The Anti-Defamation League said Thursday that it will no longer name an award after Italian police official and purported Holocaust rescuer Giovanni Palatucci.
The news comes as historians have begun to question whether Palatucci was actually a Nazi collaborator.
Since 2007, the ADL had been giving out the Giovanni Palatucci Courageous Leadership Award to Italian and American law enforcement officers who displayed leadership in the fight against racism and terrorism. But recent revelations by historians have led the ADL to remove Palatucci’s name from the award.
Palatucci, known as “the Italian Schindler,” has long been credited with saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, and was even designated by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
Now scholars are saying that not only did Palatucci not rescue Jews during the Holocaust, but he may well have been a Nazi collaborator.
“We know now what we did not know then, which is that Giovanni Palatucci was not the rescuer he was made out to be,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL national director and a Holocaust survivor.
The ADL said it would continue to recognize those who show leadership in fighting bigotry and terror.
Palatucci served in the Foreigner’s Office police headquarters in the Italian city of Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia). Biographies of Palatucci say that he falsified documents to send thousands of local Jews to an internment camp in the town of Campagna, where they were protected by Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, Giovanni’s uncle.
However, Anna Pizzuti, editor of the database of foreign Jewish prisoners in Italy, says “no more than 40 Fiume residents were interned in Campagna.”
“A third of the group ended up in Auschwitz,” she said.
The biographies also recall the 800 Jewish refugees who secretly boarded a Greek ship, the Agia Zoni, that departed from Fiume on March 17, 1939, headed for Palestine in an operation organized personally by Palatucci.
But documents from Yad Vashem and the Italian State Archives show that it actually was an operation of the Jewish Agency of Zurich. Not only did Palatucci’s superiors extort the organizers, but they also sent back to the border the neediest refugees, the stateless and those who came from Dachau.
The idea that Palatucci organized a broad rescue effort had already been categorically denied by the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs in July 1952, and by Yad Vashem in 1990.
Not only did he fail to rescue large numbers of Jews, Palatucci wittingly went along with anti-Jewish laws.
Historians from the Primo Levi Center investigated almost 700 documents, and concluded that he was “a willing executioner of the racial legislation” enacted by Benito Mussolini’s government. As opposed to being in conflict with his anti-Semitic superiors, documentation shows that Palatucci was considered a model public servant and fully enjoyed their favor.
412 out of the 500 Jews in Fiume were Jews sent to Auschwitz, the highest percentage of any Italian city. He may even have helped the Italian government locate Jews to deport.
According to Mordecai Paldiel, the ex-director of Yad Vashem, Palatucci was recognized in 1990 as Righteous Among the Nations for having helped “just one woman,” Elena Aschkenasy, in 1940. Paldiel said the commission “did not find any evidence or testimony that he might have assisted anyone outside of this case.”
Palatucci died at the age of 35 in Dachua. It was thought that the Nazis discovered his efforts to save Jews and made him pay for his heroic efforts with his life. It turns out that this, too, was unfounded. According to Palatucci’s arrest warrant, he was accused of treason by the Germans for having transmitted to the British documents requesting negotiations for Fiume’s independence.
Yet his legend grew.
In 1955, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities recognized Palatucci, and in 1995 the Italian government decorated him with the Medaglia d’oro award for civil merit. In 2000, Pope John Paul II included Palatucci among the martyrs of the 20th century, and four years later, the diocesan phase of the canonization process concluded officially naming Palatucci a “Servant of God.”
“We thank the historians for their efforts to bring the truth to light,” said Foxman, “and as a result of their research we have decided to disassociate our law enforcement award from his name.”
According to the Venetian historian Simon Levis Sullam, the Palatucci affair is tied to the broader problem of how anti-Semitic persecution in fascist Italy — and the role Italians played in it — has been represented in the 68 years since the end of the war. Co-editor of a recent study on the Shoah in Italy published by UTET (2012), Sullam explains, “The myth of the good Italian has constituted a source of collective self-absolution after the Second World War regarding the support offered to anti-Semitic and racist politics in the period 1937-1945, in which thousands of Italians participated directly.”
According to Coslovich, more than half of Palatucci’s personal dossier reflects the efforts carried out by his father, Felice, and his uncle, the bishop, to completely rehabilitating the reputation of the commissioner with respect to ethnic cleansing.