Reality and Recollections of Jews in Fascist Italy Don’t Necessarily Jibe

Scholar Shira Klein says Persecution Worse than Most Remember

HARTFORD, CT, March 13, 2014 – The treatment of Jews in Italy during World War II, and particularly their fate during the Holocaust, were the subjects of a Cesare Barbieri Endowment Lecture and a Common Hour discussion this week featuring Shira Klein, an assistant professor of history in the Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Chapman University in Orange, CA.

Klein was joined at the Common Hour symposium by Samuel Kassow, Charles H. Northam Professor of History, and Borden Painter, Jr., professor of history, emeritus.

The title of Klein’s lecture, “The Holocaust in Italy: History vs. Memory,” reflected her view that the facts and the recollections of how the Jewish population in Italy fared during the war and under Benito Mussolini, leader of the National Fascist Party and prime minister from 1922 until 1943, don’t match.

The number of Jews in Italy – 0.1 percent of the population -- paled in comparison with the percentages in other European countries that were overrun by Nazi Germany. Even so, prior to World War II, Jews were very patriotic and deeply integrated in Italian society. “They were proud to fight for the Fatherland,” said Klein. “They felt just as Italian as the next person.”

On the eve of the war, most Jews lived north of Rome and most were members of the middle class. However, in 1938, things began to change for the worse and the persecution of Jews began, explained Klein. A series of racial laws were enacted that stigmatized Jews and forbade them from participating in many facets of society, such as children attending schools and adults attending universities.

Klein said some non-Jewish Italians showed compassion and others joined in the government discrimination, having already been “primed” for it. For example, Jews had long been the subjects of stereotyping – depicted as money obsessed and “scheming Communists.” In pictures, they were often portrayed as having large noses.

In 1940, Italy allied itself with Germany and a year later, there were a series of synagogue lootings. Then, as Klein put it, “things went from bad to much, much worse.” The Germans had conquered northern Italy, rescued Mussolini from prison, where he had been incarcerated in 1943, and began the deportation of Jews to death camps. The majority ended up at Auschwitz, where 90 percent of them were gassed. In every major town and city, Jews were rounded up, arrested and their property seized. Klein said about 20,000 Italian Jews went into hiding, many using false IDs. Between 1943 and 1945, about 7,000 Italian Jews died in death camps or on Italian soil.

However, Klein said Italians today remember history quite differently and have selective memories. One myth is that Jews hadn’t been persecuted prior to 1943; another is that the Germans were primarily responsible for the deportations and “led Italy kicking and screaming.” Indeed, Klein called it a “double injustice” because Italians persecuted Jewish citizens and then denied that it happened.

Klein offered a few theories for the disconnect: It’s human nature, she said, for people to view a glass as half full. Then there was the feeling after the war “to let bygones be bygones.” Lastly, the atrocities committed by the Germans eclipsed the conduct of the Italians.

Overall, after 1938, very few Jews left, with some going to the United States and others to South America. But about 93 percent remained. “The survival rate of 80 percent was exceptionally high,” she said, especially when compared to the other countries under Nazi control.

During the Common Hour, whose topic was “How Italian Jews Responded to the Racial Laws,” Klein noted that many Jews thought that the racial laws of 1938 would soon be revoked. The basis for that, she explained, were the religious freedoms that had been promulgated in Italy after it had become a nation in 1870. Civic equality was granted to religious minorities, including Jews.

Painter noted that Jews had a “difficult and complicated relationship with the papacy.” He also pointed out that, although Jews were assimilated in society, during the war no Jew was safe.

Kassow agreed that the wartime pope, Pius XII, “did not play a heroic role.” Although Kassow acknowledged that Pope Pius XII was not a great admirer of the Nazis, his No. 1 priority was to keep the Russian army out of Europe. “He did a lot of fudging,” said Kassow.

The Common Hour program was co-sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program.