the ideological roots of racial anti-Semitism were foreign.26 According to this line of interpretation, although Nazi anti-Semitism was the consequence of Hitler’s profound ideological conviction, Mussolini was a cynical opportunist who used the race card solely to further a political agenda: to reenergize Fascism, to strengthen the alliance with Nazi Germany, and to regulate the interactions between Italians and natives in the African colonies. Based on the premise that Mussolini himself “did not personally harbor...any real prejudice against the Jews,”27 De Felice argued that the transformation of Fascist Italy into a racial state derived primarily (but not exclusively) from the growing importance of the Axis alliance. The decision to introduce state-sponsored anti-Semitism, De Felice wrote, “stemmed from the belief that, in order to give credibility to the Axis, it was necessary to eliminate the most glaring difference in the policies of the two regimes.”28 De Felice also pointed to a complex of secondary causal factors in the period 1935–7, thus cautioning against reducing the shift in Italian Fascist racial policy to a single factor.29 At least two factors were entirely domestic, including the anti-Fascist position of some Jewish individuals and Jewish organizations during the wars in Ethiopia and Spain, which led Mussolini to conclude that Jews were part of an international anti-Fascist campaign,30 and the strongly anti-Semitic leanings of Mussolini’s entourage. Due to Mussolini’s own supposed lack of ideological conviction as well as his desire to distinguish Fascism from Nazism, De Felice argued that Mussolini consciously adopted a “non-biological approach” to the Jewish question in drafting racial laws.31

   In contrast to the Italian government’s adoption of institutionalized anti-Semitism, De Felice adamantly upheld the view that the Italian people as a whole rejected both the anti-Jewish campaign and the ideas behind it. Positing an almost absolute cleavage between the Fascist government and the Italian people, racial anti-Semitism was “alien to the Italian mentality and sensibility.”32 From the premise that biological anti-Semitism was a foreign import that found only a handful of genuine adherents in Italy, De Felice came to the conclusion that the Italian people and, for the most part, the Catholic Church rejected anti-Semitism and did their best to circumvent the laws. “It was clear,” De Felice wrote, “that the initial measures and their underlying idea had been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Italians with such unanimity as to be, for once, truly ‘totalitarian.’ ”33 Nor, he held, did the period of institutionalized anti-Semitism in Italy make any impact on the collective psyche of the Italian people: “There is no doubt that, even in 1939–1943, the great majority of Italians remained...opposed to racism and anti-Semitism.”34 De Felice’s book, which for many years was the only scholarly monograph on the topic, was curiously not translated into any foreign language until the English edition appeared in 2001. Thus the most comprehensive scholarly work on the topic was virtually unknown outside of Italy while its dissemination in the country remained confined to an elite group of intellectuals.

   Nearly two decades after De Felice’s book, the first full-length scholarly work on Italian Jewry under Fascism in English appeared.35 Utilizing archives in Germany, Israel, Italy, and Great Britain, Meir Michaelis examined the impact of German–Italian relations on the development of Fascist racial policy. Drawing heavily on files from the German foreign ministry archives, he demonstrated that Nazi Germany did not directly interfere in Italy’s domestic Jewish affairs until the fall of Fascism in 1943. In contrast to De Felice, who argued that the transition to institutionalized anti-Semitism in Italy was the outcome of several interdependent factors of varying degrees of importance, Michaelis argued for the absolute primacy of the Axis alliance. Despite the absence of direct pressure from Nazi Germany, the passage of racial laws in 1938 was, according to Michaelis, “solely due to [Mussolini’s] itch to emulate Hitler and his exaggerated sense of ideological solidarity with the Reich”36 (emphasis mine). While acknowledging other forces in the years 1935–7 that generated a change in Mussolini’s views (the conquest of Ethopia, the Spanish Civil War, Italian Jewish involvement in the anti-Fascist movement, and so on) these “minor” factors37 nonetheless could not account for the Duce’s “sudden conversion” to Nazi racial ideas, which he had earlier opposed.38 “Mussolini,” Michaelis maintained, “had all sorts of grievances against the Jews but only one reason for persecuting [Jews] as a ‘race’ – his ill-fated alliance with a Jew-baiter.”39 Despite their disagreements over the relative significance of factors behind Mussolini’s change of policies, Michaelis and De Felice formed a consensus about the absence of a “Jewish question” in Italy during the years 1922–36.40

   The coming of the fiftieth anniversary of the Fascist racial laws, commemorated in 1988, sparked a revival of interest in Italian Jewish history in general and in the history of Jews under Fascism in particular. A new postwar generation of scholars in Italy and abroad began to reevaluate the existing sources, uncover new ones, and raise new questions. The result of the revived scholarly activity was the appearance, beginning in the late 1980s, of sophisticated monographs on interwar and wartime Italian Jewry that have provided a new interpretative framework. These include a range of new studies on the impact of the racial laws, as well as on the circumstances surrounding the implementation of the Nazi Final Solution on Italian soil between 1943 and 1945.41

   Several core works that have been fundamental in establishing the new interpretative framework for the study of Italian Jewry under Fascism have never appeared in English. First, in two major monographs, Michele Sarfatti revised the prevailing consensus by putting forth two theses: (1) that Mussolini supported the biological-racial type of anti-Semitism and (2) that anti-Jewish policies in Fascist Italy began earlier than had previously been accepted in the historical literature.42 Second, Liliana Picciotto, in her now classic study, established that the effects of the deportations from Italy in 1943–5 on the Jewish community were similar, in percentage terms, as the rest of Western Europe.43 And in his two-volume scholarly study, the German historian Klaus Voigt argued, for the first time, that the Italian regime’s attitude toward Jewish refugees in 1933–45 was considerably less friendly than previous studies had claimed.44

   Meanwhile, the heightened interest in Italian Jewry spread to American historians and writers. Particularly important in this regard was the appearance of Susan Zuccotti’s The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, Survival45 and Alexander Stille’s Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism.46 Taken together, these two American studies exposed the English reading public to a much more complex and ambivalent picture of Italian Jewry under Fascism. In The Italians and the Holocaust, based largely on published sources and documents from the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan, Zuccotti argued that the focus in the existing literature on tales of heroism and rescue in wartime Italy had distracted attention away from negative aspects of Italian–Jewish relations and had led to facile generalizations about the Italian national character. Although most Italians rejected Fascist racism and opposed German policies, there were a good many others who followed Mussolini and Hitler to the end, she maintained. An equally important aspect of Italian Jewry under Mussolini, Zuccotti argued, was the Fascist government’s betrayal of its Jewish citizens before and during the German occupation. In her chapter titled, “The Italian Phase,” Zuccotti documents the period when Italian Fascist guards, on their own and without assistance from the German occupying forces, arrested and interned thousands of Jews between November 1943 and February 1944 on orders from Mussolini.

   Stille, in his extraordinary study of five Italian Jewish families under Fascist and Nazi rule, drew attention to the devastating material and psychological effects of the 1938 racial laws on Italian Jewry. Yet Stille, taking De Felice’s lead, maintained that the application of the Italian racial laws, between 1938 and 1943, revealed “a fundamental lack of conviction” on the part of the Italian government.47 Challenging the assumption that the Italian people overwhelmingly opposed anti-Jewish persecution, Stille revealed that acts of denunciation by fellow Italians during the German occupation led to deadly consequences for some members of each Italian Jewish family that he profiled. While revising some of the old views, these two works share many assumptions with previous studies about the uniqueness of the Italian Jewish experience, the degree of toleration in Italian society, and the willingness of Italians to engage in rescue efforts.48

The present volume revolves around seven areas of inquiry that have given rise to controversy in the historical literature: (1) the native versus foreign roots of Italian Fascist anti-Semitism; (2) the extent and appearance of Fascist anti-Jewish policies prior to the racial laws; (3) Mussolini’s attitude to the Jewish question as well as his personal role as ally and puppet of Hitler; (4) the character and aim of the Italian racial laws; (5) the attitude of the Italian masses to anti-Jewish persecution; (6) the Italian role in the roundup, deportation, and murder of Italian Jews to Nazi death camps in 1943–5; (7) and the attitude of the Catholic Church in Italy with special reference to Pope Pius Ⅻ.

   Taken together, this collection of essays challenges the myth of Italian benevolence during the Fascist period. The chapters are divided chronologically and consist of both theoretical overviews and case studies. Alexander Stille and Mario Toscano examine the distinct features of Italian Jewry during the critical passage from nineteenth-century Liberal to early twentieth-century Fascist rule. Michele Sarfatti and Fabio Levi provide overviews of the character, aims, and impact of the Italian Fascist racial laws in 1938–43; Liliana Picciotto presents an overview of the fate of Italian Jews under the German occupation; and Frank Coppa analyzes the attitudes of Pope Pius Ⅺ and Pope Pius Ⅻ to Nazi and Fascist anti-Jewish persecution.

   The majority of essays consist of case studies on the rise of racial persecution, its impact on Italian Jewry, and Italian Jewish responses. These include Giorgio Fabre’s analysis of Mussolini’s attitude to Jews and the Jewish question, Annalisa Capristo’s study of the Italian academies’ exclusion of Jews both before and after the racial laws, Sandro Servi’s analysis of the image of the Jew in the Fascist anti-Semitic magazine, La Difesa della Razza, and Roberto Finzi’s study of the reaction of the Italian universities to the racial laws both during and after the war.

   With regard to Jewish reactions, Iael Orvieto examines the everyday life of Italian Jewry in 1938–43 through the lens of more than 1,000 Jewish letters to Mussolini and the royal monarch pleading for exemptions from the racial laws. Karl Voigt examines the individual and organizational response of Italian Jews to the plight of Jewish refugee in Fascist Italy before and after the German occupation. On the period of the German occupation, Robert Katz reexamines the October 1943 deportation of Roman Jewry in the light of newly declassified documents and Cinzia Villani offers new research on the fate of Italian Jewry in two northern occupation zones. With regard to the politically and emotionally charged issue of Pope Pius Ⅻ, Susan Zuccotti offers a dispassionate analysis of the latest literature. She concludes, from an examination of all the extant evidence, that Pius never issued a papal directive encouraging the rescue of Jews in Italy and other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. Finally, Anna Bravo, Millicent Marcus, and Ruth Ben-Ghiat examine the problematic nature of modern Italian memory of fascist anti-Semitism through case studies of Italian film and public reaction to a recently published Italian rescuer’s wartime diary.

   Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule, 1922–1945 provides a much-needed reconsideration of many assumptions in the English-language historical literature about the Jewish experience in Fascist Italy. It is my hope that this collection will bring to light a more balanced and historically accurate picture, reframe old debates, and set a new research agenda.

© Cambridge University Press