'We felt compelled to remember that infamous action'

Italian universities to apologize for expelling Jewish staff, students in WWII

Eight decades after a widespread Fascist purge of Jews from academic institutions, universities to hold memorial ceremony on September 20

Illustrative: Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler during a parade celebrating their alliance. (Public domain)
Illustrative: Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler during a parade celebrating their alliance. (Public domain)

In the first half of the 20th century, the royal family of Italy enjoyed spending their summers in San Rossore, an idyllic estate in the Tuscan city of Pisa. King Vittorio Emanuele III, a passionate shooter, was especially fond of tranquil San Rossore’s good hunting and untouched beaches — so much so that each year he would move the royal court there from June through November.

It was in San Rossore that the king received news of the Fascist march on Rome in October 1922 — and chose to ignore prime minister Luigi Facta’s request to enact a state of martial law. The king thus opened the doors to dictator Benito Mussolini, whom he appointed as prime minister a few days following the march.

And it was again in San Rossore that 16 years later, on September 5, 1938, Emanuele signed the first decree implementing anti-Jewish laws in Italy: Law Number 1390, “Measures to Defend Race in Fascist Schools.”

The law expelled all Jewish students, teachers, academics from Italian schools and universities, starting from the upcoming school year. From universities alone, 96 full and associate professors, 133 assistants, and hundreds of lecturers were kicked out, together with 1500 students.

All together, Jews made up seven percent of Italian academia — an enormous per capita rate, with the country featuring a Jewish population of 45,000 out of 43 million citizens.

Eighty years later, just a few kilometers from what is now the national park of San Rossore, the Italian academic world will issue a formal apology for that expulsion. On September 20, the University of Pisa will host a formal Cerimonia delle Scuse e del Ricordo, or Ceremony of Apology and Commemoration.

San Rossore estate in Pisa, August 2006. (Wikimedia commons/ Alessandro Vecchi)

The ceremony is part of a vast program commemorating the 80th anniversary of the racial laws. Starting from September 5, the program will include exhibits, lectures, screenings and various events for the general public and for schools. Among other dignitaries, it will be attended by the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities Noemi Di Segni, and Holocaust survivor and Senator for Life Liliana Segre.

“We came up with the idea over a year ago. Since the first decree implementing Italian Racial Laws was signed in Pisa, and 20 professors as well as over 250 Jewish students were expelled from our university, we felt compelled to remember that infamous action,” explained the rector of the University of Pisa Paolo Maria Mancarella, in a message to The Times of Israel.

Mancarella said the plan was immediately embraced by Pisa’s schools of advanced studies, the regional authorities, other Tuscan universities, and eventually the umbrella organization, the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities (CRUI).

“Together we decided to give substance to our intentions and to the commemoration with a tangible gesture, creating an official moment — hence the idea of the ceremony that is going to be joined by the highest representatives of Italian universities, offering a moral acknowledgement to all members of the Jewish communities who will be attending,” he said.

The endorsement of the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities gives national magnitude to the ceremony, which will be live-streamed. The formal apology letter, signed by the rectors, will be read out as the culminating moment of a three-day academic conference. For the occasion, the CRUI has also decided to hold their monthly meeting in Pisa.

King Vittorio Emanuele III of Italy, left, shakes hands with Benito Mussolini, April 22, 1941. (Public domain)

“We believe that the presence of the rectors of all Italian universities is critical to express the sentiment of the entire Italian academic community, to mark the fact that this is not something that was undertaken by just a few people, but is supported by everyone,” said the rector of the University of Naples and CRUI president Gaetano Manfredi.

“Remembering what happened is sad but important, not only to acknowledge the lack of response from the academia back then, but also to remind us of our responsibilities against any form of intolerance today and in the future,” Manfredi said.

A reverberating silence

The reaction of the Italian academic world to the persecution of their Jewish peers was of silent connivance. Of the 866 “Aryan” academics that were offered the expelled Jewish professors’ positions, only one refused.

Nor was the situation fully righted after the war, when the expelled academics were reintegrated. Those who had replaced the Jews kept their posts and remained as the primary holders of the chairs. The Jewish professors were considered “extra staff” and often dismissed at the first opportunity, as explained in the book “La doppia epurazione” (“The Double Purge”) by Francesca Pelini and Ilaria Pavan.

Initiator of the ceremony, the University of Pisa itself represents a striking case.

The Palazzo alla Giornata, which houses the Rector of the University of Pisa. (Courtesy)

“The university and the city were home to a vibrant Jewish population and were characterized by a rich cosmopolitan tradition,” said Fabrizio Franceschini, professor of literature at the University of Pisa.

“A Jewish professor of literature, Alessandro D’Ancona, was mayor of Pisa at the beginning of the 20th century, and from 1898 to 1920 the university had a Jewish rector, professor David Supino, while dozens of foreign students, many of whom were Jewish, flocked to study here from Eastern and Central Europe. There was even an organization that helped them to apply,” Franceschini said.

The stories of expelled students are the subject of an academic research project curated by Michele Emdin, a professor of Cardiology at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. Emdin is the grandchild of Naftoli Emdin, one of the expelled Jewish professors. The study will be published in the next few weeks by the Pisa University Press.

Some of the deposed professors left Italy — such as the illustrious physicist Giulio Racah, a fervent Zionist who moved to British Palestine where he became professor of theoretical physics, and later dean and rector, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Of those who stayed, some managed to hide during the Nazi occupation of Italy. Others were killed, such as Ciro Ravenna, who was sent to Auschwitz. Enrica Calabresi poisoned herself in prison after being arrested by the Nazis in 1944.

Too little, too late

Professor Giulio Racah. (Wikimedia commons/ Harris)

Many, including the organizers of the conference themselves, acknowledge that the apology is belated — and wonder if it can be considered enough.

“I believe that any public act of contrition by a public institution, though tardy, is positive because it represents a step forward in the acknowledgement of what happened, and it is also good that the current representatives of the universities take responsibility for what their institutions did back then,” said Gadi Luzzatto Voghera, director of the Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea (Center for Jewish Contemporary Documentation) in Milan.

“However, I am skeptical of the use of the term ‘apology,’ because an apology, in the Catholic culture that is still dominant in Italy, also entails a request for forgiveness, which in this case cannot be granted considering that those who were expelled have all died,” said Voghera.

“Moreover, maybe even more than to current Italian Jews, the apologies should be addressed to the whole Italian scientific community and society, considering the irreparable damage that the loss of Jewish academics caused,” he said.

Voghera said that a concrete way to make amends could be the creation of structured departments of Jewish Studies in Italian universities.

“Italy is the only country in the Western world where [Jewish studies departments] do not exist. Not to mention the fact that the Hebrew language is taught under the branch of Oriental languages, ignoring that for at least 1,000 years, Italian Jews on Italian soil have produced masterpieces in Hebrew,” said Voghera.

“The fact that they are not considered part of Italian tradition is a blow to the country’s culture, as well as the proof that the Jew continues to be considered ‘the other,’” he said.

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