Italy seldom figures much in Holocaust studies, as its Jewish population was relatively small (just under 50,000) and only about one-fifth failed to survive the war even after far more anti-Semitic German occupiers and policies wrested power from Benito Mussolini in 1943.
But statistically limited evil is still evil. Italian (even papal) complicity in crimes against Jewry has weighed more heavily on the national conscience lately, if a recent spate of meditations on the subject in various media is any indication. This year's San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the 28th, includes a program of films devoted to the subject. Titled "Italian Jews During Fascism," it presents a mix of documentary, historical drama, and contemporary fiction.
As elsewhere, the history of Jews in Italy has run a gamut from bad to worse to tolerable and back again. Propelled by basic racism as well as that "Christ-killer" concept favored by early Biblical-text revisionists and Mel Gibson, sacred and secular powers-that-were targeted Italian Jews (among others) during the Crusades and the Inquisition, then literally walled up their Roman populace in a ghetto for 300 years. By the time the extreme ghettoization was abolished, in the mid-19th century, Italian Jews (at least outside Rome) were fairly well integrated into society. They certainly were by 1938, when Mussolini announced a slew of anti-Semitic laws after years of appearing indifferent to Hitler's particular racial obsession. ("Il Duce" hadn't been impressed with the Nazis until his own empire-building ambitions required an alliance.)
Italian Jews were abruptly barred from serving in the military, and from attending or working at schools and universities. Thousands lost their jobs due to knee-jerk reactions from employers anxious to toe the repressive party line. These hard times got much worse when the weakened nation ceded primary control to the Nazis, and "Il Duce" became a mere figurehead for the "Republic of Salo." Mussolini rubber-stamped the mass arrest of Jews, mostly in the occupied north. Nearly 7,000 were shipped off to concentration camps. The question of what ordinary Italians let alone the Vatican did to oppose this murderous sweep remains a blot on the country's 20th-century history.
The Jewish Film Festival's quartet of related features offer various perspectives on these events. Most direct is Mimmo Calopresti's 2006 documentary Volevo Solo Vivere (I only wanted to live), a compilation of latter-day testimonies assembled from interviews recorded for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. Focusing on survivors (mostly female) of Auschwitz who were between the ages of four and 30 at the time, it provides first-person stories that range from poignant to hair-raising. Meeting a life love on the train en route to the camp, enduring Mengele's "medical experiments," being forced to walk one's father to the gas chamber. These precise recollections are illustrated not just by brutally familiar footage of starved prisoners and piled corpses, but also by earlier photo-album glimpses of family life.
Dubbed "the Italian Schindler" when his deeds first won recognition, Giorgio Perlasca was a Paduan former soldier and disillusioned ex-Fascist working abroad to procure supplies for the Hungarian army in Axis-occupied 1944 Hungary. Posing as a Spanish diplomat, he bullied and bluffed his way into rescuing and hiding thousands of Budapest Jews despite a Nazi policy of deportation and extermination. This extraordinary tale is dramatized in Perlasca: An Italian Hero. With an Ennio Morricone score and Luca Zingaretti in the title role, Alberto Negrin's 2001 made-for-TV film is compelling. Yet it's also overworked, painting Perlasca as a one-dimensional superhero albeit a balding and pudgy one.