The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survivalby Susan Zuccotti
Eighty-five percent of Italy’s Jews survived World War II. Nevertheless, more than six thousand Italian Jews were destroyed in the Holocaust and the lives of countless others were marked by terror. Susan Zuccotti relates hundreds of stories showing the resourcefulness of the Jews, the bravery of those who helped them, and the inhumanity and indifference of others.
For Zuccotti, the Holocaust in Italy began when the first “black-shirted thug” poured a bottle of castor oil down the throat of his victim, or when the dignity of a single human being was violated. She writes: “We might examine again how most Italians behaved from the onset of fascism. . . . Did they do as much as they could? Or should they, and the Jews as well, have recognized the danger sooner, with the first denial of liberty and free speech? We might also ask ourselves whether we, as creatures without prejudice, would act as well as most Italians did under similar pressures. Would we risk our lives for persecuted minorities? Would we be more sensitive to the first assaults upon our liberties, when the only ones really hurt in the beginning are Communists, Socialists, democratic anti-Fascists, and trade unionists? And finally, we might be more aware than we are of the horrors that a racist lunatic fringe can commit, even in the best of societies.”
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Comes to Italy
Even before the Italian declaration of war against the Allies on June 10, 1940, sixty-eight-year-old Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief of the General Staff, had warned that the army was not prepared. Events confirmed his judgment. Only a few days after the Italian attack on Greece on October 28, 1940, the army was in retreat. In January 1941, the British defeated Marshal Rodolfo Graziani in North Africa, advancing three hundred miles into Libya and taking more than 100,000 prisoners. Italy lost Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia by April, along with another 250,000 prisoners. Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, the individual most responsible for reckless military decisions and poor planning, unceremoniously retired both Badoglio and Graziani.
In March 1941, the Germans bailed out the Italians in North Africa. In April, they conquered Greece, where Italians had been bogged down for five months. Mussolini in turn sent 200,000 men to fight beside the Germans in Russia in June. A euphoric year and a half of Axis victories followed. Defeats at El Alamein and Stalingrad at the end of 1942, however, abruptly ended illusions of victory, and Italians began to perceive the truth. Anglo-American troops landed in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942, and the pincers closed tightly around Axis forces in Tunisia. Meanwhile, 115,000 Italians died and 60,000 were captured on the frozen Russian steppes. Those who straggled home again spread demoralizing tales of defeat and German abandonment of their Fascist ally on the battlefield.
Conditions deteriorated rapidly in Italy. Food shortages and rationing made the war highly unpopular. Allied bombing took an increasingly devastating toll. Thousands of urban refugees sought safety in the countryside, disrupting production and straining resources. Disgruntled workers staged frequent work stoppages. Finally, in March 1943, a strike of Fiat workers in Turin spread across northern Italy despite vicious police efforts to stop it. It ultimately affected more than 100,000 workers. The strike convinced industrialists and businessmen that Mussolini was no longer in control. Allied landings in Sicily in July brought military leaders to the same conclusion. Mussolini's fate was sealed.
On July 25, 1943, the diminutive and indecisive King Victor Emmanuel III finally heeded the advice of businessmen, military officers, and Fascist moderates. All hoped to disassociate themselves from Mussolini and salvage their lives, property, and a shred of honor from the wreckage of dictatorship. Emboldened by a Fascist Grand Council vote of no confidence in Mussolini the previous day, the king summoned the prime minister to his villa, stripped him of authority, and arrested him. In a broadcast to the people that evening, the king announced that Badoglio was returning from retirement and would head the new government. He added that the war would continue.
The news stunned the Italian people. Benito Mussolini had, after all, ruled Italy since October 1922, when thousands of Fascist thugs had threatened to tear Rome apart unless the young Victor Emmanuel III appointed their leader prime minister. Twenty-one years later, many Italians could remember no other government. Yet, after three years of an unpopular war, most greeted Mussolini's fall with jubilation. Huge crowds cheered in the streets. Eager young men destroyed Fascist symbols and monuments and searched out petty Fascist tyrants for beatings, imprisonment, or worse.
But not everyone rejoiced during that confused July. Many Fascist sympathizers remained lurking in the shadows. They knew that a permanent transition from dictatorship to democracy would not be easy. They consoled themselves with schemes for a future reckoning of accounts. Meanwhile, the war continued.
Among those who greeted the fall of fascism with jubilation and immense relief was a community of about 37,100 Italian and 7,000 foreign Jews. Their number had been considerably largerthe census of 1938 recorded more than 47,000 Italian Jews, or slightly more than one-tenth of 1 percent of a population of forty-five million. It also listed more than 10,000 Jews of foreign nationality. But the fascism that in 1922 seemed remarkably free of anti-Semitism had not, in the end, done well by its Jews. The racial laws introduced in 1938 required, among other things, the expulsion of all foreign Jews. While this objective was never achieved, the outbreak of war in 1940 resulted in the arrest and detention of thousands. Foreign Jews in miserable internment camps were "permitted" to build their own huts and dig their own wells, if they could secure tools and materials.
For Italian Jews, the racial laws decreed that they could no longer practice their professions, own property over a certain value, send their children to public schools, or marry or employ non-Jews. Throughout the country, thousands of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and civil servants were suspended. Military officers with a lifetime of service were suddenly retired. Children were withdrawn from school. With the outbreak of war, many Italian Jews were also subjected to forced labor. Under the pressures of the racial laws, at least six thousand Italian Jews had emigrated and about the same number had converted by July 1943. Those remaining hoped for better days.
Their optimism was not unjustified. Badoglio was expected to restore the full rights of all Italian citizens and release foreign Jews from internment camps. He would end harassment, anti-Semitic posters, graffiti, and the sacking of synagogues. But Badoglio was still at war. His dangerous and suspicious ally needed to be reassured, or deceived, about Italy's intentions. While he did release most political prisoners, excepting Communists but including Italian Jews, he did little to mitigate the racial laws. The Jewsand the nationwaited. Through the hot summer of 1943, as the Allies raced across Sicily and approached the Italian mainland, the Germans waited as well, and prepared for the day they knew was not far off.
Badoglio, in fact, would have only forty-five days. The real turning point in the lives of all Italians was not July 25 but September 8. At 6:30 that evening, Allied Commander in Chief General Dwight D. Eisenhower announced Italy's unconditional surrender. At 7:45, Badoglio confirmed the armistice and instructed the Italian army to lay down its arms before the Allies but to "react" to attack "from any other quarter." Because the U.S. Fifth Army was not scheduled to land at Salerno until the next day, Allied forces on the Italian mainland on September 8 were limited to General Bernard Montgomery's British Eighth Army disembarking at the Straits of Messina, at the southernmost tip of the peninsula. There were virtually no Allies available before whom the Italian army could lay down its arms. There were, however, at least eighteen German army divisions throughout Italy, with more poised on the frontier awaiting the Italian surrender. The entire Italian army found itself abandoned without realistic instructions on how to deal with its former ally. Because the Germans were naturally determined that no Italian territory, manpower, or weaponry should fall to the enemy, armed confrontations occurred throughout the country.
Some heroic Italian officers after the September 8 armistice resisted German capture. On the island of Cephalonia, thousands of officers and men followed Badoglio's instructions and "reacted" to attack. When they finally surrendered to the Germans, they were all summarily executed. In Corfu, after an equally heroic three-day resistance, seven thousand surrendering Italian soldiers were killed. Nor was resistance limited to distant fronts. General Don Ferrante Gonzaga, commanding Italian forces at Salerno, refused to surrender his weapon to the Germans and was immediately shot down. And there were others.
In the absence of instructions and a declaration of war against the Germans who surrounded them, however, most Italian officers and men decided that their best option was to disappear. Throughout Italy, hundreds of thousands of young soldiers abandoned uniforms and weapons, put on civilian clothes, and went home. Many ultimately joined the partisans, particularly after it became clear that the Germans and their Fascist sympathizers would hunt them down and treat them as deserters. Many others were captured immediately. About 640,000 Italian officers and men spent the remainder of the war in German prison camps, where 30,000 died.
* * *
Italian civilians greeted the events of September 8 with mixed emotions. Official hostilities, at least, were over, but Italy was an occupied country. Germans were much more formidable as conquerors than as allies, particularly for the Jews. For despite the hardships and degradations of the racial laws, it must be remembered that until September 8, 1943, the Jews in Fascist Italy had fared better than Jews in almost any other country in Nazi Europe. Even in unoccupied France, laws in 1940 and 1941 similar to the Italian racial laws of 1938 had limited or banned Jews from most professions and expropriated their property. Foreign Jews in unoccupied France were systematically thrown into wretched internment camps. Then in July 1942, fully four months before the Germans entered the unoccupied French zone, Vichy agreed to release foreign Jews to the Nazis for deportation. At least seven thousand were delivered by August. Such a thing never happened in Fascist Italy before the German occupation. On the contrary, Jewish refugees continued to seek and obtain sanctuary in Mussolini's Italy until the very day of the armistice. In addition, Italian army officers and diplomats occupying Croatia, Greece, and parts of southern France protected Jews from German demands for deportation.
In German-occupied countries, the nightmare of the Holocaust was in full swing. Deportations began in Belgium, the Netherlands, and occupied France in 1942. In a single action in Paris, on July 16 and 17, 1942, French police rounded up 12,800 foreign Jewish men, women, and children. Deported to Auschwitz, about 30 returned after the war. By the end of 1942, about 42,500 Jews had been deported from France to Auschwitz, including 6,000 children.
Even during the Badoglio interlude, Italian Jews dependent on censored news services knew little of these horrors, or regarded radio reports from the BBC and neutral countries as Allied propaganda. At the very worst, they thought, deportation to the East meant work camps and hard labor. Such a fate was certainly undesirable, but it could never happen in Italy. Italy had been Germany's ally. Indeed, after the Germans rescued Mussolini on September 12 and set him up at Saló on Lake Garda as the titular head of the new Italian Social Republic, Italy became Germany's ally again. Italian Jews were enlightened, educated, and assimilated. They were good and patriotic citizens. Why would anyone bother them?
Within a few days, the Jews had their answer. On September 16 in Merano, a beautiful mountain resort town near Bolzano, twenty-five Jews, including a child of six and a woman of seventy-four torn from her sick bed, were arrested by Nazis, interrogated, beaten, and deported. Only one of the twenty-five survived the war. On September 18 in small northern Italian villages near the French border, about 349 Jewish refugees from France were also caught by the SS. These men, women, and children, originally from countries throughout occupied Europe, had fled to France before 1940, then to Vichy France, then to the Italian-occupied French zone, and finally, after the Italian armistice, to Italy itself. About 330 of the prisoners were deported back to France and ultimately to Auschwitz. Nine survived the war.
Elsewhere that tragic September, SS troops invaded the tranquil shores of beautiful Lago Maggiore, on the Swiss frontier. In idyllic villages like Stresa, Arona, Baveno, and Meina, they hunted Jews as one might track wild game. They murdered forty-nine victims on the spot, throwing their bodies into shallow graves or into the lake. They raped one young girl in front of her mother, before shooting both.
The worst atrocities occurred in Meina, a village on the lake between the more famous tourist towns of Arona and Stresa. The train between Milan and the Simplon Pass leading to Switzerland stops there today, and the traveler can see quiet streets and vine-covered hills dropping to the water's edge. But in 1943 Meina's tourists were refugees, Jews and non-Jews, Italians and foreigners, fleeing the bombed-out cities of northern Italy. The tiny village, beautiful, full of vacant hotel rooms off-season, and conveniently near the Swiss border, was a perfect haven. Sixteen Jews, many from war-torn Greece, took lodgings in the Hotel Meina. They sought safety in the very nation that, with significant German help, had defeated their own. Someone informed the Nazis.
On September 16, one week after the German occupation, the SS stormed the hotel. They seized a family of six from Salonika, including the mother and father, the seventy-six-year-old grandfather, and the children aged fifteen, twelve, and eight. They kept this family and ten other victims under guard for a week, debating, apparently, what to do with them. Finally, on the night of September 22, they marched out three separate groups of four people each. They shot each victim in the back of the neck and tossed the bodies into the lake.
At dawn, only the elderly grandfather and his three grandchildren remained under SS guard at the hotel. The parents had already been taken away. The four terrified victims waited that entire day. During the afternoon, one of the children found the courage to go onto a balcony and call to a woman below, "Where are Mommy and Daddy?" The woman replied gently that she thought they had been taken away for an interrogation. Finally, at nightfall, the SS came for the remaining prisoners. A witness at the hotel later reported hearing the grandfather scream and beg for the lives of the children. The children died as brutally as their elders. The SS auctioned the belongings of the victims on Meina's public square. Lago Maggiore gave up only one of the sixteen corpses.
And so the Holocaust came to Italy. The war that began in June 1940 had caused young men to be drafted and sent to die in Russia or Africa or the Balkans. With that war had come air raids, and civilians killed in their beds. But three years later, the war acquired a new dimension. After the German occupation of Italy, children and grandparents could be shot in the back of the neck merely because of their religion.
A non-Jewish Italian maid seeking information about the fate of her Jewish employer, just murdered by the SS near Meina, was told she would never see them again. She objected timidly that they were good people. An SS man replied, "Not good people. Jews, who are the ruin of Europe." This was the war that came to Italy on September 8.
Meet the Author
Susan Zuccotti teaches modern European history at Columbia University. She is also the author of The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews. The introduction by Furio Colombo was translated into English for this Bison Books edition. The author of God in America: Religion and Politics in the United States, Colombo is professor of Italian Studies at Columbia.
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