Vatican newspaper defends ‘Italian Schindler’

Historian Anna Foa dismisses recent findings that Giovanni Palatucci, long considered a Holocaust rescuer, cooperated with Nazis

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Palatucci, long thought to be a hero, was likely a Nazi collaborator. (photo credit: public domain)
Palatucci, long thought to be a hero, was likely a Nazi collaborator. (photo credit: public domain)

The semi-official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano hit back Sunday at allegations that Italian police official and purported Holocaust rescuer Giovanni Palatucci was in fact a Nazi collaborator.

Palatucci, known as “the Italian Schindler,” has long been credited with saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust while serving in the police department in the city of Fiume, and was designated by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

In addition, Palatucci is well on his way to sainthood.

But scholars from the Primo Levi Center in New York recently announced their findings that not only did Palatucci fail to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, but he may well have been a Nazi collaborator.

Professor Anna Foa, a scholar of European Judaism, contended in L’Osservatore that the campaign against Palatucci was in fact aimed at Pope Pius XII’s legacy, and “that in targeting Palatucci the desire was essentially to hit a Catholic involved in rescuing Jews in support of the idea that the Church spared no effort to help the Jews — a person whose cause of beatification was under way.”

“But,” she added, “this is ideology and not history.”

Pope Pius XII, who served as head of the Catholic Church during World War II, left behind a controversial legacy regarding his role during the Holocaust. Many scholars claim that as pontiff he was in the position to make a forceful moral case against Nazism, which he failed to do, even signing a concordat with the Nazi regime in 1933. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, defended his efforts to save Jews during the war, and declared Pius “Venerable” in 2009, the final step before his own beatification.

The Primo Levi Center historians investigated almost 700 documents, and concluded that Palatucci was “a willing executioner of the racial legislation” enacted by Benito Mussolini’s government. As opposed to challenging his anti-Semitic superiors, documentation shows that Palatucci was considered a model public servant and fully enjoyed their favor.

Foa argued that the evidence presented by the Primo Levi Center’s historians can reduce the number of Jews Palatucci is credited with saving, but “it can certainly not transform him from a saviour into a persecutor of the Jews.” She allowed that Palatucci’s devotees have at times exaggerated the limited evidence, but scholars should be cautious about jumping to conclusions given the paucity of evidence, she said.

Foa concluded that before a definitive determination can be made about Palatucci’s role in the Holocaust, the documentation used by the Primo Levi Center will have to be made available for others to review.

“I think a judicious patience as regards this question is probably wise,” said Dr. Murray Watson, an expert on Jewish-Christian relations, “since even the scholars familiar with this material disagree about its meaning and interpretation.”

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.

Palatucci’s 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 the neediest refugees, the stateless, and those who came from the Dachau concentration camp.

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.

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.”

Over 400 of the 500 Jews in Fiume were Jews sent to Auschwitz, the highest percentage of any Italian city. Palatucci may even have helped the Italian government locate Jews to deport.

Palatucci died at the age of 35 in Dachau. 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.

Still, 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.”

In 2007, the Anti-Defamation League began 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 led the ADL to remove Palatucci’s name from the award last week.

“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.

“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.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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