Until 1938, Jews could join the Italian Fascist Party. Among the oldest Jewish enclaves in Europe, in Italy there were about 50,000 in 1933, 12 years into Fascist reign. Jews had lived in Italy for over 2,000 years and were fully integrated into Italian culture and society with little overt antisemitism among Italians. Italian Fascism was not concerned with antisemitism. (Read Alexander Stile’s Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. New York: Summit Books, 1991.)
However, under pressure from Nazi Germany, the Fascist regime passed antisemitic legislation beginning in 1938, which for the most part was not enforced until 1941. Some members of a highly integrated Jewish minority had reasonably good relations with non-Jewish neighbors, colleagues, and business associates, yet the psychological insult and real economic disadvantages of discrimination eroded the quality of life. Yet …
According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, “Italian military authorities generally refused to participate in mass murder of Jews or to permit deportations from Italy or Italian-occupied territory; and the Fascist leadership was both unable and unwilling to force the issue.”
Italian-occupied areas were therefore relatively safe for Jews. Between 1941 and 1943, thousands of Jews escaped from German-occupied territory to the Italian-occupied zones of France, Greece and Yugoslavia. The Italian authorities even evacuated some 4,000 Jewish refugees to the Italian mainland. Incarcerated in southern Italy, these Jewish refugees survived the war.
Although resistance by most Italians continued, after the Nazi occupation of Italy, in October and November 1943 German authorities rounded up Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Trieste and other major cities in northern Italy. They established police transit camps at Fossoli di Carpi, approximately 12 miles north of Modena, at Bolzano in northeastern Italy, and at Borgo San Dalmazzo, near the French border, to concentrate the Jews prior to deportation. 8,564 Jews from Italy, Italian-occupied France and the islands of Rhodes and Kos were deported, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 506 Jewish prisoners went to Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück and Flossenbürg.
Just the other day I stumbled across memorials to some of those from Rome who were caught in the roundup. “… Cobblestone-sized memorials are referred to as stolpersteine in German, or literally translated ‘stumbling stones,’ and are installed outside the last chosen place of residence of victims of the Holocaust,” notes the website Wanted in Rome. “There are over a dozen in the Jewish ghetto and they are now part of the fabric of the neighborhood. … Each plaque [designed by Berlin artist Gunter Demnig] is detailed with the victim’s first and last name, date of birth, date and place of deportation, and date of death in a Nazi extermination camp. There are currently almost 200 stumbling stones installed in nine districts of Rome, including Trastevere, Prati, Campo de’ Fiori, Flaminio, S. Pietro, Tiburtina, Prenestino, Appio Latino and Aurelio. A new tranche of stones is laid in Rome every January.”
Seeing the names of entire families removed, transported and murdered for being Jewish on plaques that sit quietly in the cobblestones can be a moving and heartbreaking experience. (In Paris, entire neighborhoods are commemorated with wall plaques). Here are but a few from the same apartment building near the Roman Forum.
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