Improbable Heroesby Carl L. Steinhouse
The vain and often delusional Mussolini sought to ingratiate himself with Hitler by adopting Germany's anti-Semitic programs and laws. Following the Italian leader's overthrow and a German takeover of Italy, some Jewish leaders worked
Improbable Heroes is the true story of how Jews were saved by extraordinary acts of bravery by ordinary Italians and the clergy.
The vain and often delusional Mussolini sought to ingratiate himself with Hitler by adopting Germany's anti-Semitic programs and laws. Following the Italian leader's overthrow and a German takeover of Italy, some Jewish leaders worked feverishly with the Catholic clergy and partisans to hide, disguise and spirit Jews out of the harm's way. Catholic and Jewish artisans counterfeited false papers, baptismal certificates and ration cards; Jews were dressed as priests and nuns and hidden in convents, churches and abbeys-some even in the Vatican.
The Germans, harassed by Christian and Jewish partisans, and furious at being unable to round up significant numbers of Jews, committed unspeakable atrocities against Italian citizens and clergy. Improbable Heroes traces the terrifying experiences of Jewish families, Italian and non-Italian, who dodged the Gestapo, traveled under false papers and disguise, and were hidden by brave priests, nuns and citizens, some right under the noses of the SS. Others were escorted as "pilgrims"-Jews dressed as priests-through German lines to safety by the gentle monks of St. Francis of Assisi.
Improbable Heroes also explores how the plans of Pope Pius XI to condemn the Nazi persecution of the Jews were derailed by his untimely death and the ambivalence of his successor, Pope Pius XII, to condemn the Germans, but balanced by the aggressive efforts of some cardinals and bishops, when they ordered, sometimes in the pope's name, Catholic clergy to assist Jews, and Catholic churches and convents to hide them.
As a result of acts of improbable heroes, over 85% of the Jews in Italy survived, a rate unmatched in any other German-occupied European country. This is their proud story.
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While I studied World War II and learned about the Holocaust, it was not until I read this book that I truly understood the magnitude of the atrocities of the war. Carl Steinhouse describes both individual acts of courage and the overall sentiment of the ordinary Italian citizens and clergy that contributed to the high percentage of Italian Jews that survived the war. He relates the escalation of the persecution in the years leading up to the German occupation of Italy and offers insight into the internal conflicts faced by members of the Italian government, military and police as they struggled with the choice between following orders or personal morals. As the tide of the war changes and Germany begins to retreat, we see increasing incidences of moral victory side by side with increasingly desperate attempts of the Germans to capture Jews. He also delves into the inner workings of the Vatican and the controversial papacy of Pius XII as it relates to the protection of Jews in Italy. It is a compelling and fascinating read.
This true story is a well researched and interesting book. The author has organized and set down the events in nearly a chronological order beginning in 1924 when the relationship between Hitler and Mussolini began their strange sequence of events. Hitler came to dominate the attitudes and actions in the next several years especially in regard to the fate of the Jewish people in Italy. Mussolini wanted to be a major world leader and committed the Italian army to fight with Hitler¿s army in Poland and Russia. The Jewish people in Italy were not a great concern of Mussolini¿s while Hitler was determined to eliminate all Jews in Europe. A fascinating story is that of the Catholic Church where the highest level of Catholic leadership made a moral judgment to keep silence over the persecution of Jews in Europe. The real heroes of this book are the clergy and ordinary Catholic citizens who collaborated in creating many ways of protecting the Jewish people including many refugees from other countries. Some of these ways were false Id¿s, dressing Jews as priests and nuns and hiding them in convents, churches and even in the Vatican. Many were escorted to Switzerland and later behind American and British military lines. Even many common German soldiers who were Catholic cooperated in protecting the Jews. The German leaders began rounding up the Jews in Rome where over 8,000 lived but were able to find and deport to Auschwitz 1239 of them. Steinhouse writes a compelling account of the Jewish people in Italy and the role of the Italian clergy and people who demonstrated great courage and determination in their behavior. All history students should read this book.
Carl Steinhouse has managed to craft an intriguing story, based on actual historical events, which filled me with suspense from start to finish. As a Roman Catholic, I have always felt shame that the church did not do more to help the Jews during the Second World War. I came to understand, after reading IMPROBABLE HEROES, that many of the clergy and church members actually risked their own lives in order to help Jews escape the persecution of Hitler and his henchmen. The characters and dialogue give the reader a vivid picture of the politics played out as well as the hatred and evil of the Nazis and their sympathizers. Yet, the courage and goodness of some ultimately triumphed. We must never forget what happened to thousands of innocent Jews, especially with the condition of our world today. This book is a must read, especially by the youth of our country.