Although the Holocaust is fading as a personal experience, with survivors dying every day, its historical implications remains one of the seminal events in 20th century Western Civilization history. For us Jews especially, we cannot and will not ever forget.

In the case of Italy this can best explained in a well  researched and well done film entitled  “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes,” written, produced and directed by Oren Jacoby. Presented in Italian with English subtitles, the voice over narratives in English are done by such names as Robert Loggia, and Isabella Rossellini. It is now available on Netflix.

The Italian Holocaust experience  is unique. Unlike Occupied France, Poland and Russia, Italy saved the vast majority of its Jews, through a collective moral consciousness that apparently transcended Mussolini’s orders to report Jews wherever they found them. 7,680 Italian Jews and refugees died, but 80% of the Italian Jewish population survived, by far the highest percentage of any Nazi occupied country anywhere in wartime Europe, thanks to the efforts of the Italian people.

“The entire town (of Secchiano) was in cahoots to keep our secret.”

Mussolini’s Fascist  government in league with the Nazis, and counting themselves as an ally in supporting Nazi goals of a fascist Europe, a significant number of people, whole towns and cities in some cases stood in defiance of those goals. The Italians themselves put their own lives on the line, the lives of their loved ones, and stood the risk of being executed by the Nazis after they occupied northern Italy from 1943 until the end of the war.

The remarkable thing is that these Italian “righteous gentiles” were not only your everyday rank and file Italian citizen which the film indicates, but some were quite famous, well off and would have absolutely profited from engaging Mussolini’s Fascist morality. Although they stood to lose if discovered, they used their stations in life to combat the greatest evil of the 20th century.

Gino Bartali, Tour de France winner of 1938 and sports hero all over Europe, saved over 800 Jews by using his bike training as a cover from Allied occupied southern Italy carrying fake documents in the frame of his bicycle to Jews in the North hiding from the Fascists and the Nazis.  Because of his fame he was granted a special permit to ride around Tuscany, so he could train. This enabled him to ride without suspicion. These fake documents enabled Jews to  travel incognito to freedom from the Nazi occupied north to the Allied occupied south after 1943. No one suspected Bartali because even the Nazis thought he was just training on those long bike rides.

Bartali rarely spoke of his participation in these events after the war, choosing to stay silent due to his own humility and grace as a human being. He didn’t think it necessary to bragged how he risked his life, it was enough just to do the right thing.  This was a man of great virtue.  Anecdotally after the war he won the Tour de France again in 1948.

“If you are hiding Jews or partisans you’re dead”

Then there was La Marchesa Gallo, a woman of substance and aristocracy who could have found a very cushy existence under Mussolini’s fascist Italy. But, instead chose to hide many Jews, putting them up in her huge estate, feeding them, and hiding them at great personal peril. Once she was found out by a Fascist collaborator she had to force them to leave. This woman of extraordinary courage and sense of righteousness, was one of the many reasons so many Italian Jews survived.

Monsignor Shiavo, a member of the Partisans stuck his neck out to help Jews avoid capture by the Nazis and their Fascist collaborators. Guiding them out of harm’s way into the hills where partisans would take them to safe places. The film does not put a number on how many Jewish lives the Monsignor saved, but one 107 year old witness said that “he saved many.”

“I was saved not only by Monsignor Shiavo, but by all of Citta di Castillo”

The same witness also confirms that it was not only the Monsignor but the network of support within the community of Citta di Castillo. Despite the peril of helping Jews and other enemies of Nazism, these people risked everything. For us Jews  no greater demonstration of collective human decency exists during those nightmare years.

“I did say ‘thank you’ many times, but its never enough.”

We Jews owe a great debt to the Italian people that is impossible to ever re pay. Our eternal thanks will have to do generation after generation, from us now in 2015 to as long as democratic traditions remain and western Civilization continues to flourish.

A review of this sort really does not do the Italian commitment saving Jewish lives justice. You must see Jacoby’s film to get the full impact of what these people did. How they stood for what was right in the face of pure evil both from the Nazis and their collaborationist Fascist government.


Jewish community examiner

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