Thousands of Italian civilians helped the Nazis murder the country’s Jews during the Holocaust, according to a recently translated Italian book. The book directly contradicts commonly held beliefs that Italians did not cooperate with the genocidal killing machine.
In “The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy,” author Simon Levis Sullam examined the fate of more than 6,000 Italian Jews who were tracked down, deported, and murdered during the last two years of World War II. The modern history professor first published his so-called “historiographical counterblast” in 2015, helped to overturn myths about so-called “good Italians” who refrained from persecuting their Jewish neighbors.
Largely forgotten by history, Italy introduced anti-Jewish racial laws in 1938, two years before entering the war on Hitler’s side. Jews were dismissed from their jobs, kicked out of schools, and denounced in the media. As in Germany and the Netherlands, meticulously kept records helped identify the country’s 46,000 Jews, many of whom were put under surveillance.
In “The Italian Executioners,” Levis Sullam focuses on local Holocaust history, naming the leading anti-Semites in several cities, and quoting from radio broadcasts, political speeches, and anti-Semitic schoolbooks.
“Jews be burnt, one by one, and their ashes scattered in the wind,” intoned a broadcaster on Radio Roma in 1938 that is quoted in the book. Three years before the Holocaust began in conquered Soviet lands, Italians in all strata of society were already isolating and persecuting their country’s Jews, according to Levis Sullam.
“The anti-Jewish polemic was as present in the Fascist press, the mouthpiece of the militants, functionaries, and the higher echelons of the Social Republic, as in the papers combining Catholicism and Fascism and in cultural reviews,” wrote Levis Sullam in a chapter on the ideological context of genocide.
As in Germany, wrote Levis Sullam, “the key political importance of labelling Jews ‘foreigners’ and ‘enemies’ was echoed in the constant repetition of prejudices, accusations, and anti-Semitic myths and the invocation of radical solutions as the mobilizing and defining factors behind the revived Fascist movement.”
The Holocaust was implemented in Italy beginning in 1943, by which point the population had been absorbing anti-Semitic vitriol for half a decade.
As in other parts of Europe, civilians played an essential role in not only identifying and informing on Jews, but sometimes arresting Jews for themselves. For nearly two years, citizens served as truck drivers, transit camp guards, train conductors, or in numerous other capacities to enact the “Final Solution” in Italy.
“The majority of Italian executioners were not necessarily ideologically motivated,” wrote Levis Sullam. “The genocide was widely carried out by bureaucratic means, through police measures and actions: actions that represented political imperatives for some, for others simply orders from superiors, and for yet others an opportunity for profit or vendetta.”
Italian civilians are arrested in Rome by German soldiers following a partisan attack on Nazi forces during World War II (public domain)
In Milan, wrote Levis Sullam, “Fascists would prowl around the city in search of Jews or tips.” By “tips,” the author meant information about Jews in hiding, from which the denouncers could profit handsomely.
The chapter “Hunting Down Jews in Florence” outlines several roundups of Jews that took place in November of 1943. The mass arrests were carried out by German military personnel and Italian Fascists, including members of the notorious Carita gang, “one of the most vicious actors” of the era, according to Levis Sullam.
“On the night between November 16 and 17, the infamous gang took part in the raid on the Franciscan convent in the Piazza del Carmine where numerous Jewish women and their children had taken refuge,” wrote Levis Sullam. “They were held prisoner in the convent for four days before being transferred to Verona by truck –the Fossoli [transit] camp was not yet operational — and deported from there to Auschwitz.”
According to survivor accounts, “the Fascists guarding the prisoners subjected the women to sexual molestation and extortion.”
The Italian transit camp Fossoli, a site of imprisonment for Italian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where almost all of them were murdered upon arrival, 1943-45 (public domain)
Another Holocaust role performed by at least hundreds of Italians involved posing as “guides” to smuggle Jews across the border to safety. The cottage industry of betraying Jews in this manner filled a chapter called, “On the Border: Jews on the Run,” in which Levis Sullam outlined the lethal scam.
“Guides generally demanded between five and ten thousand lire per person to accompany people across the border, although the fee could rise to forty thousand if the route was particularly difficult,” wrote Levis Sullam. “They could double their earnings by betraying their clients: they would pocket the fee as well as the reward for turning them in.”
By the end of the Holocaust, 8,869 Jews had been deported from Italy. Of those individuals, 6,746 were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and nearly all of them were murdered in the gas chambers upon arrival. An additional 303 Jews were killed in massacres committed on Italian soil.
In the assessment of author Levis Sullam, the Italian state has not done enough to atone for the role of thousands of its citizens during the Holocaust. In comparison to Germany, he believes, there has been a lack of “self-critical gestures” recognizing what took place during the war.
Mussolini and Hitler during a parade celebrating their alliance (public domain)
The whitewash of Italians’ role in the Holocaust began early, according to Levis Sullam, fueled by the passage of a 1946 amnesty. Although half of Italy’s murdered Jews were arrested by Italians, as opposed to Germans, “the persecution of Jews was not considered a crime or a specific offense” after the war.
“On Holocaust Remembrance Day, or on similar occasions, there is rarely any specific mention of the roles and responsibilities of the thousands of Italians who all played varying but crucial parts in the tragic process that resulted in genocide,” wrote Levis Sullam. “The only exception is an unavoidable and hasty mention of the racial laws of 1938, and occasionally an allusion to collaboration with the Germans…”
For decades, Italy sought to portray itself as a former hotbed of resistance against Nazism, according to Levis Sullam. However, wrote author, the resistance movement in Italy lasted for only 18 months, engaging relatively few people in only parts of the occupied country. By way of comparison, the Fascist movement lasted for two decades and spread to all of Italy, enrapturing millions of followers.
Far too many of the Holocaust era’s leading Italian anti-Semites were rehabilitated after the war, according to Levis Sullam. On a related note, he wrote, there is a tendency to focus “collective memory on the saviors at the expense of the executioners.” (By “saviors,” the author is referring to Italians who helped rescue Jews, including more than 400 men and women who have been recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem since 1994.)
In general, Levis Sullam believes that Italy moved from the “era of the witness” — as epitomized by Primo Levi — into the “era of the savior,” without passing through an “era of the executioner.” Unlike Germany’s comparatively robust confrontation with its past, wrote the author, Italy has largely “bypassed” the work of reckoning with its homegrown Holocaust perpetrators.
*The article was published in The Times of Israel on August 13, 2018.