Lia Quartapelle has fought for many years for recognition of the role that the Jewish Brigade’s 5,000 soldiers played in the liberation of the Italian peninsula in 1944.
Last month, the MP for the centre-left Democratic Party announced a victory: the veterans were to be awarded the centuries-old Gold Medal for Valour at a ceremony in Israel later in the summer.
The Jewish Brigade was formed in British-controlled Mandatory Palestine in 1944. It fought its way up Italy as part of the British Eighth Army, seeing action in the crucial Battle of the Senio River in the spring of 1945. Many of its soldiers are buried in the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery of Piangipane, near Ravenna.
Ms Quartapelle’s contemporary battle in the Chamber of Deputies was opposed by members of the populist Five Star Movement, who said the Jewish Brigade were no different from other groups that had fought in the liberation.
But, as Ms Quartapelle said during one of the first guided tours at Milan’s new Jewish Brigade Museum in June, these veterans were unique.
“These soldiers were safe in Palestine and chose to come to fight for democracy in our country where we had laws that condemned Jewish people and there was a genocide against them,” she said.
“This is what makes them heroes.”
Five Star’s opposition, she said, was part of what she sees as its antisemitic stance.
Racial tensions have unnerved many Italian Jews as the country marks the 80th anniversary of the introduction of the Racial Laws, which severely restricted Jewish civil rights. Racist and antisemitic propaganda from the period are on display in the new museum.
Guiding the small group of visitors around, museum researcher Stefano Scaletta explained that the aim was “to set out the historical facts”.
Many on the extreme left say there should be no medal awarded because of the role the soldiers played in the Israeli Defence Forces after the brigade was disbanded in 1946.
Such critics play down or deny the Jewish Brigade’s role in Italy’s liberation.
The museum tells the story of the Jewish Brigade though the personal stories of its soldiers — including Piero Cividalli, a Florentine Jew from a well-known anti-fascist family who had emigrated to Palestine after the introduction of the Racial Laws.
On display is his army pay book and postcards he wrote home to Palestine. Jewish Brigade soldiers donated part of their wages and their alcohol ration, which was sold on the black market to raise money to help Italy’s Holocaust survivors.
“The story of the founding of the state of Israel is unknown in Italy and even I did not know the story of the Jewish Brigade until I stumbled across a book by the American journalist Howard Blum about the Brigade in 2004,” said Davide Romano, the director of the museum.
Since then, he has marched with the Brigade’s flag in Milan’s annual 25 April Liberation Day parade.
“I have been called a fascist — which is really something in Italy! But I have also been spat at and verbally abused. This is work in progress and we are hoping to expand our collection in the future,” he said.
“Telling the story, showing the documents and the faces of the Jewish soldiers who fought against the Third Reich is the best antidote to historical revisionism.”
*The article was published in The Jewish Chronicle on July 16, 2018.