Italian Jews in the Holocaust (orig.posted Jan 27th)

 You who live safe

In your warm houses…

   Consider if this is a man

    Who works in the mud

    Who does not know peace

    Who fights for a scrap of bread

  Who dies because of a yes or no.


From ‘If this is a Man’ by Primo Levi


Today, January 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance day. The date was chosen as it’s the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In Italy it’s called ‘Giorna della Memoria’

In remembering the Holocaust, it’s rare that Italian Jews are mentioned. Perhaps because it’s a Catholic country, there might be an incorrect assumption that there wasn’t a Jewish community in Italy. More than 8,000 Jews were deported and killed in the death camps. When WWII broke out there were over 42,000 Jews living in Italy. Put simply, 20% of the Italian Jewish community was lost in a little over a year.

An Italian Jewish community still thrives in Italy today, mainly living in Northern Italy in the cities. Like many other countries, Italy has a long history of anti-Semitism. The word ghetto is an Italian term first used in Venice, the site of the first Jewish Ghetto in the 16th century. It’s a term combining ‘gheto’ or ‘ghet’, which means slag or waste from a foundry (which was located near the area of Jewish confinement) and borghetto the diminutive of ‘borgo’ or borough.

Jews were compelled to live in city ghettos which following the Venetian example. Gates at the exits were locked an hour after sunset until dawn. This went on for literally hundreds of years. Only after the unification of Italy in 1861 were Italian Jews gradually allowed to live in other areas.

The ghettos themselves, usually in undesirable locations of the city, were places of overcrowding and poor housing, and owned by Christians; Jews themselves were prohibited from owning property. Poverty was rampant as the types of trades Jews were able to pursue was restricted e.g. ragmen, second hand dealers, or fishmongers. Jews could also be pawnbrokers, the latter profession stirring considerable hatred towards them. Most Jewish women, because they didn’t work outside of the home were not allowed to leave the ghetto. On occasions they did, they had to wear a yellow veil, the same color as prostitutes.

In the decades prior to WWII Italians were generally more tolerant towards Jews than other European countries. This is perhaps rooted in the fact that as a community, Italian Jews more assimilated into Italian society. It was not unusual, Jews to marry Italian Catholics, and there were high ranking Jews in the Fascist Party.

Mussolini and Fascism in Italy was a way of life that initially did not initially discriminate against Jews. In fact there were the same percentage of Jews in the fascist party as there were Jews in Italian society. However once Mussolini allied himself to Hitler things changed. In 1938 the Racial Laws were passed.  In effect, the laws barred Jews from participating in society – they were banned from any form of state education teachers, professors and students alike. They were banned from libraries, from seaside resorts, from employing, or marrying non-Jews, owning a sizeable business or property, or a radio. Once Italy came into the war in 1940, Jewish refugees were interned in concentration camps in Italy. The most famous of these was Fossoli near Modena. This aspect of Jewish life changing is touched on in the early parts of Radio Echo.

Then in 1943 the Allies landed in southern Italy, and Northern Italy became occupied by the Nazis. A campaign was then launched to deport all Italian Jews out of Italy. On October 18th 1943 the Rome ghetto was raided, and in one day, 1,200 Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz.

Another issue that is individual to Italy is the position of the Catholic Church with regard to the deportations, as well as saving many Italian Jews. Again this issue is touched on in Tracing Paper. Many people criticized Pope Pius XII for doing little to intervene. That said, one cannot speak highly enough of the many individual priests and nuns who chose to risk their own lives without a papal decree to shelter Jews.

Probably the most famous Italian Jew in literature is Primo Levi. In “If This Is a Man?” Levi writes about his life and survival in Auschwitz, as well as the many Jews who fought in the Italian resistance. The irony of the opening line of his preface “It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944…” shows the spirit of survival that was uppermost in his thoughts. Every crumb of thought, or bread he had, or movement he made, led to his survival. His very being was on a singular path. And luck was on his side.

Those targeted by the Nazi’s pursuit of a ‘master race’ were not only Jews. Other groups include Gypsies, Lesbians, Gays and the physically and mentally disabled – anyone considered sub-human or imperfect.

To those who were less fortunate than Primo Levi, we remember you.

We remember you and we will never forget.



Fri, 27 Jan 2012 14:12:26

Thank you for this sensitive account, Kathy. It is unfortunate that collective memory seems in such short supply these days, and so many of the same prejudices are even now reasserting themselves in Europe and the UK.


Fri, 27 Jan 2012 23:15:16

Thanks David. I completely agree. Unbelievable, but unfortunately true. That in itself is very scary.