Commentary Magazine


Benevolence and Betrayal, by Alexander Stille

Another Country

Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism.
by Alexander Stille.
Summit Books. 365 pp. $25.00.

They were always hopeful. They used to say: “But the pope . . . the Vatican . . . open city.” Here they wouldn’t dare touch anyone.

Supported by that high sense of civilization that comes from having grown up in our beautiful Italy, mother of morality and law that from eternal Rome has illuminated the whole world, they refused to believe that the thugs of Hitler would dare repeat the incredible barbarities they had committed in Poland, Germany, Holland, and Belgium.

We were very incredulous. German refugees who had escaped into Italy would take every opportunity to warn Italian Jews about what was happening to Jews in Germany, but we always said, “What happened in Germany can never happen in Italy.”

These are the voices of three Italian-Jewish survivors interviewed by Alexander Stille for Benevolence and Betrayal. And indeed, Italy’s Jews had better reasons than those of other European countries, including France and England, to feel safe in their native land. Although Italy did not eliminate the ghetto until 1870, its Jews quickly thereafter achieved a level of acceptance unmatched in other European countries. While mobs of Frenchmen, agitated over the Dreyfus Affair, were marching through cities shouting “Mort aux Juifs!,” Italian Jews were serving as generals and cabinet ministers, even prime ministers. Not even the advent of Fascism disturbed their complacency, for Mussolini seemed to go out of his way to mock the racial theories of the Nazis. “National pride,” he insisted, “has no need of the delirium of race,” and in 1934 he called Hitler “a horrible sexual degenerate, a dangerous fool.”

These admirable sentiments did not prevent Italy from passing racial laws of its own in 1938-40, or from becoming, in June 1940, Germany’s only real European ally in the war. Yet even in war the Italians acted in such a way as to confirm their Jewish citizens in the conviction that they belonged to a civilized national culture. Up until the German occupation of September 1943, Mussolini allowed Jewish relief organizations to receive and assist refugees. More importantly, the Italian army protected Jews in Italian-occupied territory in southern France, Yugoslavia, and Greece from deportation to Nazi death camps. (One of the tragic paradoxes of the war was that the surrender of Italy in September 1943, a triumph for the Allies, was a catastrophe for the Jews, who now found themselves, in Italy and formerly Italian-occupied territories, in the hands of the Germans.)

But the distinction between Italian Fascism and German Nazism, though real, was not sufficient to save the more than 7,000 Italian Jews who were deported to Nazi death camps or killed on Italian soil. Compared with their German allies, the Italians may have been notable for benevolence and rescue; but they also were guilty of sufficient betrayal and persecution to destroy or cripple or poison the lives of the five Jewish families whose stories are powerfully conveyed by Stille. Although his book includes many moving and memorable accounts of the generosity and bravery of non-Jewish Italians, it concludes with a lengthy denunciation (by the Buchenwald survivor Franco Schönheit) of the Italian Fascists who provided German occupiers with the lists of Jewish-community members. “‘Even though I returned to Italy,’” he tells Stille, “‘I no longer identify myself with the country. It no longer says anything to me.’”

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To no group of Italian Jews had Italy “said” more than to those who idolized Mussolini and nearly all that he represented: “Fatherland, Faith, and Family.” Out of a Jewish population of 47,000 in 1938, more than 10,000—that is, one-third of the adults—belonged to the Fascist party. Many of these, perhaps the majority, joined for practical reasons, but a still substantial number found that their Jewish patriarchalism and Piedmontese military tradition blended perfectly with Fascism. Their story is embodied in the career of Ettore Ovazza and his family, the first and the most compelling, tragic, and terrifying episode in Stille’s book.

A hero of World War I and an active Fascist, Ovazza saw no contradiction between being president of the Turin Jewish community and genuflecting before Mussolini as if before a god. He wrote of his 1929 audience with II Duce:

On hearing my affirmation of the unshakable loyalty of Italian Jews to the Fatherland, His Excellency Mussolini looks me straight in the eye and says with a voice that penetrates straight down to my heart: “I have never doubted it.” . . . Such is The Man that Providence has given to Italy.

Such oily sycophancy raises the question of whether the Italian Jews were really as free as they claimed to be. Thus, in search of a still more impressive display of undivided loyalty to the regime, Ovazza proposed to lead a squad of Jewish Fascists to burn down the Florence office of the Zionist newspaper, Israel. At this point, a fellow Jewish Fascist issued a fitting rebuke: “To attack other Jews in such hard times . . . in order to ingratiate ourselves with a regime that has betrayed us [is] to act as slaves, not as free men.”

Ovazza’s relentless attacks on Italy’s small Zionist movement seemed to afford him the protection of powerful friends even as the regime, in deference to its German ally, adopted anti-Semitic racial laws. Stille paints a vivid picture of the warm personal relations between Ovazza and Paolo Orano (rector of the University of Perugia), who in May 1937 published a book called The Jews in Italy, which instantly became the bible of Italian Fascist anti-Semitism and the preamble to its racial laws. When Ovazza was recovering from a calamitous automobile accident, this anti-Semitic ideologue inquired after his health every day.

In the end, to be sure, Ovazza’s great services to Fascism availed him nothing. His pleas for continued recognition as a privileged Jew were ignored by the Italian bureaucracy; he was betrayed by fellow Italians to the SS; at the conclusion of Yom Kippur in October 1943, he, his wife, and his daughter were summarily shot in the back of the neck by the Germans, who then burned them in a furnace.

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Although the tragic irony of the Ovazza story is not equaled by those that follow, the respect and even affection that Stille bestow upon this self-deceived figure sets the tone for the whole book. The only Jews who remain outside the range of his imaginative sympathy are the outright spies, traitors, and informers, such as Pitigrilli (the pen name of Dino Segre, a half-Jew and a writer of salacious and cynical fiction) and Celeste Di Porto (“La Pantera nera,” or Black Panther), who turned in 50 of her fellow Jews of the Rome ghetto to the Germans; both converted to Catholicism after the war.

Pitigrilli figures prominently in Stille’s second story, about the Foa family of Turin and the activities of the anti-Fascist (and, after 1933, largely Jewish) organization, Giustizia e Liberià. The interest of the Foa story arises partly from Stille’s depiction of wartime underground activities, but partly from the question his account raises of what was Jewish about these Jewish anti-Fascists.

On the one hand, they themselves would ostentatiously affect detachment “from anything smelling of Judaism.” But on the other hand, they would conceive their anti-Fascist schemes in study groups meeting on Friday nights and called Oneg Sciabbath (“Sabbath Pleasure”). Describing the Foa family Passover seder, Stille remarks that “for these highly integrated, completely Italian citizens, the verses read at Passover . . . seemed a quaint and infinitely distant legend of long-forgotten troubles.” It is hard to believe that they were really so obtuse about the resonances of the Festival of Freedom as Stille here suggests. But be that as it may, Vittorio Foa, serving a fifteen-year prison sentence after Pitigrilli betrayed him, wrote as follows to his pregnant sister to allay her doubts about the wisdom of bringing a Jewish child into the Europe of 1937:

These deterministic ideas lose all meaning in the face of our Jewish family life, which in its unifying and cohesive force survives every assimilation and, against rational argument, continues to see in each new child the blessing of the Lord. If a shadow of doubt had overcome them, in the centuries of infinite suffering, how would they have survived?

Thus did an ostensibly anti-Jewish secularist demonstrate his understanding that there are innumerable sacrednesses in what people call “secularity,” and that the Jews continue to be a community of faith.

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After recounting the main events in the rise of Fascism and Jewish anti-Fascism in his first two stories, Stille turns in the third to the great roundup in the Rome ghetto of October 16, 1943, which ravaged the Di Veroli family among many others. These shopkeepers, sales-clerks, and peddlers had been left relatively unscathed by the 1938 racial laws that devastated the Jewish professional classes; their doom came with the wave of anti-Semitism that followed Italy’s entry into the war in June 1940. Perhaps more than other Italian Jews, those of Rome were lulled by the illusion that they would be safe. Had they not lived in this city for 2,000 years?

The book’s fourth section begins two weeks after the Rome deportations, with the Jews of Genoa preparing for the Germans’ next move. Stille’s emphasis here is on the cooperation between the Jewish community and the local Catholic Church in hiding and rescuing Jews. In particular he describes the work of DELASEM, Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei (Committee to Assist Jewish Refugees), and his story confutes the widespread image of Jewish passivity before the Nazi predators. “In places where Jews had the freedom to organize and help themselves, they did so,” notes Stille. The key figures here are Massimo Teglio, a Jewish aviator of astonishing ingenuity, bravery, bravado, and humor; Rabbi Riccardo Pacifici, the chief rabbi of Genoa, who would not go into hiding or forsake his duty to the refugees because “with the Torah under my arm, I can go safely anywhere”; and Don Repetto, a Catholic priest who courageously took over the work of DELASEM after the armistice of 1943.

Nowhere is the truism that generalizations about groups tell us nothing about individuals more memorably illustrated than in this chapter. The devotion and love of the Mother Superior of the convent in which the rabbi’s wife Wanda took refuge permeate her account, transcribed here, of the Germans’ invasion of the sanctuary and capture of their Jewish prey:

We gave each one the most affectionate sisterly embrace possible; it was a scene to make the stones cry, but those hearts hardened by hatred seemed to feel no pain. . . . Just and Merciful God, have pity on Your chosen people.

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The book’s fifth narrative commences in November 1943 and describes the final deportations from Italy and the fate of the Schönheit family in Buchenwald and Ravensbrück. Apart from Rabbi Pacifici, the Schönheits of Ferrara are the most religious Jews in Stille’s book; and as irony would have it, they were precisely the ones exempted from death by the Germans. Instead, father and son spent eight-and-a-half months at Buchenwald, when conditions there were at their worst. The story of how they survived only because they had each other provides a striking counterpoint to the famous account by Elie Wiesel in Night of relations between fathers and sons in Auschwitz. Upon their liberation in 1945, Carlo, who had been the cantor of Ferrara’s synagogue, recited Kaddish at the camp’s crematorium.

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In his epilogue Stille briefly recounts what has happened to the remnant of each family since the war’s end. The most telling and distressing segment of this coda concerns Rabbi Pacifici’s surviving son Emanuele. His throat today is badly scarred from the removal of one of his vocal cords, and he wears a medical brace under his shirt to replace the stomach muscles destroyed by a bomb. These injuries were not, however, the work of the Germans, at whose hands he endured so much, but of an Arab terrorist who threw a bomb into a Rome synagogue in 1982, killing a small boy and wounding 40 other people. At about the same time, the plaque honoring Rabbi Pacifici in Genoa was defaced by a swastika.

Although Stille keeps a polite distance from Emanuele Pacifici’s assertion that there is more anti-Semitism in Italy now than in the Fascist period, evidence of anti-Semitism is not far to seek; Stille has himself reported it in magazine articles in recent years. Demonstrations by Italian leftists against Israel’s 1982 incursion into Lebanon or in favor of the intifada have taken place not in front of the Israeli embassy but in front of synagogues. In April 1987, the walls of the University of Bologna were adorned with posters urging “Cannibals, Bedouins, Rabbis, Out of Italy!” In November of the same year, a Catholic magazine in Brescia republished excerpts from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with a preface by a priest who called for continued struggle “against that minority of ultra-powerful Jews who conspire to divide the church of Christ.” (As to whether it is Jewish power or Jewish powerlessness that provokes anti-Semitic hatred, one may note that the minority group which once gave Italy all those generals, cabinet ministers, and prime ministers without provoking resentment has now disappeared from Italian public life.)

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The strength of this book lies not in any abstract formulations or general truths, whether about Italians, Jews, or human nature. Rather it derives from the voices of human beings, ordinary and extraordinary, as they reach us through deftly handled interviews, letters, and diaries. At its best, Benevolence and Betrayal confirms what Primo Levi said about the “sorrowful, cruel, and moving stories” of himself and his fellow captives at Auschwitz. There are, he reported, “hundreds of thousands of [these] stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity.” Some of them are told here by Stille.

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