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The Italian Holocaust: The Story of an Assimilated Jewish Community

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Fall 2003

Some historians have tried to absolve Italians from their role in the holocaust, explaining that while Italy did institute racial laws, the extermination campaign was strictly a German invention. Those historians fail to take account of the impact of Italy’s 1938 racial laws, which instituted harsher restrictions than Germany’s first anti-Semitic legislation. They ignore the impact of the Italian anti-Semitic campaign, which worked to isolate Jews from Italian society and remove their wealth, measures that served to prepare for the much harsher German campaign. However, when considering Italy’s relationship with its Jews during World War II, it would be a mistake to look only at the official attitudes and ignore the behavior of the Italian people.,  

The Italian Jews, representing just 0.1 percent of the Italian population, were the most assimilated Jews in Europe. Although Italy is a nation with a strong Catholic tradition, Jews were accepted as important members of society and were successful in the military, politics, and in every skilled profession. When Benito Mussolini’s government asked the Italian people to turn on their neighbors, an astoundingly large number said “No.” As a result, a higher percentage of Italian Jews were saved than in any other occupied country, aside from Denmark. The Italian role in the Holocaust is a complicated one, with condemnable official behavior, but an impressive popular rejection of anti-Semitic policies.  


The Italian Jews were among the most assimilated in the world, benefiting from the absence of legal and social disadvantages that existed elsewhere. They spoke Italian or the local dialect rather than the Yiddish or Ladino that many of their European coreligionists spoke. They were engaged in politics, served at high rates in the military, and found success in every skilled profession. However, this was a relatively new position for the Italian Jews. Italy was one of the last countries in Europe to eliminate the ghetto with the liberation of Rome in 1870 during the Italian unification movement. In many Italian cities, the ghetto had been restored even after Napoleon had knocked down its walls.  

Commenting on the success of the Jews in Italy, Alexander Stille, author of “Benevolence and Betrayal,” writes, “In the course of one generation, Italy had gone from being one of the most backward and repressive nations of Europe to being one of the most tolerant.... In a few decades Italian Jews achieved a level of acceptance without parallel in any other country. While France was bitterly divided over the fate of Captain Dreyfus, Italian Jews were acting as generals, cabinet ministers and prime ministers.”  

Cecil Roth, author of “History of the Jews of Italy,” also described the nation as very accepting. “After 1870, there was no land in either hemisphere where conditions were or could be better. It was not only that disabilities were removed, as happened elsewhere too during these momentous years, but that the Jews were accepted freely, naturally and spontaneously as members of the Italian people, on a perfect footing of equality with their neighbors.”  

Jews in Public Service  

By 1902, out of 350 senators, there were six Jews. By 1920, there were nineteen Jewish senators. And in 1910, Luigi Luzzatti, a Venetian Jew, became prime minister.  

Jews served in the military in numbers far outpacing their share of the population. Historian Renzo De Felice, writes in “The Jews in Fascist Italy” that at the end of the 19th Century, the Italian Jews were “almost fervent patriots.” When Rome was captured in 1870, there were 87 Jewish officers in the Italian army. There were fifty Jewish generals in the Italian army in World War 1. Piedmontese Jews had gained such a reputation for military service, that some historians have compared the Piedmontese Jewish community with Prussia because of its military tradition. More than one thousand Jews won medals for valor in World War I, and both the oldest and youngest volunteers to receive Italy’s highest military honor, the Gold Medal, were Jews. These figures display both the patriotism of Italian Jews and their desire to be accepted as full members of Italian society.  

Jews also had succeeded in gaining social acceptance. According to the 1938 census, of married couples involving Jews, only 56.3 percent were both Jewish; the other 43.7 percent were mixed. Italy had a much higher intermarriage rate than other countries. In 1934, it was 11 percent in Germany. In Hungary in 1932 it was 14 percent. Roth writes that Jews were accepted throughout society, “It was not that the Italian Jews no longer suffered from any political disabilities, but that they no longer suffered to any serious degree even from prejudice. The profession of Judaism was regarded as an amiable eccentricity, rather than a social mistake.”  

Day of Faith  

Even under fascism, the loyalty of Italian Jews for their country did not wane. On December 18, 1935, Italian leader Benito Mussolini declared a national day of faith in which Mussolini requested the wedding rings of Italian women. The Day of Faith was called to show national solidarity in the face of international criticism over Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. On that day, virtually every Italian synagogue celebrated the day by playing the Royal March (the Savoy hymn) and the fascist song ‘Giovinezza.’ A patriotic sermon followed, and the women relinquished their wedding rings.  

In a typical Day of Faith sermon, Rabbi Rosenberg of Ancona said: “Today is the sacred Day of Faith. Today is the thirty-first day of the economic siege, ordered to humiliate the Italian people and stop its march to victory. But Italy is demonstrating today to the entire world its firm will to defeat the ignoble siege . . . and you, wives and mothers, are in the vanguard. Following the august example of the Queen of Italy you have today placed on the altar of the Fatherland the most precious object you possess.... More than a gift of gold, it is a gift of the soul.” Rosenberg emphasized that Jews had an additional reason for giving: “for the honor of your religion.”  

Rabbi Aldo Lattes of Rome encouraged Jews to continue their Italian patriotism: “Just as during the war of unification the Jews did not lag behind in their sacrifice of blood, so today they should be second to none in the resistance to the iniquitous sanctions. Brothers and Sisters! Falling short today in the duty we owe the Fatherland would be a betrayal not only before mankind but also before the Lord! ... Strip from your houses all foreign products, make every possible economy, and give, give gold to the Fatherland!”  

Attitude Toward Zionism  

Because of their success in Italy and their full engagement in Italian society, Italian Jews were not as drawn to Zionism as some of their coreligionists in other European nations. One chronicler of the Jewish community in Rome noted, that there was little interest in Zionism. “Italian Jewry, or to be more precise the Italian Jews, considered themselves closed within the borders of the country they were living in, ecstatic at their own successes in politics, science, industry, the arts, journalism, and were well on their way towards the most complete assimilation, paving the way for the next generation to be completely absorbed and having their identity canceled.”  

A member of one of Turin’s leading Jewish families, Ettore Ovazza, publicly rejected an appeal to aid the Zionist movement. “I cannot as an Italian participate in a program of such extreme consequences, particularly now in this moment, when we have a greater duty to participate in the front lines of the reconstruction of our country. In few nations in the world does the Jew enjoy such consideration as in Italy. ... We do not believe that in order to feel intimately connected to our fellow Jews suffering unjust persecutions it is necessary to create a second fatherland. It is not selfishness that stimulates my firm stand on this point, it is the higher sentiment of the Fatherland which from the ranks of the Thousand [Garibaldi’s troops] to the soldiers of Vittorio Veneto [the last Italian victory of World War I], so many of the purest heroes of Jewish blood have died for.”  

There were active and vocal Italian Zionists, however few foresaw an aliyah for themselves or their countrymen. De Felice writes, “The majority of Italian Zionists, including those who belonged to the Italian Zionist Federation, all understood it as an `oriental’ issue, a way of saving other Jews who were being oppressed or persecuted. For them Zionism came down to a form of financial contribution to encourage emigration from Eastern Europe and moral solidarity with Jewish victims of oppression. Very few took Zionism to mean a moral and material movement that would include the happy as well as the unhappy Jews, the free Jews and those who were oppressed. For the majority, Zionism, on the ideological and cultural level, did not go beyond a certain curiosity for history, tradition, and folklore and a greater attachment to these elements.”  

The Zionist magazine Israel, illustrates this point. In its last editorial, on September 22, 1938, before Fascism forced it to shut down, it stated, “A great and profound sense of being Italian exists among all Italian Jews. It does not come out of the blue nor from the history of this land, but was given to us with our mothers’ milk, our lullabies, the history of our grandparents, and with our maternal tongue, the Italian language. For us, it is a great and tragic sorrow that it is possible to throw doubt on the reality and grandeur of this feeling, and to misjudge the sincerity of the mettle shown by centuries of Jews living in Italy, taking part with heart and mind, like other Italians, in the life of this land.”  

Jewish Fascists and Anti-Fascists  

Italian fascism had been in power since 1922, and it only became anti-Semitic in 1938. Until then, Jews, like other conservative Italians, were likely to be members of the Fascist Party. Italian Jews were spread among all political parties and took positions on fascism as Italians, not as Jews.  

Ettore Ovazza was one of the 230 Italian Jews who participated in the October 1922 March on Rome that installed Mussolini in power. In fact, the number of Jews who signed up as fascists was disproportionately high. Ovazza started a Jewish fascist newspaper, “La Nostra Bandiera” (Our Flag) in an effort to show that the Jews were among the regime’s most loyal followers. They defended Jews from anti-Semitism and attacked Zionists and anti-fascist Jews. Ovazza’s father, Ernesto, was the leader of the Turin Jewish community. Not only was it not unusual that he was a fascist, he would probably be unable to hold this semi-public position if he had not been a member of the party.  

The novelist Girorgio Bassani, author of “Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” grew up in Ferrara, a city known for a long tradition of tolerance for Jews. He has said that he does not remember a single Jew who was not a fascist.  

Stille describes how widespread Jewish fascism was, “Although there are instances of Jews making compromises with fascism elsewhere in Europe, these were isolated cases of personal opportunism, of private pacts with the devil. In Italy, Jewish fascism was a real ideological movement, a mass phenomenon, as much as that was possible in Italy’s tiny Jewish population of 47,000. In 1938, at the beginning of the racial laws, more than 10,000 Jews-about one out of every three Jewish adults-were members of the Fascist Party.”  

Jews were politically involved across the spectrum. There were also many leading Jewish antifascists. Claudio Treves and Renato Modigliani were among the leaders of the socialist party. Umberto Terracini was a leader of the Italian Communist Party. The antifascist movement in Turin was largely led by Jews.  

Vittorio Foa, a leading Jewish antifascist, said “The Jews are no different from anyone else-good and bad, intelligent and stupid. But beyond that, I think there was a certain link between the Jews affinity for antifascism and their democratic roots. They were liberated by the process of democracy.” Cecil Roth noted, “The Italian Jews, in their attitude to Fascism, were no worse, but alas little better, than their compatriots.”  

Level of Italian Anti-Semitism  

Even the fascists acknowledged that there was little anti-Semitism in Italy. In a 1932 interview, before the anti-Semitic campaign had begun, Mussolini said, “Antisemitism does not exist in Italy ... Italians of Jewish birth have shown themselves good citizens, and they fought bravely in the war. Many of them occupy leading positions in the universities, in the army, in the banks.”  

Other commentators, sometimes to their consternation, also found low levels of anti-Semitism. Guido Leto, the head of the Italian secret police, the OVRA, recalled the climate in 1936 in his memoirs: “Beyond a few cities where some Jews, gathered in specific neighborhoods, as in Rome, could be the target of jokes, more for fun than out of meanness, it was very difficult for an Italian to see the difference between an Aryan and a Jew, or even have a minimum of curiosity in knowing the race and religion of persons he was friendly with or with whom he had business relations.”  

Even once the anti-Semitic campaign had begun in earnest, there was little sympathy for the campaign to be found. A fascist party report from December 21, 1938, from Turin, probably the most anti-fascist city in Italy, states, “Uncertainty and discontent regarding the Jewish problem lingers on with almost everyone. No one identifies with the racial campaign as it has been conducted, and people are wondering, but not out of pietism, where it is going and what results are expected from the measures taken and those to come in the future. I have been informed of sermons given in some churches in town, sermons dealing exclusively with the racial problem, which is not viewed favorably by the Catholic Church. In Catholic circles the entire anti-Jewish policy is being criticized and such criticism, well known to the public, is creating a solidarity with the Jews that surfaces everywhere.”  

Sympathetic Light  

Turin was no exception as Italians continued to see their Jewish countrymen in a sympathetic light in other Italian cities. A Fascist Party report to Mussolini about Trieste on November 20, 1938, stated, “Most inhabitants of Trieste have not forgotten the vast amount of work done by the Jews to defend Trieste’s Italian character, even though, in some cases, it was because of vested interests. Those financing irredentism were Jews and the majority of volunteers from Trieste in the Italian army during the war between Italy and Austria were also Jewish.... As things stand, it is the general wish, even among Catholics, that, given the patriotic past of many Jews from Trieste, the discriminations should be awarded somewhat generously and those discriminated should enjoy a sufficiently happy life.”  

On July 25, 1943, the fascist Grand Council voted Mussolini out of power. Marshal Pietro Badoglio took over. Seeing its ally collapse, Berlin sent German forces to occupy Italy. The German estimation of the Italian view of the Jews was similar to that of the Italians. The senior SS representative in Italy Lieutenant-Colonel Knochen wrote on February 12, 1943, “The best of harmony prevails between the Italian troops and the Jewish population.”  

The Germans were particularly perturbed because the Italians not only protected Jews on their territory, but when they occupied parts of France, Greece, the Balkans, and elsewhere, they protected the local Jewish populations there also. On December 13, 1944 Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister wrote in his diary, “The Italians are extremely lax in the treatment of the Jews. They protect the Italian Jews both in Tunis and in occupied France and will not permit their being drafted for work or compelled to wear the Star of David. This shows once again that Fascism does not really dare to get down to fundamentals but is very superficial regarding problems of vital importance.”  

Jewish Experiences  

When the anti-Semitic legislation was passed, Jews had mixed experiences. Some felt shunned and isolated in their communities. Primo Levi, who would later become a famed author, felt isolated in school and socially. He had difficulty completing his studies and finding work. Others reported being abandoned by old friends or publicly insulted. When legislation was passed barring Jews from owning businesses, frequently they arranged to have the business put in the name of gentile friends and associates. Not a few Jews soon found that their business had just been stolen from them. Profiteers and anti-Semites thrived in this climate. But fortunately these attitudes do not seem to have been embodied by the majority of the Italian population.  

Massimo Teglio’s story shows the camaraderie that remained between Italian Jews and gentiles. Through the aviation club in Genoa, Teglio had gotten to know Italo Balbo, a pilot whose fame in Italy was comparable with that of Charles Lindbergh in America. In 1933, Balbo led a squadron of pilots on a historic flight from Rome to Chicago. Balbo was an early leader in fascism and a member of the ‘quadrumvirate’ that was just below Mussolini in the fascist hierarchy. Mussolini, in fact, felt threatened by Balbo’s fame and the Duce sent him to be governor of the Italian colony of Libya.  

Balbo visited Genoa in 1939, while the anti-Semitic campaign was taking place. Teglio, along with his wife, parents, brother, sisters, and many others flooded the streets to greet Balbo as he flew into Genoa’s harbor by hydroplane. When he came ashore, Balbo spotted Teglio and motioned him to come over. After warmly shaking his hand, Balbo asked Teglio, “Is there anyone else here from your family?” “They’re all here!” Teglio responded. Before the crowd of several hundred, Balbo made a point of greeting the family of his Jewish friend first. “Afterward,” Teglio recalled, “I asked Balbo’s copilot, ‘He knows I’m Jewish, doesn’t he?’ and the copilot responded, ‘He did it intentionally.’”  

Help in Smuggling Jews  

Teglio was an easygoing, popular man who had friends in all walks of life in Genoa. Before the war, he was considered a bit of a ne’er do well, but he emerged as a hero during the years of anti-Semitism. He found friends in the Archbishop’s office from whom he procured stamps to create baptismal certificates. He also got the help of fascist officials to help protect his clandestine activities of hiding and smuggling Jews as well as to make false documents. Stille writes, “Hostility toward the German occupation and Mussolini’s puppet government was so widespread that much of the legal apparatus was actively collaborating with the antifascist conspiracy.”  

When official anti-Semitism began, Beppe Foa of Turin enjoyed the support of his colleagues. When he arrived at his job at an airplane manufacturer after the July 14, 1938, release of the “Manifesto of the Racist Scientists,” a crowd of his colleagues greeted him. He recalled, “The first thing they said to me was, ‘We’re ashamed to be Italians today.’ They came to tell me this. The atmosphere surrounding me was far from anti-Semitic.”  

In July 1939, Foa discovered that as a Jew and a member of an antifascist family, he was about to be fired. He remembers that his colleagues never turned against him. “In fact, when I finally left Piaggio, there was another demonstration of affection that was even more moving to me than the one my friends showed me after the publication of the race manifesto. I had already said good-bye to my colleagues at the factory, but when I went to catch my train, there must have been, without exaggeration, 250 or 300 workers at the station. As I waited for the train, they were just lined up in silence, not saying a word. I didn’t understand why. Then one of the workers slipped from the crowd and came to me and said under his breath: ‘We can’t say anything, but we wish you every possible good.’ They had come to the station just to see me off. I was so moved I didn’t know what to say. And when I got on the train, I leaned out the window and waved as the train went off.”  

Barred from Armed Forces  

Because of the anti-Semitic legislation, Jews were barred from the armed forces. Five generals and five admirals were forced to resign. When Colonel Segre learned that he was being retired as a Jew, he assembled his troops, drew his pistol and shot himself before his men.  

Despite the ban, when the country entered the war in June 1940, a number of Jews wrote Mussolini requesting permission to fight. Mussolini rejected their requests. However, the Italian Navy was in trouble because the only man capable of refloating the Italian fleet sunk by British torpedo planes in the Taranto harbor was a Jew-Umberto Pugliese, a fifty-eight year old former inspector general of the Navy. Mussolini sent envoys to ask Pugliese how much he wanted for the job. Pugliese replied that all he wanted was his return ticket and to be permitted to wear his uniform and medals while he worked. His wish was granted. Afterwards he went into retirement.  

Catholic Church  

The Catholic church has been the subject of much criticism for its role in the holocaust. What happened at the highest echelons of the church will remain an important and lively issue in historical scholarship. While that question is ripe for further debate, there is no doubt that Catholic priests and parishes throughout Italy did a tremendous service in aiding the Jews.  

Italian historian Liliana Piciotto Fargion writes, “Certainly the extant documents give the impression of a Vatican policy merely concerned with not irritating the Germans, and that it was inclined towards a policy of non-intervention. On the other hand, it is fair to record that, in contrast to the official position taken by Vatican diplomacy, there were many high-ranking prelates and individual priests, as well as convents, who gave considerable assistance to the Jews in hiding, of which the pope must have been aware.”  

In the town of Assissi, a rescue effort (made famous by the book and film “The Assissi Underground”) took place. In Assissi, 300 Jews were saved by Father Rufino Niccacci. He dressed many of the Jews as nuns and monks, taught them Catholic rituals, and hid them in monasteries and parishioners’ homes.  

In 1943, the Vatican-run Catholic Cinematographic Center, commissioned one of Italy’s greatest movie makers, Vittorio de Sica, to make “La Porta del Cielo” (The Gate of Heaven). The movie was shot inside the Basilica of St. Paul’s and came under the protection of the Vatican. Hundreds of people worked on the film as extras. The Jewish extras were allowed to live within the Basilica. De Sica arranged to drag out the production to protect the Jews. De Sica’s son Christian said, “Originally, filming was only supposed to last for a few weeks, but my father purposely extended it to six months until the Americans arrived in Rome. At the end, they were only pretending to be filming as they had run out of film.” Sadly, De Sica’s efforts were not enough. In February 1944 the Nazis stormed the area and arrested 60 people.  

The Roman Ghetto  

Most of Italy’s Jews were cosmopolitan, middle class, and not very religious. By contrast, in Rome, many of the Jews were poor, only semi-literate, and deeply religious. The Roman ghetto was the only place in Italy where there was a large Jewish neighborhood with many impoverished Jews. Many of the city’s 12,000 Jews lived in the former ghetto. In this area, Jewish tradition remained very strong.  

Mussolini was driven from power in July, 1943, and marshal Pietro Badoglio took over. In September, German forces were approaching Rome. The Allies tried to make a deal with Badoglio in which Italian forces would hold the city’s airports while the Americans and British landed paratroopers. The Italian military’s leaders balked at the proposal, and the Germans soon occupied the city. Stille concludes, “With even a small amount of courage and preparation, the Italian government might have prevented the German occupation entirely.”  

On September 26, 1943, the Germans demanded fifty kilograms of gold from the Jews within 36 hours or two hundred Jews would be deported to Germany or the Russian front. In the first few hours, only five kilograms were collected and Jewish leaders went to the Vatican for help. They were told that the Vatican would lend whatever portion of the ransom the Jews needed, to be repaid after the war. Later that day, the response of the Jewish and non-Jewish community proved that offer to be unnecessary. A crowd of people had gathered outside the synagogue to make contributions. Stille writes, “It seemed that the whole of Rome-eager to express its disgust with the German occupation-had risen up in defense of the Jews. Word of the ransom had spread quickly through the streets and brought Christians and Jews from all parts of the city to converge on the synagogue, carrying gold watches, earrings, pins, bracelets, cuff links, wedding rings, cigarette cases and coins.” Those without gold brought cash with which gold was purchased on the black market.  

Catholics Enter Synagogue with Gifts  

Roman Jewish literary critic Giacomo Debenedetti, described the scene of Catholics entering the synagogue with their gifts: “Cautiously, as if afraid of being refused, uncertain whether to offer gold to the rich Jews, some ‘Aryans’ presented themselves. They entered the hall adjacent to the synagogue full of embarrassment, not knowing if they should take off their hats or keep their heads covered, according to Jewish custom. Almost humbly, they asked if they could - well if it would be all right to ... Unfortunately, they did not leave their names.”  

Olga Di Veroli, a Roman Jew who was helping with the effort to raise the sum, remembered, “There was the woman who used to sell candy to the children in front of the movie theater. She removed her earrings and said, ‘Take these,’ I thought she wanted to sell them, so I asked the jeweler. ‘How much should we give her?’ The poor woman began crying and said, ‘Look, Olga, the stones are fake. It’s only a gram or two of gold, but it’s all I have. My wedding ring I gave to the Fatherland on the Day of Faith. It’s not much but I want to give it.’ I got up and embraced her. I felt terrible, because I had thought she wanted to sell them.”  

The Jews managed to raise more than the fifty kilograms in the required time, but this only delayed the Germans from acting against the Jews. On October 16, 1943, the Germans entered the ghetto to round up the Jews. The Gestapo command in Rome sent a report to headquarters in Berlin in which once again the absence of widespread Italian anti-Semitism was evident. “All available forces of the [German] security and police forces put to use. Participation of the Italian police, considering the unreliability in this affair, was not possible. ... The behavior of the Italian people was outright passive resistance.... As the German police were breaking into some homes, attempts to hide Jews in nearby apartments were observed, and it is believed that in many cases they were successful. The anti-Semitic part of the population was nowhere to be seen during the action, only a great mass of people who in some individual cases even tried to cut off the police from the Jews.”  

Di Veroli with her family managed to avoid the roundup. She recalled: “There’s no way around it: the people of Rome opened their hearts to us. Some did so out of self-interest, but a lot of them did it out of pure generosity. What little they had, they shared with us.”  

The Resistance  

The resistance was active and large in Italy although, as in other countries, its true size and impact will probably always be the subject of debate. Between two and three thousand Jews participated in the resistance, a number much greater than the Jewish proportion of the population.  

Recalling the Jewish role in Italian unification, Roth writes, “Jews had been playing an active part once again in the liberation of Italy. Everywhere, they took their share in the partisan movement, providing some outstanding leaders. Numbers of these fell in the course of the fighting-no fewer than fifteen in the Turin community alone.”  


Of the approximately 40,000 Italian Jews and 10,000 foreign Jewish refugees, before the war, 8,000-9000 had been deported with only a small number returning. Historian Meir Michaelis wrote in “Mussolini and the Jews,” although Mussolini “was too much of an Italian to approve of the ‘final solution,’ . . . he and his henchmen helped to create the conditions in which the Holocaust became possible.” While Mussolini did not put Italian forces to work to implement the “Final Solution,” he had legally isolated Italian Jews to strengthen the Rome-Berlin axis. His record can be contrasted favorably with that of Adolf Hitler or Marshal Petain in Vichy France, though that is indeed a low standard.  

When considering the record of the Italian people, it is important to remember that Mussolini was a popular leader and fascism was a popular movement. When the racial laws were passed, the most common reaction among Italians was one of indifference, not outrage. That said, the racial campaign also failed to sway most Italians to anti-Semitism. While the most assimilated Jewish community in Europe was betrayed by its government, it found that many Italians remembered their past service to the nation, viewed them as no different than their Catholic neighbors, and stood by their Jewish countrymen.  

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