Sunday, January 01, 2012

Recognizing Righteousness: Italians and Jews

1. Gino Bartali

Gino Bartali was a famous Italian cyclist; he won the Giro d'Italia three times and the Tour de France twice. But these weren't his only achievements. Described here as 'one of cycling's all-time greats', Bartali is being considered for the honour of Righteous Among The Nations - awarded by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem - for the part he played in rescuing Jews in danger during the Second World War. One of those testifying to his efforts is Giorgio Goldenberg, now 78, whose family was saved by being hidden in Bartali's cellar in Florence:

The cellar was very small... A door gave way onto a courtyard, but I couldn't go out because that would run the risk of me being seen by the tenants of the nearby apartment buildings. The four of us slept on a double bed. My father never went out, while my mother often went out with two flasks to get water from some well. (Via: Normblog)

2. The Greek Lawyer (from "A Tale of Two cities" by Moris Farhi)

To date, the Germans had dispatched most of the men who had assembled on that Saturday to build roads and airfields. What the future held for other Jews, the lawyer dared not imagine. Reports from eastern Thrace and Macedonia augured the worst. The Germans had delegated the administration of these territories to their ally, the Bulgarians, but since the latter kept prevaricating on the matter of surrendering their own Jews, the Germans had decided to deal with the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia themselves. Lately there had been rumours that these unfortunates would be deported en masse to Occupied Poland. All of this made the lawyer look back regretfully to the time when the Italians had been the occupying power. The Italians had been humane, often in defiance of Mussolini's edicts. Throughout their occupation, they had persistently warned the Jews of the Nazis' racist policies and urged them to leave the country; on many occasions they had even granted Italian passports to those who heeded their advice. Ester might remember one Moiz Hananel, a distant cousin from Rhodes: he was now safe in Chile. But, alas, ester's father, Salvador, disinclined to liquidate his considerable investments, had procrastinated. Now the Italians had gone and Salvador's wealth had evaporated.

There the lawyer's letter ended.

3. Peretz

My father-in-law was the eldest son in a family of ten. He had parents, three brothers and four sisters. They all lived in Salonika, Greece. The mother was either a Bulgarian Jew or a convert to Judaism, upon her marriage to my husband's grandfather. This detail is not quite clear. She had blond hair and very blue eyes, which my father in law inherited from her. My father-in-law , as a young man of eighteen, was conscripted into the Greek army and sent to the front with Italy. He was due to be released in a few days when war broke out, and he was taken prisoner of war by the Italian army. He spent two years in an Italian prison camp and then, when the Germans invaded and occupied Italy, his Italian guards released him along with all the Jewish prisoners, fearful that the Germans would transport them to concentration camps. The guards advised them to head into the countryside rather than into the cities. My father-in-law attended this advice. (His fellow Jewish POW's disregarded the advice and decided to try their luck in the cities. as far as my father-in-law knows, none of them survived the Germans).

Peretz roamed the Italian countryside for four years, working on farms, wherever he could find some shelter. He spent a year in the basement of a monastery, urged by the monks not to even step outside for fear that he might be sighted, suspected, and reported to the Germans. Some of those who gave him shelter knew he was Jewish, some did not. When the war was over, he headed back to Greece, to Salonika. He found one sister, who had converted to Christianity and married to a local Greek policeman. She was saved because her husband's family concealed her identity. The rest of the family had been transported to Auschwitz, and that's the last that was known of them.

4. Giovanni

My Italian friend, Giovanni, grew up on a farm in Avelino. At some considerable distance from the farmhouse where the family lives there is a large pit, the size of a very small room, covered by some makeshift trap-door. Giovanni's father remembered working side by side with his own father digging this hole in the ground which was then used to shelter a couple of Italian Jewish families during the time when it was more dangerous to be Jewish and be known for it. Until he told me this story, Giovanni had no idea what an unusual account he was carrying in his memory. Which goes to show that for some people it never occurred that helping Jews avoid or escape the Nazis was the exception rather than the rule.

A pattern of decency emerges from these disparate examples, a certain self-evident and intuitive moral imperative that transcends, discards, disregards, any inclination, fed by millennium of religious indoctrination and antisemitic suspicion, to avert the gaze at one's own convenience. The people involved in these acts of kindness, were not educated on the lofty academic ideals of universal justice and the philosophy of mutual responsibility. They were as ordinary as all the other peoples among whom the Holocaust was taking place.

And this makes you think that if indeed there was a banality of evil loosed upon the world during those benighted years, perhaps there was also a partial antidote, the banality of the good.


At 7:53 PM EST, Anonymous Brian Goldfarb said...

The appropriate reading for the Italian occupation of the Balkans is Jonathan Steinberg "All or Nothing:" (I hope I've remembered the details correctly). Steinberg relates how Italian officers (often quite young) would respond to orders from HQ in Italy to deliver up Jews and Serbians to the Croatian Ustace (read died-in-the-wool fascists/nazis - and this helps to explain - but not excuse the excessive response to - the Serbian response to Croatian demands for independence) by agreeing to carry out their orders. But, please, they would say, I need clarification of this part...By the time the clarification came, the Jews/Serbians were elsewhere. These officers on occasion even fought their supposed Croatian allies to protect Jews and others.

A book still well worth reading.


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