HALF A century after the Holocaust, the general public and most Holocaust historians know little about the role of the Italians during that tragic period for Europe's Jews. How many know that between 1941 and 1943 the Italian army saved thousands of Croatian Jews and Serbs from certain death at the hands of the Croatian Ustasha? "Ethnic cleansing" occurred in the very same territory of former Yugoslavia where it is currently terrorizing various minorities. But there is a difference. Today, no one is trying actively to save the victims.
In 1941 the Italian army did just that. Fortunately for the Jews and the Serbs, the Italians did not let the Germans, the greatest power in Europe and their closest ally, stop their humanitarian efforts. Nor were the Italians deterred by endless technicalities connected with intervening in Croatia, a "sovereign" state and their nominal ally.
In April 1941 Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria invaded and defeated Yugoslavia. The Axis powers dismembered Yugoslavia by establishing a fascist Croat state that included Bosnia and Hercegovina, under the fanatical nationalists, the Ustasha. Italy annexed most of Dalmatia and kept military garrisons in adjoining Croatia. Germany occupied Serbia, while Slovenia was divided between Italy and Germany.
The Ustasha's unbounded hatred of Serbia and of all "foreign elements," such as Jews and Gypsies, was unleashed almost immediately after taking power. So swift and deadly was the Croatian roundup of the Jews that by the end of 1941 two-thirds of Croatia's Jews were dying in Croatian death camps. Croatia was the only Nazi satellite with its own network of concentration camps. All the other satellite countries eventually turned over all their Jews to the Nazis, except Bulgaria, which delivered only foreign Jews.
I was among the 5,000 Croatian Jews, who managed to reach the Italian-occupied zone in Dalmatia. My parents and I fled from Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, in July 1941 in the hope of crossing into the Italian zone. On the way to the Italian zone our train was attacked by Serb guerrillas, and we had to leave the train in the town of Gospic. Another two Jewish families joined us at the station. We had nowhere to turn for help except to Italian soldiers, who happened to pass by. Their sergeant literally snatched us from the jaws of death by putting us on an Italian military train bound for the Italian zone. He came with us to make sure we crossed the border. His mission accomplished, he walked out of our lives. We never even knew his name. From Fiume, the Italian carabinieri took us to the resort town of Crikvenica on the Adriatic coast, the headquarters of the Fifth Corps of the Italian Second Army, and set us free.
Nine days after our arrival we had the first proof of what turned out to be a consistent Italian attitude of humane consideration of our plight. The army lifted the curfew on public assembly so that we could hold Yom Kippur services in a school room. Shortly before Christmas 1941, Italian entertainers came to town to give a performance for the troops, and the Italians invited all the Jewish refugees in Crikvenica as guests of honor. We were the only civilians present. As the band struck up the Italian national anthem and all rose, I saw tears in my father's eyes. He whispered to me, "If we survive the war we must never forget how the Italians saved Jews."
Our case was typical of the terrible summer of 1941, when the lower ranks of the Italian army acted spontaneously to save minorities in the Croat state from certain death. By October, the Italian policy to protect Serbs and Jews was clearly established by the military high command.
By mid-1942 the fate of the remaining Croatian Jews was sealed by a treaty between Germany and Croatia in which Croatia agreed to deliver all its remaining Jews to the Nazis for 30 German marks per prisoner to cover transportation costs. Suddenly our lives were at stake,since the Germans and the Croats insisted that Croatian Jews in the Italian zone be included in the treaty.
Mussolini informed his Foreign Ministry he had no objection to having us delivered to the Nazis. But the commander of the Italian army in Croatia, Gen. Mario Roatta, supported by his staff and senior officials in the Foreign Ministry, decided to sabotage Mussolini's decision. It was necessary, they firmly insisted, to determine who among us might have a claim to Italian citizenship. It was a strategy of indefinite delay and it worked -- a unique instance in the history of the Holocaust that a bureaucracy used all of its considerable powers to save Jewish lives.
Against relentless German pressure, the Italian "rescue committee" decided to recommend that all of us be interned in camps, which they hoped would placate the Germans at least for a while. On Nov. 1, 1942, the Italian army interned all the Jews in the Italian zone. I was among the 1,770 refugees taken to the Kraljevica (Porto Re) camp. The others were luckier. The Italians placed them in various hotels, often under the guard of a single carabiniere.
We were afraid that the camp was the preliminary step to our transfer to the Germans. Two internees committed suicide, which induced Gen. Roatta to visit us personally. He gave us his word that the Italian army would never deliver us to the Germans. Roatta flew to Rome a few days later to meet with Mussolini, and he succeeded in changing Il Duce's mind about handing us over to the Germans.
The Kraljevica camp must have been the most unusual concentration camp in the grim history of such mass prisons. We had a building for social and religious activities. We organized an elementary and a high school; the army supplied the textbooks and materials. I still have the school reports, two pieces of yellowing paper, reminding me that under the Italian flag Jewish children studied history and Latin, philosophy and mathematics, while the Nazis and their accomplices were murdering hundreds of thousands of Jewish children, unopposed by all of Europe.
Following the Allied victory in North Africa in 1943, the Italians knew that the Allies' next move was the invasion of Italy. At Roatta's urging (he by that time had become the commander of Italian forces in metropolitan Italy) all the Jewish refugees were transferred to the island of Rab off the Dalmatian coast which had been annexed by Italy. It was therefore deemed safer for us.
After Italy surrendered in September 1943, our situation changed drastically. We lost our protector, the Italian army, which evacuated the island. The Allies, whose vast resources were only a few hours away from Rab, knew of our perilous position but refused to bring us to safety in southern Italy. In the wake of the retreating Italian troops, Tito's partisans occupied Rab and most of the refugees sought safety on the partisan-controlled Yugoslav mainland. The partisans concentrated the refugees who could not help the war effort near the town of Topusko, where British transport aircraft landed daily with supplies and returned to Italy empty. The British were reluctant to take Jews back to Italy, fearing that they would some day try to get to Palestine.
Some of us set out for liberated Italy, reaching Bari in January 1944. The island of Rab fell into German hands in March 1944. The 204 sick and elderly Jews who could not escape were deported to Auschwitz,where they perished. Of the roughly 40,000 Jews in fascist Croatia, only 10,000 survived. The Italians saved 6,000; the rest survived in hiding.
The rescue of Croatian Jews by the Italian army was not an isolated episode. As long as Italy was an independent nation, i.e. until the German occupation of 1943, the Italian army protected Jews in southern France, in Greece, in Albania and in North Africa. No Jew, Italian or foreign, was ever handed over to the Germans. Yet the Italian response to the Holocaust and the rescue of foreign Jews by the Italian army belong to the least known rescue chapters of the Holocaust.
There are several reasons why the story of Italians and Jews during the Holocaust has languished in the corner of Holocaust historiography. First, the history of the Holocaust has been recorded and transmitted essentially by and about the Jews of East Europe. That is where most of the 6 million perished and where most American Jews have their roots. Moreover, in the first postwar decades, no historian could praise the humanitarian deeds of the Italian fascist army and fascist Foreign Ministry without running the risk of being vilified as an apologist. The confusion between fascism and Nazism has also obscured important differences between the two, especially in regard to policies affecting Jews. The crucial distinction between the Italian puppet fascist state under complete Nazi control between 1943 and 1945, and the sovereign fascist state before 1943 is often overlooked or deliberately blurred.
Finally, rescue is a relatively recent topic in Holocaust historiography. There were few rescuers -- about 9,500 Righteous Gentiles, officially recognized by the State of Israel -- and few Jews were rescued. Still, a 1992 book, "Rescuers: Portraits in Moral Courage," manages to include examples of German rescuers but Italians are, as usual, absent, as is any mention of the Holocaust in Croatia.
In short, only a public education effort can bring balance to the general awareness of who it was in all of Europe that extended a hand of friendship to the Jews. It is time to give credit to the Italians.
Ivo Herzer is a historian and the editor of "The Italian Refuge," a collection of essays published by the Catholic University of America Press.