This week my focus is on Italy. I have continued working with several general Holocaust books as well as reading a book focused on the Holocaust in Italy and secondary source articles focused on the Holocaust in Italy.
Italy has one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe. Italy’s Jewish community dates back over 2000 years to the Roman Empire and the Jewish- Roman Wars from before the birth of Christ. Italy’s Jewish community was relatively small, estimated at 58,000, but estimates vary due to the high intermarriage rates among Italian Jews.
Italy began the war as one of the three members of the Axis Powers, alongside Germany and Japan. Unlike the other 3 countries that I am studying, Italy maintained its independence from Germany until 1943.
Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy during World War II, passed numerous anti-semitic legislation leading up to World War II. These laws included the prohibition of mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews, banned Jews from attending state and private schools, banned Jews from teaching and working at schools, and restricted the ability of Jews to possess large landholdings. Thousands of Italian Jews lost their jobs in 1938. Among them were an estimated 279 high school teachers, 100 elementary school teachers, and hundreds of university professors.
These laws greatly changed the lives of Jews living in Italy. However, Jews were not confined to ghettos the way they were in many other countries and Jews were not required to wear the Star of David as an identifier. Mussolini clearly made life difficult for Jews, but he did not agree to German demands to deport Jews living in Italy. However, Mussolini did intern Jewish refugees who were not Italian citizens. Despite being clearly anti-semitic, the Jews were not one of Mussolini’s priorities. Instead, he was focused on expanding Italy’s territory through military campaigns in Greece, Yugoslavia, Albania and North Africa.
The situation for the Jews living in Italy greatly changed following the overthrow of Mussolini in July 1943 in a coup from within his fascist party. Following the coup, Germany invaded Italy and began a direct occupation of the country. The situation for Italian Jews greatly changed under the German occupation.
Deportations began to be carried out by Italian police in collaboration with the Germans. The Italian collaborating units were known as the Questure. Italian police were helped in their search for Jews by a population census taken by Mussolini in 1938. This census gave the names and addresses of all members of the Italian Jewish community. In total, an estimated 8,000 Jews were deported from Italy, mainly to Auschwitz.
However, the overwhelming majority, 80 percent of Italian Jews, survived the war. A few factors leading to such a high survival rate include high Jewish intermarriage rates before the war, significant degree of assimilation of Italian Jews into Italian culture, and great efforts taken by local Italians and the Catholic Church to help Jews. The Pope issued false papers to many Italian Jews; 4,238 Jews took refuge in monasteries throughout Italy; 477 Jews found refuge in the Vatican; and many Jews were sheltered in the homes of Italians. One major reason why so many Italians were willing to lend a helping hand is because of the good relations between Jews and Italians before the war. The vast majority of Italian Jews were highly assimilated and this allowed good relations to persist. There are many similarities between the Jewish community of Denmark and Italy that helps to explain why both nations had such Jewish survival rates.
Next week I will blog on Poland.