ALONG WITH thousands of other refugees we suddenly found ourselves in Marseille. My father would stand in line each morning, waiting for our allotment of food. It was the summer of 1940. The Germans had easily defeated the French army and the government of Marshal Petain had begun acquiescing to German leadership. As refugees we were each limited to a few grams of rice per day and an occasional piece of meat. As if by design, the only meat that was ever available was cooked ham -- not an insurmountable problem for an Italian Jewish family accustomed to eating more than an occasional slice of prosciutto.
My mother would simply trim the fat from the ham, melt it on a sterno-like heater poised on top of the bathroom sink and serve it as a condiment on an otherwise tasteless white rice. It was my first exposure to how Italians, including Italian Jews, tend to humanize most rules. Even after the war when choice was no longer a problem, we would enjoy a few slices of cooked ham or prosciutto with a Sunday antipasto.
Most afternoons my father would make the rounds of the same three consulates. His strategy was to be befriend the consular officers charged with issuing the few much-sought-after visas. It was his way of increasing our chances of being accepted. At times my mother, my sister and I were pressed into service to give further credence to his case. Our job was to look like the ideal family, the kind any country would be happy to accept. For these occasions my sister and I dressed in matching camel hair coats, brown felt hats and gloves. My mother wore the type of coat and hat worn by Ingrid Bergman as she left Casablanca with Paul Henreid. The image was not always easy to maintain, especially for long hours. I was five years old, my sister seven.
My parents had applied for admission to Argentina, Brazil and the United States, and would have been happy to accept whichever visa came first. In later years they gladly admitted that the United States had been their first choice all along. At that time, however, their only thought was to escape from Europe.
While no one could have predicted what was about to happen to European Jewry, my father sensed that there was virtually no limit to the paranoia the Nazis could unleash. He was convinced that the German people's inordinate respect for discipline and authority would not allow them to reject Nazi leadership. He had experienced German anti-Semitism first hand as a graduate engineering student in Berlin, and unlike countless Jews, he did not believe that Hitler would moderate his views as time went on.
In retrospect, I realize that we had begun our flight to America two years earlier. In Novermber 1938, Mussolini had promulgated a series of blatantly anti-Semitic laws designed to regulate what Jews could, or could not, do. To my parents, as to most anti-Fascist Italians, Jewish and non Jewish, the anti-Jewish restrictions were a blatant violation of Italy's long-standing tradition of religious tolerance. After all, our ancestors had lived in and around Venice at least since the beginning of the 15th Century, while other Italian Jews traced their lineage to the Roman Empire. Rarely did the Italians stoop to the anti-Semitic excesses found in virtually all other European countries. Even the Inquisition, though sanctioned by the Papacy and imposed on southern Italy by the Spanish, did not take root in the independent states north of Naples. The anti-Jewish laws were a transparent attempt by the Fascist regime to ingratiate itself with its German allies and did not portend well for the future.
My parent's decision to leave Italy must have been a difficult one to make. Shortly before her death in 1977 my mother revealed that in 1938 she was pregnant with what would have been their third child. Leaving Italy at that time meant terminating the pregnancy, and abandoning the security of job, home and family. Indeed many members of the Venetian Jewish community insisted that little, or nothing, of any real consequence would happen. They were Italians living in Italy, not German Jews, or even Eastern European Jews. Many of them had supported Il Duce for years, and it was well known that he had a Jewish mistress for many years. There was little doubt in their mind. He would protect them. They did not take into account Mussolini's personal desire to impress Hitler, nor his increasing resentment of the number of Jews active in the anti-Fascist underground.
Both my father and paternal grandfather had been avowed anti-Fascists on political grounds from the very beginning. For them, the anti-Jewish laws were the final ignominy, not a sudden betrayal. Over 10 years earlier, my grandfather had resigned as director of one of Italy's largest insurance companies rather than join the party. My father had also chosen not to join the party even though most of his fellow engineers had already done so out of conviction, or out of political expediency. One of my proudest possessions is a photograph taken at the inauguration of an aluminum plant he had helped design. The event was attended by local Fascist party officials, government officials visiting from Rome, and the factory's top management. In the photograph he is standing off to one side, the only person not wearing the traditional black pseudo-military uniform worn by party members.
With my grandfather's blessing and limited financial support, my parents decided to leave Italy as soon as they could devise a plausible justification. In fact, my grandfather was so incensed by this latest evidence of Fascist arrogance that he encouraged all four of his children and their families to leave at once. Of his four children, three left within a few months.
Compared to most, our family was lucky. One of my father's uncles, who carried the splendid name of Cesare Luzzatto, was the only close family member who died in the Holocaust. He had assumed that his rank as a retired general in the Italian army, would somehow protect him. He and his wife were deported by the SS from a small clinic north of Venice where he was recuperating from a long illness. Both he and his wife were over 70 when they were taken to Dachau.
My father was the first to leave Italy. He went directly to France to accept a job with an aluminum factory in Normandy. My mother, my sister and I crossed the border into Switzerland a few months later in March of 1939 ostensibly for a short visit with one of my mother's older sisters who lived in Geneva. For several years the Fascist government had forbidden Italians to emigrate and, above all, from removing any assets. I can still remember how we were all searched by Fascist border guards. They were looking for any evidence that we were removing assets or were leaving the country for good. They found no incriminating evidence.
Once out of Italy, we were able to join my father in Normandy. After nearly nine months in Normandy and a briefer period in Paris, we retreated to the Pyrenees when it became clear that war was inevitable. My father had found another job in an aluminium factory. For close to a year, we lived in the relative security of Tarascon-sur-Ariege, an out-of-the-way mountain town less than 20 miles from the Spanish border. Our house, kindly provided to us by the owners of the factory, became a stop-over for Italian Jews on their way to Spain or across the Mediterranean to North Africa.We were in an enviable position of having a job, a house, and most of all, the legitimacy of a French work permit.
To supplement our diet and feed the friends and relatives that would stay for extended periods of time, we planted a sizeable vegetable garden. My father ran our little community with an iron hand. He adopted one of the classic rules of communal living, "if you work, you eat, if you don't work, you don't eat." As the youngest, my job was to look after one of two chicken we were able to buy.
With little warning, the French army capitulated under the onslaught of the German army, and the France that my parents had so admired disintegrated within a few weeks. Even though Tarascon did not come under the direct jurisdiction of the German army, our close-to-idyllic existence came to an abrupt end when the director of the factory announced that he had been ordered by the Vichy government to send his entire production of aluminium to Germany for the war effort. Within a few days German overseers would be arriving to assume control of the factory. With two small children in tow, my parents decided to flee the very next day to Marseille where it was at least possible to obtain a visa for America. That night we ate my chicken.
Several days after we arrived in Marseille, I remember seeing my first German officer. He was dressed in the Third Reich's finest grey uniform complete with a patent-leather visor on his hat and black boots. He had just taken an apple from a fruit stand when the vendor asked to be paid. The officer struck the vendor across the face and strode away. My sister and I had been taught not to react. We knew "les Boches" were our enemy.
Within a few weeks my father's work permit expired and with it the family's ration card. The French police were adamant. We would have to return to Italy within a week. Leaving Marseille meant giving up any hope of escaping to America. Returning to Italy meant being placed on a list of those who had violated Italy's emigration restrictions, not to mention being subject to Italy's anti-Jewish laws.
Unwilling to give in to the intransigence of the French authorities, my father decided to risk everything by going to the Italian consulate where he asked to speak to the Italian military attache.
With little delay my father was ushered in to see the attache. After a few pleasantries, my father proceeded to lay out his case with the utmost clarity. He needed the general's help in dealing with the French authorities; he had worked legally in France for nearly two years; his papers had recently expired as he had lost his job; he now wanted to remain in Marseille for an indeterminant period of time; and yet the French authorities insisted that he and his family return to Italy by the end of the month.
To an Italian officer the circumstances could not have been misunderstood. If your name is Luzzatto, you are Jewish. If you left Italy and do not want to return, you are an avowed anti-Fascist. If you want to remain in Marseille, you are trying to escape from Europe. Without any hesitation, the Italian general dictated an official letter of support. The letter strongly suggested to the French authorities that they "provide whatever papers and whatever other assistance Bruno Luzzatto and his family requires during their stay in Marseille" and that he and his family "be treated with the respect due to all Italian citizens."
To fully appreciate the general's actions one would have to imagine a German general offering similar assistance to a German Jewish family in occupied France. And yet, while the Italian general's actions were certainly remarkable they were by no means unique. The record of the Italian army in southern France later in the war, though little known, is one of the few high points in Nazi-occupied Europe. For as long as they could, the Italian army protected Jews from throughout Europe who had gravitated to their zone.
The Italian army's absolute refusal to allow Jews to be deported infuriated the Germans. The record shows that at least until 1943 the Vichy government willingly turned non-French Jews over to the German authorities in every other section of France. The record also shows that the French authorities were baffled by Italy's insistance on protecting Jews who were not Italian citizens. For the French, the issue was one of nationalism, for the Italians, it touched their basic sense of humanity.
The Italian general's letter had its desired effect. The French police reversed their position and issued us a complete set of papers including a ration card. We were allowed to remain in Marseille while my father tried to obtain the myriad affidavits, permissions, transit visas, and travel arrangements that had to accompany an entry visa to one of our three countries.
After many months of waiting while the situation in Europe worsened, my parents were finally notified that our application for entry to the United States had been granted. We arrived in New York aboard the Serpa Pinto, a small Portuguese ship, in April 1941. By November 1941 we were already in Washington celebrating our first Thanksgiving.
In almost every part of Nazi occupied Europe the Gestapo was able to institute the initial phases of "the final solution to the Jewish question" with local collaborators. In southern France, the French went so far as to complain to the Germans that they were unable to meet their quota of Jews due to the official opposition of the Italian Army.
Notwithstanding their criminal alliance with the Germans, and their apparent willingness to accept German leadership in military matters, the Italian army demonstrated a deep commitment to its humanistic traditions, and an instinctive abhorance for racial intolerance. The French, apparently, could not understand Italian opposition. Their instinctive nationalism led them to offer limited protection to French Jews. They were, however, only too willing to turn over to the Gestapo all foreign Jews residing in France. It is always easier to target illegal aliens and immigrants. No one will object.
The Waldheim revelations, the recent PBS showing of "Shoah" and especially the trial of Klaus Barbie in Nice forced me to relive what it meant being a Jew in occupied France, and to remember those that were not so fortunate. For those of us who survived, there is always an element of guilt, partly expressed by the phrase, "there but for the grace of God go I." In my case, it was my parents' strength and foresight that made the difference. Judaism commands one generation to pass on its knowledge and experience to the next. It is now my turn. My children must come to understand how blind nationalism, an undue respect for authority and racism, no matter how subtle, can corrode a society's sense of humanity.
Francis Luzzatto, a former Peace Corps executive, is a partner in a Washington-based international consulting firm.