ITALICS The Jews in Mussolini’s Italy
Michele Sarfatti is a scholar of contemporary history with particular regard to the history of Jews in the twentieth century events of fascist Italy. He has just republished the definitive edition of his book “The Jews in Mussolini’s Italy” with Einaudi. Recently at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem he participated in the international conference: ‘Fascism and the “Defence of Race”. From 1938 Racial Laws to the Present.’
Professor, which are the most important points that you discussed?
One is the radicality of the anti-Jewish legislation by the fascist regime, and another is the important relevance that this legislation had in Italian national history.
In what sense?
The anti-Jewish laws of the second half of 1938 had the purpose of expelling Jews from all the different areas of social and working life, including the educational life of the country. The purpose of this campaign against the Jews was to take the Jews far away from the country in order to build an Aryan society and a racial state.
But the Jews in Italy were never forcibly persecuted?
Until the middle of 1943 the acts of anti-Jewish violence were very rare, but the laws were very tough. They implied the firing of all the public employees, from university professors to the drivers of the tramway, expulsion of all the Jews from the army and from all the cultural institutions. There could be no Jewish tenors, or plays, or music composed by Jewish authors, or films interpreted or directed by Jews. The publication of new books by Jewish authors was forbidden, and the existing ones were progressively removed. It was forbidden for Jews to be members of sporting societies, and they could not write or edit magazines. There were a few minor exceptions that were meant to fade slowly. An important point is that this interrupted the progressive establishment of the structure of Italian society as a society made up of citizens with equal rights. It slowed down this process. The revocation of the rights of citizens happened in the Italy of 1938, as it did in the Germany of 1933 and in other European countries, for the first time since the French Revolution.
Did Italian Jewish people continue to hold Italian passports?
Their citizenship was not removed, and in my opinion this was because it was simpler to send them away if they had a citizenship so that they could be taken in by other countries. Until the summer of 1941 nobody had in mind the extermination of the final solution, not even Nazi Germany. The choice to kill all the Jews matured in Nazi Germany, starting in the middle of 1941 and for the two successive years. Until the middle of 1943 when the Republic of Salò was created Mussolini did not share the politics of extermination, but after that date he collaborated with the extermination of the Italian Jews.
How many Jews were in Italy?
Around 45,000, and three quarters of them were Italians and one quarter foreigners. They were more or less one per one thousand of the entire population.
How many were murdered?
Around 7,000. In the mass murder of the Fosse Ardeatine in March 1944 in Rome they killed 75 Jews among the 335 killed in total. This was the worst killing of Jews on the peninsula. Altogether they killed 300 Jews on the peninsula, and 7,600 were deported. Of them 6,700 were killed and 900 survived. Most of them were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau between October 1943 and January 1945. A very large number of the deported people were killed when they arrived. The ones who were tattooed with a registration number were a minority. One of them was Primo Levi.
You wrote and recently published with Einaudi the definitive edition of your book ‘The Jews in Mussolini’s Italy’. Were there fascist Jews?
There were fascist Jews and anti-fascist Jews, and people who were neither one nor the other. Among the fascists and antifascists the Jews were in larger percentage numbers than other Italians, because there is a stronger tradition of engagement in politics among the Jews.
Where have you given your lectures?
I gave lectures practically all over Italy, in Milan, Rome, Turin, Venice, Padua, and the book was presented by various historians at the library of contemporary history in Rome.
What did you talk about in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University conference?
I spoke about how the Italian Jews were progressively degraded from being the subjects of their own history and became the objects of a history decided by others, taking away the autonomy which characterises each group or each human being, which was removed.
What came out of the conference?
Various different approaches to this subject, ranging from the historical material point of view of the persecution to the scientific approach to the persecution. It is fashionable to put a scientific stamp on things, which is really ridiculous. There was a reflection on racism against the populations of the colonies and especially to black people. There was an interesting debate by contemporary historians on what relationship there was between colonial racism and antisemitic racism.
Have racism and antisemitism always existed?
Intolerance and xenophobia have always existed. Look at the catastrophic derivation that we had from positivism in the last of the 19th century that has bought to the theory of the diversity between races and of the superiority of some races over others.
It seems that racism and antisemitism are coming back heavily in recent years?
One of the big questionings in the second part of the conference in Jerusalem was dedicated to understanding how much of this antisemitic experience of the fascist period has remained in the Italian society and is coming out again today. I must add that history and historical events do not repeat themselves. I don’t believe that history repeats itself in cycles. I believe that everything that happens is written in the collective memory of a population, and it can be used again but it also comes out in different forms.
Nazism seemed to be banished in 1945 but now it looks as if it is coming back in Hungary, in Austria, in Germany and other countries?
The worst case is Hungary. I am worried for Poland and Austria, and also Germany, but it’s in a minority in Germany. I believe that our battle has to go in the direction of keeping antisemitism and racism strongly in the minority. I am not sure that they will ever be completely eradicated. Our life is a continuous battle to reaffirm these principles of justice, equality and solidarity.
Is the wind changing, even in the United States?
There are impetuous winds, but I don’t believe that the principal direction has changed.
But in the US there has recently been the horrible murder of the Jews when they were praying on Saturday in the synagogue in Pittsburgh?
And it was doubly horrible because it was made against Jewish people and the symbol of the synagogue. But in the United States there have also been small breezes that are fighting against the phantoms that Trump is trying to make reappear.
Are you worried?
That is difficult to answer. I see reasons to take comfort and reasons to worry at the same time. We are in a very delicate and complicated phase, but inside myself at the end of the day I am confident of the fact that if we get strongly involved we will win. We are people who hate all kinds of racism and any kind of phobia, and we recognise that among human beings it is primary that all people are our brothers and sisters. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose, and it is one that we can win.
Have the Italians and the French ever officially apologised for their persecutions of the Jews?
There has never been a really profound act of apology, but I am not particularly interested in apologies. For some people an apology concludes, and it’s like putting the stone over a tomb, and this is not the case. The consequences of persecution against the Jews will continue to exist, not only in the fact that the Italian Jewish population has diminished but also because there are still streets and schools that are named for those who signed the racial manifesto. And there are careers and studies by university professors which were interrupted 80 years ago and have never been re-established. It is more interesting to work on these things.
Is the State of Israel that is now 70 years old itself a guarantee against antisemitism?
It cannot be a guarantee against antisemitism in itself, but it is a strong help in the fight against antisemitism. This fight has to be fought and won in each individual country. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary made a visit to Jerusalem, but this is not enough. It’s not enough to put a superficial silence on the accusation of antisemitism that is made against him in Hungary.
Is antisemitism originated by religion?
It has some religious origins, but now it is more cultural. It has lots of components of religious origin, and of ethnic origin, and now also the component that derives from hostility against the state of Israel.
Do the young people that you meet in your lectures listen to you?
Yes, they listen and they are interested. Teenagers are very interested in questions of justice and injustice, and I find that young people are prepared to listen.
Do you think that education is the most important weapon we have to fight with?
Rhetoric is of no use. What is of some use is the quiet education that puts the Shoah inside European history and not outside it. A gentle education that is willing to listen to doubts and perplexities. It doesn’t have to impose the memory of the Shoah as its starting point.
But we must not forget?
My reflection on this is that those who have not lived through the event like a 70 years old person has cannot have the memory. But with knowledge and understanding they can have a deeper level of comprehension and learning than one can have with memory.
Your solution is knowledge?
It is a knowledge in progress. The knowledge has grown, and this is due for instance to the activity of the Centro Primo Levi in New York and to the fact that the MEIS (National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah) in Ferrara has started to make exhibitions that are interesting for people who are not Italian. There is also interest from the foreign press in the Museum of the Shoah in Rome.
*The article was published in Alain Elkann Interviews on December 9, 2018.