Italy continues to believe that it holds little responsibility for the destruction of its Jewish community. Its performance in restituting art treasures is troubling and the new extreme right-extreme left wing government shows little interest in change.
Italy’s Holocaust memory is colored by its own relatively benign wartime experience. The
Italian Jews suffered little anti-Semitism before World War II, and despite being allied with Nazi Germany, Italian fascism was little concerned with the fate of the Jews and generally left intact their communities.
After Germany took control in 1943, the Nazis deported 9,000 Jews deported to concentration camps. Around 15-20% of the population perished. Many Italian citizens, Catholic Church organizations, and local authorities refused to collaborate with anti-Semitic demands and saved Jews.
Today, Italian government commemoration and remembrance events focus on German rather than Italian guilt. They choose to highlight the Italian resistance movement. The national school curriculum requires mention of World War II, leaving the Holocaust as a footnote in textbooks and does not warrant much discussion time.
Italian Jews today are well-integrated in the country. Although they face threats and violence from far-right nationalist organizations, these groups represent a fraction of Italian society. The governments and civil society are committed to remembering and commemorating the Holocaust. But few are willing to investigate Italy’s dark past as a complicit fascist regime.
The Holocaust in Italy
The Italian Fascist Party consolidated a single party dictatorship in 1922. At its inception, the party was not explicitly anti-Semitic and Jews could join. In 1938, the fascists implemented its first batch of anti-Semitic legislation, purging Jewish workers from government jobs, banning interfaith marriage, incarcerating foreign Jews, and dismissing Jews from the military. The state began to confiscate Jewish property and land.
These laws were arbitrarily enforced, existing more for show to impress their German allies than for practical implementation. Italy officially joined the Axis powers in 1939, and declared war on France and Britain in June 1940. Despite their alliance with Nazi Germany, Italian authorities were hesitant, and in some cases outright refused, to implement Germany’s anti-Semitic legislation and to concentrate and deport Jews. From 1941 to 1943, thousands of Jews in German occupation zones escaped to Italian ones, seeing the latter as much safer. In Greece, the Italian occupation zone was more friendly to Jews than the German and Bulgarian occupations.
In 1943, the Italians entered secret negotiations with the Allied forces and officially surrendered. Germany responded by occupying much of north and central Italy, as well as Italy’s former occupation zones in Yugoslavia and Greece. German occupiers arrested 43,000 Italian Jews. They established transit camps and concentration camps across northern Italy, one of the most notable being Risiera di San Sabba, a former rice-husking facility turned death camp for political prisoners and transit camp for Jews. In total, the Germans deported 8,564 Jews from Italy and Italian-occupied France to death camps in German-occupied Poland, mostly Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Italian populace’s unwillingness to participate made it difficult for the Germans to carry out their plans, although in some cases the Italian police and Italian citizens aided in the
deportations.. Although the Roman Catholic Church issued no official statement during the
Holocaust, individual clergy members made exhaustive efforts to protect their Jewish
countrymen. By the end of the war, more than 40,000 Italian Jews had survived.
- 1922: Italy becomes fascist, Mussolini consolidates power in dictatorship
- 1938: Anti-Semitic legislation passed, Jews forbidden from joining fascist party
- April 1945: Communist partisans capture and kill Mussolini
- 1946: Referendum passed to change Italy from a monarchy to a republic
- 1960: new fascist party founded
- 1961: First widespread restitution initiative undertaken
- 2000: Law of Remembrance establishes January 27th as National Day of Remembrance
- 2000: Presidential Decree establishes Museo della Deportazione in Prato
- 2001: Special committee organizes archives and finds financial damages caused to
- 2003: Federal law establishes The National Museum of the Italian Judaism and of the
Shoah ) in Ferrara
- 2016: Law 115 passes, criminalizes Holocaust denial
- Dec 2017: MEIS museum opens in Ferrara (ordered by law in 2003)
- 2018: Interior Minister Salvini wants to make Roma registry
Much of the government’s commemoration and remembrance activities absolve Italy of guilt for their fascist alliance with Nazi Germany and its role in the Holocaust. Politicians point out that Italian fascism was relatively unconcerned with the fate of Italian Jewry and party leaders often refused to implement German anti-Semitic legislation and orders to deport the Jews.
No Nuremberg-style trials took place, although individual war criminals in Italy were prosecuted in the immediate postwar period, most notably Guido Buffarini Guidi, the Minister of the Interior. A military prosecutor in 1994 discovered a cabinet containing 695 files documenting Nazi war crimes in Italy. Italian magistrates promptly left the files in a dusty cabinet, facing the wall, in an unused room. Whether intentionally malicious or simply careless, the treatment of these files demonstrates how postwar Italian governments failed to punish Nazi crimes.
Although the federal government promises that it has learned from the heinous past of World War II, far-right elected officials have proclaimed a desire to create a registry of all of the Roma citizens of Italy, reminiscent of the Jewish registries that enabled Nazis to easily round up and deport Jews during the war. Roma were also targeted and persecuted during the Holocaust, and politicians’ determination to revive discrimination of Roma implies fascist nostalgia.
Some politicians have implied that they have no responsibility to apologize for Italy’s actions during the war, since a 1946 referendum established the modern Italian Republic as a new country. The Republic’s 1948 constitution criminalized fascist parties but in 1960, a neo-fascist party formed fascist supporters, became part of the national congress. Fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s birthplace, Predappio, has become a pilgrimage site for fascists, and a major source of fascist souvenirs.
In 2018, the far-right Northern League and far-left Five Stars formed a government, running on an anti-immigrant, anti-migrant platform. Like other European nationalist leaders, Northern League leader Matteo Salvini spoke out in favor of Israel and visited Jerusalem in December, 2018. Arriving to Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, Salvini told journalists he discussed cooperation between Israel and Italy in the fields of anti-terrorism, illegal migration, as well as "changing the EU's attitudes toward Israel" Calling Israel a “bulwark of Western rights and values,” Salvini said there is an “obvious risk of aggression by Islamic extremism.” Asked about a purported anti-Semitic incident in Rome, where stepping stones dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims were vandalized, Salvini said he will do whatever is in his powers to catch those responsible.
At Yad Vashem, the president of Italy's Union of Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni spoke to Salvini about a "trend" among Italians who brush off responsibility for persecutions against Jews during WWII, casting blame upon the Germans alone. Di Segni also warned Salvini, who has repeatedly claimed that the new type of anti-Semitism comes from Islamist extremists, saying that he should not discount the power of far-right anti-Semitism and should take a strong position against that too.
Twentieth-century history is covered in the last year of high school, and the Holocaust is one of the required topics. This often means little more than a cursory introduction; quality and depth of Holocaust education in Italian schools varies drastically by the school and the teacher.
On January 27th, the National Day of Remembrance, schools are required to dedicate time to discussing the Holocaust. Teachers plan visits to memorial sites or museums and invite guest speakers. One notable effort is an annual nationwide art and writing competition, in which more than 5,000 students submit artistic work, writing, and film to commemorate the Holocaust. The winners of this contest meet with the Italian President in a ceremony on January 27th.
The Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the Fondazione Museo della Shoah, organizes student trips to Auschwitz-Birkenau and members of the government often attend these trips. The Museo della Deportazione in Prato funds trips to Auschwitz every other year and around 700 students attend, many chosen by teachers who believe that the children may harbor fascist or anti-Semitic sympathies.
Memorial sites dot the country. Venice has the Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial in the central square of the historic Jewish ghetto. Milan has a memorial at platform 21 in the central train station, from which hundreds of Jews were deported to concentration camps. Florence has a museum at the Great Synagogue and a memorial at the Santa Maria Novella train station from which many Jews were sent to extermination camps. The city of Prato, near Florence, has the Museo della Deportazione. The Museo della Shoah is located in Rome, and the National Museum of the Italian Judaism and of the Shoah (MEIS) in Ferrara opened in 2003.
The United National Holocaust Memorial Day January 27th is commemorated as National
Remembrance Day. Events are also coordinated with local Jewish communities, and survivors. April 25th is celebrated as “Liberation Day” for the liberation of Milan and Turin from German occupation. October 16th is commemorated in Rome to remember the mass deportations of Roman Jews in 1943. On this date, the local Jewish community holds a walk of remembrance in collaboration with the Catholic community.
Nearly all wartime archives are available to the public and the largest archive “Archivo Central” is managed by the state and contains information about the fascist Italian regime and its victims. The State Archive in Rome also has a list of all trials against Italian Nazi collaborators. The Catholic Church refuses to release primary sources about their institution’s role in the Holocaust or resistance movements.
Individual archives can be found at various museums and memorial sites, as well as Jewish
communities in Florence, Rome, and Milan. The Museo della Deportazione in Prato has an
archive of survivor testimonies. The Museo della Shoah in Rome has a public archive that is
largely digitized and a library with 8,000 books documenting the Holocaust in Italy.
In the immediate postwar period, many Jewish survivors were uninterested in pursuing
restitution, since their suffering was so recent and they were not ready to relive or confront their trauma. The first restitution law was passed in 1961 but fell short because so little was known about how much property was lost or what the values of the properties.
Eventually, the majority of Jewish buildings were returned, although many of these had been practically destroyed or had nothing left inside. The Italian Economic Ministry has a standing committee that offers reparations to survivors born between 1938-1944, although these are usually small and symbolic. Survivors can also apply for pensions or income for life if they apply on the basis of discrimination against a race or religion.
The main open, unresolved issue remains art. In December, 2018, Stuart E. Eizenstat, an
expert adviser to the State Department, singled out Italy for foot dragging on returning art stolen during World War II. Italy, too, started off well enough — publishing a catalog of art treasures lost during the war, including those that once belonged to Holocaust victims. “Unfortunately, there has been no provenance research or listing of possible Nazi-looted art in their public museums by the Italian government,” Eizenstat complains., adding that Italy seems only to care about “what the Italian government lost.”
Various radical right political parties have been gaining traction in Italian parliament such as Fratelli d’Italia, Forza Nuova, and CasaPound. Many of these parties take conspiratorial
worldviews, blaming Jews and immigrants for the problems ailing Italian society and decrying the Holocaust as a Zionist conspiracy to direct world attention away from Israeli atrocities against Palestinians. These groups frequently promote Holocaust denialism and claim that the Holocaust is exaggerated and over-emphasized because of apparent Jewish control of the media and government. These ultra-nationalist parties harbor many anti-Semitic and denialist sentiments, making them dangerous to Italian Jews and Holocaust survivors.
Catholic institutions have made strides in past years to commemorate the Holocaust, with many clergymen visiting Auschwitz and synagogues. Despite the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust, many individual Catholic leaders and congregations made significant efforts to hide and protect Jews and. The Church officially apologizing for their inaction to challenge the Nazi regime in 1998 but defended the actions of Pope Pius XII, who served during the Holocaust and did little to protect Jews. The Vatican also refuses to open church archives from the wartime period.
The Italian Muslim community has displayed interest in remembering the Holocaust and
fostering interreligious dialogue, seeing Jews as a fellow religious minority experiencing
religious discrimination in a heavily Catholic country. Many Muslims see parallels between anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant violence. But Muslim commemoration of the Holocaust is
complicated by their opinions on Israel, and there have been incidents of anti-Semitic violence and desecration of Holocaust memorials tied to Palestinian liberation movements.
Most media and news outlets in Italy have healthy relationships with local Jewish communities and frequently report on Holocaust commemoration and remembrance events. At the same time, unlike in the Netherlands or Germany, the media has not taken an aggressive campaign to investigate Italian guilt. It has been near silent on the controversial issue of italian hesitation over art restitution.
In addition, many outlets conflate Jews with Israel, or claim that the Holocaust is talked about too much over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Italian Jewish community numbers between 40,000 and 50,000 members. Around 15-20% of the Jewish population died in the Holocaust. The largest contemporary Jewish community in Italy is in Rome, which has about 10,000 Jews. The next largest communities are in Milan and Florence. Each of these cities have active synagogues and Jewish schools and some Jewish communities have newspapers, museums, historical archives, and cemeteries.
-Author: Ilana Luther