Fascist Italy, Church under ‘Hitler’s Pope’ took steps to save Jews, claims author
In his new book, ‘Syndrome K,’ British author Christian Jennings paints a complex picture of fear, resistance, and covert humanitarianism in a country torn asunder by the Nazis
LONDON — In December 1943, as the Nazi effort to round up and deport Italy’s Jews was at its height, Vanda Piperno knocked on the door of the Santa Brigida convent in Rome’s Piazza Farnese. The door was opened by a nun who took the young woman and her teenage nephew to see the Mother Superior. Vanda explained that she and her family were refugees who had been displaced by the fighting and were now seeking a place to shelter.
Although they must have suspected, the nuns didn’t ask if they were Jews. Instead, they were shown to rooms in an isolated wing of the convent. Soon, 13 other members of the Piperno family would take refuge at Santa Brigida.
Thanks to the abbess, Sister Maria Elizabetta Hesselblad, who had decided to hide Jewish families when the Nazis launched their first round-ups two months earlier, the Pipernos survived in Santa Brigida until Rome was liberated in June 1944.
The Jewish family’s comfortable middle-class existence had been upended when Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime passed its first tranche of antisemitic legislation in 1938. But it was only after Mussolini was overthrown and the Germans occupied the country in the summer of 1943 that the lives of Italian Jews were truly imperiled.
The Pipernos were lucky to survive the Nazis’ effort to arrest, deport and murder Italy’s Jews, but they were not unusual. In all, over 80 percent of Jews — nearly 37,000 people — managed to escape the Final Solution; a survival rate in occupied Europe second only to that of Denmark. In his new book, “Syndrome K: How Italy Resisted the Final Solution,” British journalist and writer Christian Jennings seeks to uncover how the horrors of the Shoah were blunted, though by no means avoided, in Italy.
His book throws a perhaps surprisingly sympathetic light on the role of the Catholic Church — both as an institution and an enormous collection of very varied individuals — and challenges the popular notion of Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” who stood aside as the Holocaust unfolded across Nazi-occupied Europe.
“In rural Italy, as well as in the major cities, the Catholic Church was one of the main points of refuge for Jewish escapees,” after the autumn of 1943, he writes.
Over 80 percent of Jews — nearly 37,000 people — managed to escape the Final Solution in Italy
The debate about Pius’ dealings with the Nazis was reignited this month with the publication of David Kertzer’s “The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler,” which adopts a highly critical attitude towards the Vatican’s actions.
Alongside the Pope, Jennings also describes how the greed, incompetence and survival instincts of some of those SS and Gestapo officers directed to oversee the Final Solution in Italy slowed the advance of the Nazis’ machinery of death in the war’s closing months.
And he details how Mussolini’s late embrace of the Final Solution sometimes led the dictator to betray even those Jews who had once played a leading role in the Fascist party.
Defended by a dictator
The Nazis’ designs on Italy’s Jews were longstanding. After the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the country’s Jews were among those on the list drawn up by Adolf Eichmann. Nonetheless, while he had opened detention centers and introduced strict racial laws, Mussolini continued to refuse to round up and deport the country’s Jews.
That stance changed, however, after the self-styled Duce was freed from imprisonment and reinstalled by the Germans in September 1943 as head of the Italian Social Republic in northern Italy. Two months later, at the Congress of Verona, Mussolini — who, by this point, was little more than a puppet — embraced the Final Solution.
Nonetheless, the difficulties of implementing the Final Solution in Italy were apparent from the outset, even in those parts of the country that the Germans directly occupied. In Rome, for instance, plans for the first “retata,” or round-up, in October 1943 were repeatedly delayed, despite Berlin’s impatience, in part because of warnings from Austrian Catholic clergy inside the Vatican and German foreign ministry officials that the Pope could strongly condemn the arrests.
When the 400 SS troops finally commenced the operation in the capital’s ghetto on October 16, it proved, from the Nazis’ point of view, largely unsuccessful. In all, some 90% of the 9,800 targeted Jews managed to evade their pursuers. The prevarication, Eichmann later wrote, proved critical. “The objections given and the excessive delay in the steps necessary to complete the implementation of the operation resulted in a great part of Italian Jews being able to hide and escape capture,” he noted bitterly in his diary.
But, as Jennings’s survey of decrypted signal traffic from Rome to Berlin reveals, the Germans were hampered by other factors, too. All “available forces” had been deployed, one message suggests, but the Italian police, which were deemed unreliable, had not joined the raid. The hostile attitude of the Italian public was also noted. “Passive resistance,” it reported, had in a large number of individual cases “developed into active assistance.”
Of course, the signal did not include details of the Germans’ own incompetence. Six of the Jews captured in the raid, for instance, had been staying in the very same hotel as Theodor Dannecker, who headed the SS’s Jewish Affairs Office for Italy and had been dispatched with an Einsatzkommando into Rome to lead the round-up.
The apparent failure of the Rome retata did not bode well for the Nazis’ plans to eliminate Italian Jewry. The Jewish ghetto in the capital was mainly populated by the elderly, women and children who lived in 10 city blocks squeezed into under one square mile.
If nine out of 10 Jews could escape from such a “tightly confined geographical area,” Jennings notes, “How would the Germans fare trying to arrest the Jews across the mountains, valleys and plains of half of Italy?”
Nor was this territory logistically secure: as the Allies advanced northwards on the ground up the Italian peninsula, their aircraft controlled the skies, limiting the Nazis’ freedom of movement. The Allied advantage was compounded by the fact that the Germans’ signals were covertly being intercepted, decoded and read, often in real-time.
Hundreds of churches become refuges
Meanwhile, behind the German front lines, thousands of Italian partisans waged a brave and vigorous battle to free their country from its occupiers. Jews and non-Jews alike played their part in the partisans’ war of ambush and attrition against the Nazis. Among their ranks: Lidia Rolfi, a Catholic teenager who joined an armed group which operated in the countryside between Mondovi, the regional capital of Cuneo, and the French Alps; Augusto Segre, the son of a rabbi from the town of Casale Monferrato, outside Turin, who worked with the partisans further north; and the Jewish Edoardo “Vito” Volterra, a bookish former teacher who was an early recruit to the Action Party which ran operations in the forests of Abruzzo, north of Rome. In March 1944, Volterra led the first of a series of daring cat-and-mouse raids to free Jews from the Servigliano prison camp near the port of Ancona. In all, estimates Jennings, some 90 Jews were freed from the camp.
Moreover, the partisans’ direct hit-and-run attacks on the occupiers and their infrastructure helped tie up German forces and their fascist allies who might otherwise have been hunting out Jews from their hiding places across the Italian countryside.
Alongside rural farmhouses and city apartments, the Pipernos’ refuge at Santa Brigida was one of hundreds of churches, monasteries and convents in which Jews took shelter. These hideouts — alongside escape routes to smuggle Jews out of Italy to the safety of Switzerland — were run through a “network of priests, bishops and other clergy” which worked with trusted parishioners and the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (DELASEM).
Funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, DELASEM’s sole focus was on rescuing and hiding Italian Jews. The Americans’ cash — transferred to Switzerland and then often physically carried across the border into Italy by priests — helped pay for false identity cards, food, transport, medical supplies, clothes, and bribes to Italian fascist and German officials.
The examples of collaboration between Catholic clergy and laypeople and their Jewish compatriots were numerous. The 34-year-old secretary to the Archbishop of Genoa, Monsignor Don Francisco Repetto, worked closely with Genoa’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Pacifici. Repetto, who became responsible for distributing DELASEM funds across northern Italy, was also in close contact with Massimo Teglio, a Jewish World War I pilot who ran the organization’s clandestine activities and had a fleet of 15 aircraft at his disposal. Between September 1943 and June 1944, DELASEM’s couriers are believed to have moved 25 million lire between Switzerland, Turin, Genoa, Florence and Rome, helping around 4,000 Jews.
Perhaps one of the most ingenious hideouts for Jews was in Rome itself. Built on an island in the River Tiber, the Fatebenefratelli hospital belonged to the Catholic Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God and was thus technically Vatican, not Italian, territory. Its anti-fascist director, Giovanni Borromeo, and two of his doctors, Adriano Ossicini and Vittorio Emanuele Sacerdoti, used this technicality to the full, sheltering army deserters, partisans and Jews.
When the retata commenced, Sacerdoti — himself a Jew who now went under the false identity of Vittorio Salviucci — and his Catholic colleague, Ossicini, began to bring groups of Jews to the hospital. Borromeo diagnosed them as suffering from “Syndrome K” — a codeword which indicated they were healthy, but Jewish — and advised them to cover their mouths, cough frequently, and pretend to have dementia and high temperatures. The Jews were then sent to an isolation ward, marked “Morbo di K” (“Syndrome K”). When SS officers arrived at the hospital three days after the round-up began looking for Jews, they departed speedily when Sacerdoti described to them the symptoms of the mysterious illness.
Behind Vatican walls
From inside the walls of the Vatican itself, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish official, ran an informal network — nicknamed the “Rome Escape Line” — which assisted Jews and Allied POWs who were on the run. The Irish monsignor’s network, which ran a number of safe houses in Rome itself, included an escaped British POW who had been smuggled into the Vatican under a load of cabbages in a farmer’s cart, the Irish ambassador and his wife, and two young New Zealand priests. The scale of O’Flaherty’s operation was impressive — one safe house in the Via Imperia was estimated to have had 4,000 individuals pass through it.
But was “Hitler’s Pope” unaware of what was happening right under his nose inside the Vatican and the actions of his Catholic flock beyond its walls?
Jennings believes this is far from the truth. It’s true, he says, that Pius’s public words were often so muffled and ambiguous for their true target to be difficult to discern. An October 1939 encyclical issued as war broke out, for instance, was so unclear that the head of the Gestapo approved its release in German churches.
But, Jennings argues, it’s important to remember that, throughout the war, the Vatican felt “under siege, under threat and under the possibility of destruction.” The Nazis, the Pope feared, could pressure Mussolini to “isolate the Vatican physically and politically” and dismantle what they viewed as a “rogue state in the middle of Italy.” Indeed, there were even rumors that Hitler was considering ordering the SS to kidnap the Pope himself.
These fears were interlinked with a deep concern that the Nazis would turn their ire against Catholics in occupied countries. These had been stoked by events in the Netherland where the Nazis had reacted to open criticism of deportations from a group of bishops in July 1942 by seizing 400 Dutch Catholics with Jewish relatives.
Jennings also believes the contentious debate about what the Pope publicly said about the Final Solution and when he said it too often camouflages the practical steps he took to ensure that the Church assisted Jews.
“Pius might have been excessively covert in his operations rather than making public denunciations. The denunciations the Church did make may have been veiled in too obscure and arcane language and they may have been too few, too late but the actions that he took and the decisions that he took would say that he was the Vatican’s Pope, who tried hard in numerous ways to be humanity’s Pope,” he says.
The behavior of the Vatican after the German occupation provides some evidence for this belief.
Signal intercepts, Jennings says, prove that, by early October 1943, the Vatican knew both that the Nazis intended to round up Italian Jews and what would happen to those who were detained.
Through his secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, Pius used this advance warning to rush secret letters and instructions to convents, churches and seminaries in Rome telling them to activate their plans to help conceal the capital’s Jews.
The Vatican also issued an extra-territorial order of immunity over its properties in Rome, which, it hoped, would prevent the Germans from entering them, while recognizing that the SS was unlikely to be deterred.
Thus, as the retata commenced, more than 4,700 of Rome’s 5,700 Jews were being sheltered by the Church; the majority in convents and monasteries that were scattered throughout the city, but over 470 in the Vatican itself.
Beyond Rome, the Vatican Bank had already begun transferring money to Italy’s regional capitals to help ensure similar efforts could take place elsewhere.
The Vatican made a firm decision and authorized the logistical and financial support structure that enabled tens of thousands of Italian Jews to hide
“The Vatican made a firm decision and authorized the logistical and financial support structure that enabled tens of thousands of Italian Jews to hide,” says Jennings. The “foot soldiers of the Catholic Church” in Italy’s villages, towns and cities, were thus operating “both independently and under orders from the Vatican in an extremely organized and coordinated way.”
Nazis lose ‘ruthless efficiency’
It is undoubtedly the case that the efforts of the Church — and thousands of ordinary Italians — to protect Jews were aided by the fact that many of the Nazis sent to implement the Final Solution in the country were well aware that the tide of the war was turning and that the writing was most likely on the wall for the Third Reich.
These men were drenched in the blood of Europe’s Jews. “The network of SS and SD officers who were installed across Italy by autumn 1943,” writes Jennings, “were all men experienced in the logistical organisation and ruthless implementation of racially oriented mass murder.”
SS-Gruppenführer Karl Wolff, the Supreme SS and Police Plenipotentiary for Italy who was in overall command, was a former chief of staff to Heinrich Himmler and had been heavily involved in the Shoah in Poland and Ukraine; SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, who headed the Gestapo and SS’ intelligence arm in Rome, had overseen the deportation of Austria’s Jews and served in an Einsatzkommando in Poland; SS-Standartenführer Walter Rauff, who was charged with implementing the Final Solution in Milan, had invented the mobile gas chamber in Poland before taking charge of the murder of Jews in Tunisia; and SS-Lieutenant Guido Zimmer, who ran the operation in Genoa, was a longstanding SS intelligence officer.
But by the time they arrived in Italy these “centurions of mass death,” as Jennings labels them, were no longer solely focused on the task of rounding up and deporting Jews. Instead, they each had half an eye on lining their pockets and, if they could, currying favor with the Allies.
Given the multiple challenges of implementing the Final Solution in Italy, Jennings argues, they needed to be doing their jobs “as well as possible and as reliably as possible.” The Final Solution in Italy thus lacked the “ruthless efficiency” which characterized its operations in the East and, to some extent, the Netherlands and France.
Zimmer, for instance, was supposed to be leading the fight against the black market, as well as locating and deporting Jews. In reality, he ran a racket selling Spanish passports to Jews; took bribes from detained Jews in return for their freedom; and, on Wolff’s behalf, was secretly negotiating an early German surrender in Italy with American intelligence officers. As Jennings writes: “The focus on these two criminal enterprises by the SS — ingratiating themselves with and working for Allied intelligence, and personal and institutional enrichment — sapped considerable time and energy from the daily diktats of the Final Solution.”
None of this, however, can detract from the fact that an estimated 7,680-8,000 Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust in Italy. The position of Jews in the north of the country — in the Italian Social Republic, Genoa, Milan, Verona and Turin — which was occupied first and liberated last was especially perilous.
An estimated 7,680-8,000 Jews lost their lives in the Holocaust in Italy
Indeed, Mussolini even proved unable — or unwilling — to protect those Jews who had once embraced fascism and served his regime. Few Jews had been greater supporters of Mussolini than the wealthy, Turin-based banker Ettore Ovazza. Ovazza, who had joined the March on Rome in 1922 and donated generously to the Fascist party, epitomized the highly integrated nature of Italian Jewry. Mussolini’s racial laws in the late 1930s left him and other patriotic, comfortably placed Jews who had supported the fascists with “a raw sense of smarting betrayal and humiliation,” says Jennings.
Nonetheless, even after the German occupation and after he had been reduced to selling off his possessions and bolting towards the Swiss border with his family, Ovazza did not appear to sense the danger he was in. “They’ll never touch me, I’ve done too much for fascism,” he said when urged to flee before the Nazis arrived.
Just over a month after Hitler sent his troops into Italy in September 1943, Ovazza, his wife, and children, became among the first victims of the Holocaust in Italy — murdered by the SS at a girls’ primary school in the small, pretty holiday town of Intra on the banks of Lake Maggiore.
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