Introduction to Rescue by Italians
Jews had lived in Italy since the beginning of the Diaspora—for nearly 2,000 years.
Italy became a unified state in 1861. Jews were highly integrated into Italian society and the economic, social, cultural and political spheres.
In 1922, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party assumed power. Soon, they outlawed democratic government and institutions.
Italy became a member of the Axis with Nazi Germany in 1939. Italy joined Germany in the Blitzkrieg against France in June 1940.
In 1922, Italy’s Jewish population was 45,000.
At first, Mussolini repudiated institutional racism and antisemitism. In the early years of the fascist government, he maintained good relations with the Jewish community and its leaders.
Ironically, a number of Jews supported the Fascist party.
Between 1922 and 1937, Mussolini and the Italian fascist government did nothing to harm Italian Jews. Italian Jews enjoyed legal and social equality.
By 1938, there were 57,000 Jews living in Italy out of a total population of 45.6 million (0.1%). By the end of 1939, there were approximately 7,000 foreign Jews residing in Italy. This made the Jewish population of Italy one of the smallest by percentage in Europe.
In 1938, under pressure from Hitler, Mussolini instituted Nuremberg-type antisemitic laws. Under continuing pressure from the Nazis, Mussolini enacted ever more severe laws restricting the economic life of Jews in Italy. Fascist-controlled newspapers began to come out with antisemitic articles and editorials, which pointed out the inherent danger of Jewish Zionism.
In July 1938, a work was published called Dichiarazione della Razza [______ of the Race]. The article claimed that there was a pure Italian race, of Aryan stock, in which Jews were not a part. The article called for an official race policy in Italy.
Under the new laws, Jews were prohibited from teaching in schools and colleges, and Jews who had immigrated to Italy after 1919 were subject to expulsion and deportation. Soon, a Department for Demography and Race was created. It was tasked to conduct a population census of Jews and to establish a coordinated action for implementing discriminatory policies against Jews by the Italian government.
On November 17, 1938, marriage between Jews and non-Jews was prohibited and Jews could no longer serve in the Italian armed forces or civil service. Jews were defined by race.
Soon Jews were no longer allowed to publish newspapers, use public libraries, own radios, or enter into business partnerships with non-Jews. These laws were particularly shocking to Italian Jews, who had enjoyed economic and cultural equality all of their lives.
In 1931, 47,485 Jews resided in Italy. By 1939, that number was down to 35,156. By September 1943, that number was down to 32,000.
In order to avoid this discrimination, about ten percent of the Jews in Italy converted to Catholicism, and about ten percent left Italy.
By the end of 1941, there were 10,000 foreign Jews residing in Italy.
On June 10, 1940, Italy officially entered into the war with its Axis partner, Germany. Though Mussolini was now officially allied with Hitler, he was not prepared to implement the “Final Solution” in Italy. Nor did it seem that Hitler would insist that Mussolini follow him.
Also in 1941, forced labor camps were created for Jews and resident aliens in Rome, Bologna, Milan and Tripoli. Many foreign Jews in Italy were interned in these camps. Although the conditions were severe, they were nothing like German concentration camps.
By 1943, there were an estimated 10,000-13,000 Jewish refugees in Italy. They were from Poland, France and Yugoslavia. Three thousand Jews were interned in Italian labor camps.
Despite the Fascist government policy, the Italian people maintained a friendly attitude toward Italian Jews.
Italian Jews were, in fact, protected from murder and deportation until the collapse of the Mussolini regime on September 8, 1943. The Allied armies landed in Italy in the South and divided Italy into two. The Germans held the North and the Center of Italy, including Rome, and the Allies the South. Unfortunately, most Italian Jews, including refugees from France and Yugoslavia, were living in the North. Jews were now no longer protected in Italy. Himmler finally saw his opportunity to implement the “Final Solution” in Italy. Himmler sent SS officer Theodore Dannecker to round up and deport the Jews of Italy. The round-ups and deportations took place Merrano and Lake Maggiore (September 16, 1943), Trieste (October 9), Rome (October 16), Genoa (November 3), Florence (November 6), Milan (November 8), Venice (November 9) and Ferrara (November 14).
From towns and villages, Jews were sent to transit camps in Fossuli and Bolzano. From there, they were deported to the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. During this period of September 8, 1943 to April 1945, 20% of Italian Jews were murdered.
Thousands of Italians protected Italian Jews during the period of the Nazi occupation in the North. Many Italian officials, including clergymen, protected persecuted Jews. Some Jews escaped into the Allied zones of the South. Others escaped into Switzerland or joined partisan groups.
The Italian army in three zones of occupation, including Croatia, Greece and Southern France, protected thousands of Jews from deportation. On at least three occasions, Mussolini and the senior staff of the Italian Foreign Ministry refused to deport Jews in their zones.
Several Jewish relief and rescue organizations operated in Italy throughout the war, most prominent of which was the Delegazione Assistenze Emigranti Ebrei (DELASEM; Jewish Emigrant Association). This organization had numerous Jews serving in its leadership.
By the end of the war, 83% of Italian Jews survived the war.
After the war, a member of the Jewish community remarked, “Ever Italian Jew who survived owed his life to the Italians.”
Jews lived in Rome since at least the First Century. During World War II, approximately 11,000 Jews lived in Rome or its immediate vicinity. Like the Jews of Italy, Roman Jews were protected.
This all changed when the Wehrmacht captured and occupied Rome on September 9-10, 1943. SS Chief Himmler immediately ordered the arrest and deportation of the Jews of Rome. The local SS commander stationed in Rome, Kappler, was reluctant to follow the orders of his Chief. On his own initiative, Kappler tried to extort 50 kilograms of gold from the Jewish community. If they did not, he would order 200 Jews killed. He ordered that the gold be delivered to him within 36 hours. The Jewish community complied.
On September 29, 1943, the German police confiscated records from the Jewish community offices in Rome. On October 16, using the captured addresses, the SS initiated a massive hunt for the Jews of Rome. Building by building, searches were conducted by the German police and the SS, largely without the assistance of the Italian police.
In a spontaneous act of heroism, the Roman community protected their Jewish neighbors and friends. Only 1,007 Jews were caught in the initial roundup. More than 7,000 Jews in Rome proper were hidden and protected all over the city, including in homes, churches, convents, schools, and even in the Vatican itself. Himmler considered the attempted deportation of Roman Jews to be a dismal failure. On June 4, 1944, Rome was liberated by the 5th US Army. More than 10,000 Jews survived in Rome.
Milan is a city in the Lombardi province in Northern Italy. Jews have lived in Milan since the Roman period. In 1931, 6,490 Jews lived in Milan.
After Hitler came to power, Milan became a major transit point for Jews fleeing from Germany and later Austria and Czechoslovakia. The flow of Jews leaving, both legally and illegally, continued during the early part of the war. About 800 Jews were deported from Milan by the Nazis during World War II. A number of these were refugees who were taken in the autumn of 1943. By the end of the war, 4,484 Jews lived in Milan.
Florence (Firenze in Italian) is located in the province of Tuscany, in Central Italy. Jews may have lived in Florence since the Roman era.
In 1936, the Jewish community in Florence was 3,200. After the Italian surrender, the SS raided Florence and arrested 200 local and foreign Jews. They were deported to Auschwitz. On November 26, a second group was arrested. On June 6, 1944, 16 Jews were deported. A total 243 Jews were deported from Florence. Only 13 returned.
By the end of the war, 1,600 Jews survived in Florence.
Updated October 29, 2017