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Vol.1 - Issue #1
HOLOCAUST BYSTANDERS - ITALIANS
by Alexander Kimel
Before the War Italy was home of about 60,000 Jews. The Jews were highly assimilated, spoke mostly Italian and were undistinguishable from the rest of the population. Although Mussolini officially introduced anti-Semitic policies, they were mostly ignored or bypassed by the reluctant population. The Italian Army helped and protected Jews in their areas of occupation like France, Greece, and Yugoslavia, saving many thousands of Jews. In his diaries Goebbels complained about the unreliability of the Italians:
The Italians are extremely lax in the treatment of Jews. They protect the Italian Jews both in Tunis and in occupied France and won't permit their being drafted for work or compelled to wear the Star of David... The Jewish question is causing us a lot of trouble. Everywhere, even among our allies, the Jews have friends to help them, which is a proof that they are still playing an important role even in the Axis camp.
In Italy denouncing of the Jews was done anonymously, in Poland openly without fear of punishment. The Italian Army refused to give up the Jews for resettlement in the Italian controlled territories, and even forced the French authorities to release the Jews. In 1943 after the Italian Army was disarmed in Southern France, Italian Army officer smuggled groups of Jews into Switzerland, just the opposite behavior from the behavior of the Wehrmacht.
In September of 1943 Himmler decided to liquidate the Italian Jewry. On September 23, 1943 the Herbert Keppler, the chief of the German security police in Rome received from Himmler a message:
All Jews, regardless of nationality, age, sex, and personal conditions must be transferred to Germany and liquidated...The Success of this undertaking will have to be ensured by a surprise action and for that reason it is strictly necessary to suspend the application of any anti-Jewish measures of and individual nature, likely to stir up among the population suspicion of an imminent action.
Deception was the order of the day. Keppler decided to sow confusion by requesting from the Jewish community a contribution of 50 kilograms (about 110 pounds) of gold, for new arms for Germany. If the 50 kilograms of gold will not be delivered within 36 hours, 200 Jews will be deported to Germany. The Jewish Community had difficulty to collect such an enormous amount to gold within the short time allotted, and the Vatican offered help.
The Holy See, learning immediately of the fact of the extortion spontaneously made it known to the President of the (Jewish ) Community through official channels that if it was impossible to collect the fifty kilograms of gold...how would place at their disposition the balance, which could be paid back without hurry when the Community was in condition to do so.
On October 16 the German struck and started the rounding up of all Jews they could lay their hands on. Trains took the rounded up Jews to Auschwitz, and many of them had a chance to escape, through open doors, unbarred windows, or on the stops, but they chose not to leave the families, they believed the German deception. They rationalized that the German needed workers, and it would be irrational to transport them thousand of miles to kill them, it could be done in Italy. Why would a civilized nation want to kill them.
The Survival of the Italian Jews.
In Italy about 85% of Jews survived. what influenced the rate of survival:
- The duration of the occupancy. Italy the German occupation lasted about one year. Western part of Poland the occupation lasted about 5 years, Belgium, France, Netherlands well over four years.
- The physical appearance and the level assimilation. In Italy the Jews were undistinguished from the general population, and could be identified only through their Jewish sounding names. With easily available false papers a Jew moved to another city and with his all family and survives.
- The relative number of Jews , in Poland they numbered over 3 millions, whereas in Denmark only 8,000. The smaller the number of Jews the easier was for them to hide, to pass for Gentiles.
- The timing of the persecutions; in Poland the persecutions started in 1941, at the peak of German success, when the Germans dominated the whole of Europe. In Italy, the deportations started at a time when the German War machine is already crumpling, the rescuers had a better motivation to help Jews.
- The law abiding attitudes of the Jews as well as the general population. In Italy the people do have a nonchalant approach to the authorities and are generally good at bending and ignoring the rules. The Italians did bent the rules and saved lives. Italian nuns bent the rules of their order and allowed outsiders, even men into their secluded cloisters.
Italian priests ignored the laws of their land and, occasionally the instructions of their superiors. Bankers sometimes did not report Jewish bank accounts; innkeepers did not report unusual guests; landlords did not report unusual tenants, villagers did not report newcomers. It is not accurate to say that they minded their own business, rather they did not report what they knew to the Authorities.
This contemptuous attitude toward authority, reflected also in the behavior of the Italian Jews. They never thought of complying with the orders of reporting to interment as did many Dutch, German or Czech Jews. Italian Jews went into hiding or securing false documents. They became adept at fooling the authorities as their non-Jewish compatriots, who were busy evading military and labor conscription, saving automobiles, foodstuff and livestock from requisition, and supplying the black market.
- Contempt for authority translates into suspicion of propaganda and rhetoric of any kind. They did not believe that fascism meant glory, that the Jews were their enemy. Supreme individualists, skeptics, and realists, they thought for themselves and knew better.
- Religion. Italian Catholics, unostentatious and irregular in their observance of religion, were not deeply concerned about individuals, Jews and atheists alike, who did not share their beliefs.