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Horrors And Heroes

3 minute read
John Elson


Summit; 365 pages; $25

The fate of Italian Jewry during World War II has a special poignancy. This oldest of Judaic communities in the Western world had survived nearly two millenniums of intermittent repression and persecution. Italy was among the last countries of Europe to eliminate the ghetto, when Rome was liberated and the Papal States were abolished in 1870. Yet during the next 60 or so years, life for Italian Jews was sweet indeed. Anti-Semitism was of little moment in a country where they were such a tiny minority — 47,000 in a population of 45 million, as of 1910 — that most Italians had never even met a Jew. Barriers to their material and social success, to assimilation and intermarriage, were few. In Italy, perhaps more than in any other European land, Jews felt truly at home.

The reality — that their sense of security ultimately proved chimerical — is a tragically familiar tale, with more than its share of ironies. Strange as it may seem now, a substantial minority of Jews welcomed Benito Mussolini’s accession to power in 1922. He promised order in a land threatened by leftist chaos, and il Duce’s brand of Fascism did not become ideologically anti- Semitic until he fell under Adolf Hitler’s political sway during the mid-‘ 30s. To many Jews, patriotism became a near substitute for faith and for the ancient rituals they infrequently observed. Such was their loyalty to their homeland that on the so-called Day of Faith (Dec. 18, 1935), communities even donated gold and silver religious objects from their synagogues to help pay for the invasion of Abyssinia.

Italian Jews eventually learned what happened to their coreligionists elsewhere under Nazi rule. Yet even after Mussolini approved the racial laws of 1938, which shatteringly demoted Jews to second-class citizenship, many naively clung to the belief that “it can’t happen here.” Ettore Ovazza of Turin, leader of the country’s Jewish Fascists, remained a true believer until the very end — perhaps even as he was shot dead by an SS officer while trying to escape to Switzerland in September 1943. A half-Jewish writer whose nom de plume was Pitigrilli converted to Roman Catholicism and became a Fascist spy; he had once lectured successfully in Warsaw, and his name, curiously, lives on as a Polish slang term for something suspect or obscene.

Benevolence and Betrayal has heroes as well as moral lepers. Rabbi Riccardo Pacifici risked his life by staying in Genoa after its occupation by German troops to minister to the city’s large Jewish refugee population; he was one of some 7,000 Italian Jews to die in concentration camps. Carlo Schonheit, a cantor from Ferrara, and his son Franco were among the handful who survived Buchenwald, the horrors of which Alexander Stille describes with chilling understatement. Pietro Cardinal Boetto, the frail Archbishop of Genoa, unhesitatingly agreed to carry on the work of a Jewish relief organization after it was forced to disband. “They are innocents,” he told his secretary. “We must help them at whatever cost to ourselves.” And then there were the thousands of Italian Christians who out of uncommon decency defied authority by harboring Jews or warning them of impending Gestapo roundups.

Stille, an American journalist with an Italian Jewish father, is largely content to let the wonders and terrors of his subjects’ experiences speak for themselves. The result is a dogged but deeply moving addition to the literature of the Holocaust.

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