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USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive: Italy

Established in 1994 to preserve the audio-visual histories of survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust, the USC Shoah Foundation maintains one of the largest video digital libraries in the world: the Visual History Archive (VHA).

Italy

In Italy, the USC Shoah Foundation conducted 418 video testimonies between September 1997 and June 2000, using 43 interviewers in 48 locations. These interviews comprise 403 Jewish survivors, 10 rescuers, three Roma survivors, one political prisoner, and one war crimes trial participant. However, these are only a part of the full collection of Italian testimonies.

The USC Shoah Foundation recorded 488 interviews with people born in Italy, in 63 different cities—Rome especially (155, or 32%), and also notably Rhodes, Milan, Turin, Trieste, Florence, Genoa, and Fiume.

From a broader perspective, there are over 3,800 interviewees who discuss their experiences in Italy before, during, and after World War II. Moreover, if we include their experiences in the zones of Italian military occupation, then this number rises to more than 5,000.

Despite Italy being a fascist dictatorship since October 1922, levels of antisemitism in the early years were low and the attitudes of Jewish families toward Dictator Benito Mussolini (discussed in 166 testimonies) were not always negative. As Mussolini sought closer ties with Nazi Germany, this began to change, especially with the enactment of Racial Defense Laws in 1938–1939 (269 testimonies).

As a German ally during World War II, Italy occupied regions of Greece, southern France, and Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, interviewees often report that Italian soldiers, police, officials and civilians often displayed sympathy and humane treatment toward Jews, to the extent that many actively tried to flee to Italy or to areas of Italian occupation. There were also rescue operations organized by individual Italians. A group of Jewish children from Yugoslavia was rescued from Yugoslavia and kept in safety during the war at the Villa Emma near Modena (6 testimonies). In German-occupied Budapest in 1944, the efforts of two Italians saved thousands of Jews: diplomat and Spanish embassy official Giorgio Perlasca (9 testimonies) and papal nuncio Monsignor Angelo Rotta (5 testimonies).

In Italy itself during the war, a system of “enforced residence” kept those deemed politically suspect in remote rural locations. Internment camps were set up such as at Ferramonti-Tarsia (81 testimonies), Campagna (10 testimonies), and Urbisaglia Bonservizi (5 testimonies). But there was no campaign to exterminate the Jewish population.

With the Italian surrender to the Allies in September 8, 1943, the situation was transformed: Germany invaded Italy and attempted to enact the same anti-Jewish policies as elsewhere in Europe. Jews were rounded up in the cities, most famously on October 16, 1943, in Rome (91 testimonies). In tracking down Jews, the Germans were assisted by the Italian police, fascist squads such as the Bande Nere (23 testimonies), and local collaborators, including the notorious Jewish collaborator Celeste Di Porto (21 testimonies). Deportations transported many of those found to Poland and Germany. The USC Shoah Foundation has 77 interviews with Italian Jewish survivors of Auschwitz. Additional concentration camps were opened at Fossoli (40 testimonies), Risiera di San Sabba (14 testimonies), Borgo San Dalmazzo (7 testimonies), and Bolzano (Bozen-Gries, 6 testimonies), among other places. In March 1944, the SS shot 335 Italians, including 78 Jews, at the Ardeatine Caves near Rome (31 testimonies); other massacres took place at the Hotel Meina by Lake Maggiore (2 testimonies) and Sant'Anna di Stazzema (2 testimonies).

To survive, many Italian Jews went into hiding or concealed their identities (368 testimonies). Some were involved in the resistance (82 testimonies), in groups such as Brigate Garibaldi, Brigate Giustizia e Libertá, and Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale. The Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei (DELASEM), the Jewish agency that helped foreign Jewish refugees in Italy, continued its work throughout the war albeit in increasingly clandestine ways (27 testimonies).

In total, around 20% of the Italian Jewish population was killed in the Holocaust.

Immediately after the war ended, between 1945 and 1947, thousands of refugees who perhaps otherwise had no connection to Italy passed through the numerous Allied displaced persons camps and refugee camps established there (over 2,100 interviewees).

The USC Shoah Foundation recorded 434 interviews in the Italian language.

 

 

Selected Indexing Terms

"March on Rome" (October 28, 1922)

anti-fascist political activities

Arbe (Yugoslavia : Internment Camp)

Ardeatine Caves Massacre (March 24, 1944)

Arrest of Mussolini (July 25, 1943)

Associazione donne ebree italiane

attitudes toward Benito Mussolini and/or the Italian Fascist Party

attitudes toward Italy and/or Italians

attitudes toward the Italian Monarchy

Azione Cattolica Italiana

Bande Nere

Brigate Autonome

Brigate Garibaldi

Brigate Giustizia e Libertá

Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale

deportation from Rome (Italy)

Delegazione assistenza emigranti ebrei (DELASEM)

Dodecanese (Italy : Islands)

Ferramonti-Tarsia (Italy : Internment Camp)

Fossoli (Italy : Concentration Camp)

Gioventú Italiana del Littorio

Gruppi di Azione Patriottica

Hotel Meina Massacre (September 1943)

Italian armed forces

Italian camp guards

Italian camp personnel

Italian civilian laborer

Italian Fascist propaganda

Italian forced labor civilian supervisors

Italian ghetto guards

Italian ghetto inhabitants

Italian government officials

Italian history

Italian invasion of Albania (April 7, 1939)

Italian invasion of Ethiopia (October 3, 1935)

Italian invasion of France (June 21, 1940)

Italian invasion of Greece (October 28, 1940)

Italian invasion of Yugoslavia (April 6, 1941)

Italian kapos

Italian National Fascist Party members

Italian occupation conditions

Italian police and security forces

Italian prison guards

Italian prisoner functionaries

Italian prisoners

Italian prisoners of war

Italian Racial Defense Laws (1938-1939)

Italian refugees

Italian resistance fighters

Italian resistance groups

Italian soldiers

Italian units

Mussolini, Benito

Opera Nazionale Balilla

Partito Comunista Italiano

Partito Nazionale Fascista

Partito Repubblicano Italiano

Perlasca, Giorgio

Pertini, Sandro

Porto Re (Yugoslavia : Internment Camp)

Rhodes (Italy)

Rotta, Monsignor Angelo

Sant'Anna di Stazzema Massacre (Aug 12, 1944)

Silvano Fedi

Trieste Occupation Controversy (May-June 1945)

Valobra, Lelio Vittorio

 

 

Selected Bibliography

Sarfatti, Michele. The Jews in Mussolini's Italy: from Equality to Persecution, Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.

Zimmerman, Joshua. Jews in Italy under Fascist and Nazi Rule, 1922-1945, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Zuccotti, Susan. The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival, New York: Basic Books, 1987.

 

The following essay was contributed by Professor Giovanni Contini Bonacossi (Sapienza - Università di Roma), one of three people to index the USC Shoah Foundation's Italian-language testimonies.

The Italian Jews: Survival and Memory

 

The identity of Italian Jews, in pre-fascist Italy, was quite weak. After their emancipation in the XIX century, they identified deeply with the newly born Italian Nation and Italian State. They participated in the Risorgimento (the movement which ended up with the Italian Independence) at a rate much higher than that of ordinary Italians, they fought bravely during World War I, and many of them joined the Fascist Party in the early 1920s - or were at least not particularly hostile to the new movement and to the Fascist Regime.

 

During the 20 years of Fascist rule their assimilation was even increased by the presence of the totalitarian state, which tended more broadly to increase conformism and to destroy diversity.

 

When the Italian Racial laws were implemented in 1938, the vast majority of the Italian Jews were taken completely by surprise, anti-Semitism having always been quite a minor phenomenon in Italy.

 

In the following years, though, Italian Jews experienced persecution, a sharp increase in anti-Semitism as a result of strong anti-Semitic propaganda in the press, and very little solidarity from their fellow citizens.

 

Until September 1943, though, their lives were never under threat. But when the Germans occupied Italy and Mussolini re-established a sort of caricature of the Fascist Regime, the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, the Germans and Italian Fascists alike started a quite efficient search for the Jews. Many were captured and sent to camps in Germany and Poland.

 

In Italy from 1943 to 1945, Jews had to find shelter in villages in the mountains, where nobody could recognize them. They had to look for food, but had very little money. Some of them managed to flee to Switzerland, while others were not accepted at the border and were then arrested by the Germans. Very few of those who were arrested and sent to the camps ever came back.

 

During the two terrible years, survivors say, they could enjoy an amazing solidarity with the majority of the Italians. Jews were given false papers, financial support, shelter, and food. Unlike the German, Polish or even the French Jews, the Italian Jews managed to survive thanks to their fellow citizens. It is said that survivors in Italy are by no question more numerous than in many other European countries.

 

Yet even this memory is not completely true. First of all, it is only the memory of those who managed to find “good” Italians, since those who were betrayed cannot come back to tell their story. And from other documents we know that the unlucky ones were not so few. Besides, this explanation of the help being motivated by the “good” nature of the Italians is quite unconvincing, particularly when compared to the behaviour of the Italian Army in Yugoslavia during the war, or in Ethiopia during the 1930s, when the Italian Army perpetrated a long series of murders and massacres of the civilian population.

 

The Italians helped the Jews, in my opinion, primarily within the framework of the civil war. When the Resistance started, and when even the Church had yet to choose sides, the antifascist movement started to protect the Jews, and at the same time the Repubblichini together with the German policemen started to arrest them. I think that the very lack of solidarity from 1938 to 1943 shows how even the aid from 1943 to 1945 was related to the political context.

 

There is another aspect of Jewish survivor memory which is disputable, namely that of those few who managed to survive the camps: often a close analysis shows that the witnesses have “wrong” memories. Witnesses very often introduce pieces of information which fail to fit the rest of their narrative. This applies to people who were deported to Auschwitz, who recall events they had experienced in other camps. It also applies to those people who were inmates in Mauthausen who claimed to have met doctor Mengele - who, of course, was at Auschwitz.

 

Many testimonies of the Shoah were recorded years, if not decades, after the events. Furthermore although witnesses were very much aware of the fact that what they had experienced was terribly important, not all were immediately willing to talk about those experiences. First of all, these people had to restart their lives, and the memories of persecution were a permanent threat to the continuation of life itself. These memories, literally, had a paralyzing effect on people, who often report, when interviewed, stories about their life-long struggle against that memory.

 

Some people did not want to talk because they were certain that “nobody would have possibly believed our tales”. This idea suggests that even those who were prepared to listen to their stories might not have believed them. I believe, however, that the real problem is a different one: that it was the witness him- or herself who was unable to produce a convincing account of the facts. It was the witness who did not dare to recount the facts because they were too stark. The witness, admittedly, was trying to protect close relatives, particularly children and loved ones, from the sheer brutality of what they had experienced.

 

We know a lot about the morale of prisoners of concentration camps, where all moral principles were reversed. In that hell, those who clung to their conscience were destined to a quick death. Survivors from the camps often tell stories about their fellow-inmates, maintaining that after a few days “everybody was on his own”, that any sense of solidarity was gone. They have stories about people stealing soup from the hands of a dying prisoner, or of stealing socks from somebody after their own socks were stolen, although they knew full well that no one could survive barefoot in the camp. There are even cruder stories, of mothers stealing food from their children, and even episodes of cannibalism. It was a situation in which the human ability to articulate moral judgments simply did not apply.

 

I believe that inaccuracy in reporting facts has to do with both the objective conditions of the concentration camps, and the ways the same experience was recounted so many years later. The survivors were common people, and their actions were guided by shared moral principles. The camp represented a nightmarish reversal of the system of values they were used to depending on. Their right was said to be wrong, and the wrong right. Inmates had to hold back their feelings in order to survive and yield to a process of emotional and moral anesthesia. All energies and intellectual resources were focused on how to get through the day, and this pushed any other thought away. They did things they would never do in a “normal” situation. They no longer had emotions and feelings they would normally have.

 

Once back in normal life, they often experience guilt when remembering the camp, about what they did and what they were forced to do. Their memory had, in a sense, been amputated memory. When they decided to speak out after many years, they seemed to be able to recall only some micro-events that would not make much sense in a “normal” context - memories, for instance, related to food, clothes, and sleep. And of course fear. But they appeared to have forgotten other simple “facts”, such as the shape of the camp, the nationality of the other prisoners, the chronology of the events. These details they seemed to have forgotten, although, in a sense, one might say that they had never experienced them. Sometimes survivors remember clearly the name of the first camp and the events which took place there, but their memory seems to fade away when they have to remember the second camp, and the third. They seem to forget even the name of the camps, and be unable to talk about the events which took place there.

 

Testimonies given so late, concerning such an extreme kind of experience, are likely to convey mistakes and improprieties. Witnesses strive to fill the many gaps in their tales, gaps that somehow reproduce the gaps in their first experience of the camp. Sometimes they invent the facts they want to talk about within a framework borrowed from books about the Shoah, and insert, albeit unconsciously, part of a book’s narrative into their own account. Sometimes they “steal” facts from television programs. But I think that even these “false” memories tell us a lot both about how the survivors experienced life in the camps, and the working-out of their memory of that experience after the Shoah.

 

Giovanni Contini Bonacossi

Visual History Archive Curator

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Crispin Brooks
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