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Friday, April 11, 2014

Italy, Rome, and the Deportation of the Jews: Some Thoughts

The little girls at right, Fiorella and Luciana Anticoli,
 were among those sent to Auschwitz from Rome
 in October 1943
In our first Rome book, Rome the Second Time, we told the tragic story of Rome’s Jews, thousands of whom were rounded up and more than a thousand deported to German concentration camps in October 1943, never to return.  

When we wrote about the event in 2009, there was a plaque on a wall at the Tiburtina Station, remembering the day when Jews were loaded on the trains; it was on one of RST's itineraries. With the recent remodeling of the station, the plaque has disappeared, and with it one more piece of evidence that Italian--and Roman--Jews were among the victims of the Holocaust. 
The plaque - now gone - at Tiburtina Station in Rome

We were reminded of the absence of that plaque a few weeks ago, at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust--a bunker-like building on the western edge of Pan Pacific Park—where we had gone to hear Guri Schwarz, a professor at the University of Pisa and visiting professor at UCLA, talk about “The ‘Myth of the Good Italian’: Origins and Evolution.”  Schwartz described the larger myth as a series of denials, including the specific denial that Italians had some responsibility for the Holocaust.  

His talk focused on how and why that specific myth developed and spread.  One cause was the German/Italian dichotomy: the "bad" German and the "good" Italian.  Between 1943 (when Italy left the war) and 1947 (when the Paris peace treaty was ratified), Italy used this dichotomy to make the country look better, and hence to protect Italian national interests--essentially, to convince the Allied powers that Italy, even as a defeated country, deserved decent treatment under the peace accords.  In 1945, for example, Italian foreign minster Carlo Forza claimed the Germans were "bad" because they had come to Christianity 1000 years later than the Italians.  Upholders of the myth also claimed that Italy was "good" because, unlike Germany, which had a large Protestant population, it was a solidly Catholic country.
Prof. Guri Schwartz, speaking recently at the Los Angeles
Museum of the Holocaust

In addition, the “myth of the good Italian" helped Italians cope with their  disturbing history of Fascism--in essence, by denying it--and it was comforting in a more general way, as evidence that “Western Civilization” (closely identified with Italy's history) had not entirely succumbed under the pressure of totalitarianism. 

With respect to the Holocaust, the myth of the good Italian incorporated several ideas, all of them, according to Schwarz, essentially false: that anti-semitism had no roots in Italy; that the Italian racial laws of 1938 were rejected by the general population, and not implemented; that such anti-semitism as existed in Italy during the war was imitative of German anti-semitism; that in areas of Italian occupation (the Balkans, Greece, Southern France), the Jews were protected; and that deportation of Italian Jews was resisted by Italians. 

Surprisingly, even Italian Jews came to the support of the myth of the good Italian in the postwar years.  They did so, according to Schwarz, because the Jews that remained wanted and needed to re-integrate into Italian society, and re-integration required building bridges to neighbors, even if they had once been Fascists.  Moreover, as the war ended, tens of thousands of displaced Jews flowed through Italy on their way to Palestine, and Italy’s Jews wanted Italian authorities to support the movement of those persons. 

Stazione Tiburtina, where Rome's Jews boarded trains
 for Auschwitz
Schwarz did not say much about what actually happened to Italy’s Jews, though he did comment on that in the discussion that followed his talk.  He argued that after 1943, when Germany occupied the northern 2/3 of the Italian peninsula, Italian authorities assisted the Germans in rounding up and deporting Jews.  About 6,000 of Italy’s estimated 25,000 Jews were arrested, deported, and killed.  

Of those 6,000, Schwarz cited evidence evidence that one half were deported as a result of the efforts of Italians, or of Italians and Germans working together.  Schwarz also emphasized that Italy’s 1938 racial laws, aimed at Jews, were widely and thoroughly enforced, which indicates that Italians were not the reluctant anti-semites that the myth of the good Italian would suggest.  

These are very complex issues that have vexed historians for generations.  It is often pointed out that Italy’s history in dealing with Jews in this period is one of Europe’s best; the percentage of Italian Jews deported to the killing camps was one of the lowest in Europe--at 16% much better than France, for example—even though Italy was German-occupied for almost as long as the southern zone of France.  Writing in the March 6, 2014 issue of the New York Review of Books  (“Jews: How Vichy Made it Worse”), Robert Paxton argues, in contrast to Schwarz, that Italian police cooperation in deportation was “desultory.”  “To be sure,” he continues, “some Italian Fascist militiamen helped the Nazis hunt down Jews; it was they who arrested Primo Levi, for example, on December 13, 1943.  But the public largely refused to help them, and much of the administration dragged its feet.”  Paxton notes, too, that French views on the Jews were influenced to a considerable degree by anxiety over a great wave of foreign Jews that entered the country during the war—something that did not occur in Italy. 

There’s more to be said, of course.  Having become in thrall to another recent Los Angeles speaker, Alain De Botton, who believes deeply in the importance of humanism to civilized values, we would add only that Italy’s experience with art, music, and culture are deeper than any other nation’s, and this link held strong even under Fascism, when the Mussolini regime celebrated the arts—while the Nazis did

In 2010 and 2011, Rome embedded over 100 gold, 10cm square stones ("pietri d'inciampo," or "stumbling blocks) in Rome's streets, in remembrance of Jews, Roma, and others who died in the Holocaust.  The artist is German.  
their best to bury them.  It seems likely to us that some Italian Jews—possibly very many—survived because large numbers of Italians, even under Fascism, and even while supporting Mussolini's regime, remained decent and humane.  Guri Schwarz has made us aware that the "good Italian(s)" were not as good as we imagined, or hoped. But perhaps they were "better" than most.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

your blog seems to be 2014.
but the plaque was back in its place, as all the Roman Jewish community
will tell you, on oct 16, 2013. the first anniversary after the
renovation of the station.