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IT HAPPENED IN ITALYUntold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust
By ELIZABETH BETTINA
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Elizabeth Bettina
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA TALE OF TWO CAMPS
I always told Fred that he had a picnic in Italy. I said to him, 'You complained that sometimes you had too much soup, while I was lucky to get a few spoons of some dirty water,'" recalled Edith Moskovich Birns. Edith is a survivor of Auschwitz, while the man who would become her husband, Alfred (Fred) Birns, survived the Holocaust in Italy.
Edith, a tall, slender, elegant woman, reminds me of an older Grace Kelly. She is in her eighties, is always fashionably dressed, and carries herself with an air of confidence. To see her today, you would never guess that at one time she was beaten simply for being a young Jewish woman. And you could not imagine, unless she told you, that during World War II, she was held in Auschwitz and other German camps.
Edith was born into a Jewish family in 1925 in Konus, Czechoslovakia, which was then part of Hungary, near Ungvar. Her father was an accountant, and they led a nice upper-middleclass life until the day it was abruptly ripped from them by the Nazis. On April 10, 1944, the family-Edith, the eldest at eighteen; her two sisters, ages six and eleven; two brothers, ages seventeen andfourteen; and her parents-and their Jewish neighbors were rounded up and taken to a ghetto in Unvbar where they remained for about two months. From there, a cattle car took them to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp.
"I remember being taken out of my home in Hungary with my family. None of our neighbors tried to help us. No one warned us of what was going to happen," said Edith with a faraway look in her eyes. "In Italy, Fred and his friend Walter [Wolff] were helped by the Italians and warned when the Nazis were coming-even by the police. Fred was able to survive because the Italians did not assist the Nazis. They [the Italians] hindered the Nazi efforts and helped the Jews. That did not happen to us. The Hungarians cooperated with the Nazis.
"In fact, as we were being taken away, one of our neighbors asked us which of our cows gave the most milk. Can you imagine? That is what they asked us as we were being taken away. I will never forget that! From the truck, I saw them entering our home and taking our belongings.
"After a few months in the ghetto, we were put on trains, in cattle cars. It was terrible. There was no place to sit. We all stood. It was hot. There was no place to go to the bathroom. We were locked in the dark with no light and no air for days.
"Then the doors opened. We stumbled out and right away were sent in different directions. My little sisters were holding my hands, but I was forced to go into another line and had to let go of them. They went with my mother, and I never saw them again. They were taken straight to the showers and murdered."
Edith's voice cracked as she whispered, "I still have nightmares about that, and cannot forgive myself for not trying to save them. This was Auschwitz. You know what that means. Absolute horror. The guards would make fun of us and beat us if they saw us praying. They worked us to death, and we barely had enough to eat. If I found the core of an apple in the field, I picked it up and sucked it. That little juice helped me survive one more day, but if a soldier found me picking the apple up, he would have shot me immediately." She continued. "What was happening to us? I asked. Why was this happening to us? What did we do?
"Toward the end of the war, I was transferred to Ravensbrück, near Berlin. When the Nazis realized the Allies were closing in, they sent us on the famous Death March. As the war was ending, the Nazis tried to murder the remaining survivors by forcing them to march away from the Soviet Army and die from the cold weather, exhaustion, and famine. I was liberated on May 5, 1945, by the Russians. That is what saved my life. There is so much more to tell you, but can I tell you another time?"
"Of course," I said.
We were both silent for a moment.
"You know," she said. "Fred and Walter, their experiences in Italy were so so different. The Italians treated them like human beings. Fred survived for six years in Italy. No one could ever have survived six years in German concentration camps. That was impossible."
"When did Fred arrive in Italy?" I asked.
"He went to Italy from Dresden with his mother and father around 1938. They didn't like what was going on in Germany and decided to leave."
Fred's family, like so many others, decided to leave Germany before the country's political situation worsened, and Italy was the only country that would let the Jews in without a visa. Life was good for Fred's family until the war; then they were sent to camps. Fred was sent to Campagna and his father to Ferramonti. At the time, their last name was Birnberg. (Later, when they immigrated to the United States, it was changed to Birns.) Then Fred made a domanda, kind of a "request," to join his father, and he, too, went to Ferramonti.
"As I said before," continued Edith, "the Italian camps were a picnic. Whenever Walter and Fred got together, they loved to speak Italian, and they both loved Italian people. They told stories like old friends do about their time together and what they did. You know what they did? They played cards! Can you imagine that? When I tell other survivors that my husband played cards in his concentration camp in Italy, they don't believe me. If Walter and Fred didn't have the pictures, I wouldn't believe it either. What kind of camp was that? Nothing like the ones that I was in.
"Eventually, when the Italians became enemies of the Germans, the Germans looked for Jews in Italy to take to their camps in Germany. Fred was able to get help from a priest who arranged fake papers for him. Fred became Mario Rossi. No one in Hungary helped my family get fake papers. No. Instead, they pointed the way to our house. That is the difference."
"What happened to your family?" I asked.
"My whole family except my brother and me were killed in Auschwitz. A family of seven-we became two."
And Fred's family?
"They all survived," she said. "They were in Italy. But Fred's relatives in Germany? They were all destroyed by the Nazis. Every one of them died."
* * *
Edith's heart-wrenching story highlighted yet again the stark differences Jews experienced when they were interned in Italy, compared with the death camps elsewhere in Europe. I was months into my journey of discovery, and by now I'd heard many other survivors tell stories with the same theme: life in Italy, instead of death; kindness from strangers instead of cruelty; humanity instead of depravity. The unfolding tale had taken me across the world and through many turns and surprises, but it all started with a simple photo.
Chapter TwoTHE PHOTO-THE RABBI!
A picture changed my life.
The faded gray photo showed something that just didn't make sense. What was an Orthodox rabbi doing standing on the steps of the church where my Catholic grandparents were married? This was not the typical church in New York City with a synagogue around the corner. It was a church in the tiny Italian village of Campagna, a place practically invisible to the outside world, hidden in the folds of the rugged Apennine Mountains about an hour southeast of Naples.
Questions raced through my mind. Since when did this village have a rabbi? Just about everyone in Italy in the 1940s was Catholic. So how did this rabbi get there-especially during World War II? But there he was, surrounded by smiling people, including a bishop and a police officer. I didn't think police officers and rabbis got along anywhere in Europe in 1940.
I came to discover that this picture not only said a thousand words, but it also represented a thousand lives, and then some. It began a journey to discovering the true story of how thousands of Jews were spared almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis, simply because they were in Italy.
* * *
Like many other Italian-Americans, my grandparents moved to the United States for the many opportunities it offered. We still had family in Italy, so starting from the time I was ten years old, my grandmother, "Nanny," and I would spend our summers in Campagna. We visited almost every year until I graduated from high school, and it was a different world from the New York City suburbs I lived in the rest of the year.
No one in Campagna talked much about World War II. It was a difficult time, I was told, and my uncle Zio Pierino spent part of it in a German prisoner-of-war camp. At one point, the Americans accidentally bombed Campagna when they thought they saw Germans in the town. There were no Germans there-that day-but many townspeople had gathered for their daily ration of bread, and many of them were killed that day. Almost as an afterthought, I was told that few Ebrei (Jews) were hidden in the surrounding mountains. When Germans did come through, searching for Jews to deport to Germany, my great-grandfather and others in Campagna hid some of the Jews from them. That was all they told me. No one ever elaborated.
So I knew of a few Jews hidden in the mountains, not the hundreds-or maybe even a thousand-who spent years in Campagna. The way I heard it, it sounded as if a handful of people, similar to Anne Frank's family, were hidden there. And no one ever mentioned a rabbi!
* * *
Over four years ago, on a sizzling hot Sunday evening in August, my eighty-nine-and-a-half-year-old grandmother (she added the half back in) and I were enjoying brick-oven pizza with family and friends at Ristorante/Hotel Avigliano, a restaurant located high in the mountains of Campagna. This was the last night of a wonderful trip I'd planned as a complete surprise, an opportunity for Nanny to visit her family in the village where she and my grandfather were born. No one in Campagna knew we were coming, and were they ever surprised to see us! Little did I know that the surprise would be mine.
Campagna is a picturesque, quiet village that can only be reached by one narrow, winding road. If the road is blocked for any reason, the only way in is to climb the mountains. (Think The Sound of Music.) In many ways, time has stood still in Campagna. My friend David Parker visited Campagna a few years ago and nicknamed it Brigadoon, after the fictitious Scottish village that appears for only one day every hundred years. It fits. The streets are narrow, made for i ciucci, the donkeys. In some places you can stand in the middle of the street and touch the walls on both sides with your outstretched arms. Little old ladies dressed in black lean over balconies keeping watch or peer out of seemingly shuttered windows. I say "seemingly shuttered" because the ladies manage to look through the slats and see all that is going on. Nothing escapes their ever-watchful, inquisitive eyes. You'll find the men sitting around the town or playing cards at the local cafés, and no one ever seems to move very fast-even on a Monday morning.
Nanny was seventeen when she married my grandfather and moved to New York, and as they say, the rest is history. She maintained close ties with her family over the years through letters-the old-fashioned kind with airmail stamps that took weeks to arrive, and she kept them all these years in her dresser drawer.
When I first began going to Italy, Nanny's parents were still alive, and I got to know my great-grandparents. They were the oldest people I had ever seen-at the time they were only in their mid-eighties. My great-grandmother looked like the other elderly ladies in town: she was petite, wore long skirts, and kept her snow-white hair neatly rolled up in an old-fashioned bun. My great-grandfather was short and had a mustache accompanied by a stern look on his face. He never left the house without a hat on and his shotgun slung over his shoulder-like the other men his age.
One summer led to another, and after I graduated from high school, I continued to visit every few years. After all that time, I thought I knew everything about this village and its quiet, almost backward, ways.
That evening at Ristorante Avigliano, Zio Peppe, a distant relative in his mid-seventies (it seems everyone is a distant relative in Campagna) and the owner of the restaurant, gave me a copy of a doctoral thesis. It was written by a wonderful man from Campagna named Gianluca Petroni. The picture of the rabbi on the church steps was in the book, just one in a series. There were more pictures from Campagna in the 1940s-of a menorah, of Jewish men playing cards, and of Jewish men singing. How did they get there? And why were they there?
This book has since traveled with me all over the world, and continues to unlock mysteries. Little did I know that this discovery would change not only the course of my life, but many other lives.
Flying back to New York at thirty thousand feet over the Atlantic, I read in the thesis about Jews in Campagna during World War II and what their lives were like. Mostly, they were foreign Jews interned in Campagna in the former Convent of San Bartolomeo, located next to the Church of San Bartolomeo (at times referred to simply as the convent). They were allowed to practice their religion and could make il matzo (flat, cracker-like bread) for Pesach (Passover), a holiday Italians of the time referred to as the "Jewish Easter." Now, I cannot imagine matzo in Campagna-ever-let alone in a time and place where to be Jewish meant persecution and almost certain death. Did they allow Jews in Dachau or Auschwitz to make il matzo? I hardly think so.
I wanted to ask the pilot to turn the plane back so I could learn more. How could this have occurred in Campagna and no one ever talked about it? Gossip is the favorite pastime of people in this little village-in fact, in all the little villages in Italy. They could win a gold medal for gossip, if such an award existed. They know everything about everyone and are faster than any BlackBerry. Why didn't I learn about it from either the people of the town or from my history books in school? Why did the world not know? And how did my Jewish friends not know?
Many ask why I am so taken by this story. I grew up Italian-Catholic in a suburb of New York City that was predominantly Jewish, and I was aware of the Holocaust long before I learned about it in school. Even as a little girl I never understood why people-human beings-persecuted others just because of their religion. Some of my friends and neighbors had relatives who were survivors or, worse, were killed in the death camps.
Discovering Campagna's extensive connection to Jews during the Holocaust amazed me and began an extraordinary journey, one I could never have imagined but one it seems I was born to take. Looking back, I can now see that almost every facet of my life up to that point led me to this story. Destino, as the Italians would say.
I have an unbelievable desire-I could go as far as to say it is a calling-to connect the pieces of this intriguing puzzle. In searching for the pieces, I discovered that Campagna was not the only place where Jews were interned in Italy during World War II. Quietly, all over the boot of Italy-from small towns outside Torino, Milano, and Perugia to small towns in the regions of Abruzzi, Basilicata, and Calabria and many in between-Jews were helped by Italian people who risked their lives to keep them from the hands of the Nazis.
Jimmy Gentry was right. This story of goodness in a time of evil must be told.
Chapter ThreeTHE ITALIANS CHINDLER
Giovanni Palatucci. Italians call him "The Italian Schindler." Oskar Schindler was the German factory owner who saved nearly twelve hundred Jews during the Holocaust by bringing them to work in his factories. The movie Schindler's List dramatizes his story.
So imagine this. It is the 1940s. An Italian police official working under Benito Mussolini (Hitler's primary ally in Italy) actively defied orders to implement Hitler's "Final Solution" of eliminating Jews from the face of the earth. In the process, he saved thousands of Jewish people from being deported to Nazi death camps. This extraordinary man was Giovanni Palatucci, and for his heroic efforts, he was killed at Dachau.
Excerpted from IT HAPPENED IN ITALY by ELIZABETH BETTINA Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Bettina. Excerpted by permission.
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