A compelling new approach to the chronicle of Jewish life in Italy under Fascism
From the very first pages of John Tedeschi’s Italian Jews Under Fascism 1938-1945, A Personal and Historical Narrative, ( Parallel Press University of Wisconsin- Madison Libraries, 2015) the reader is presented with an engrossing narrative, where, as the subtitle suggests, personal and historical threads are interwoven into a larger fabric.
What makes this book stand out is the emotional impact of carefully researched personal stories, recollections and first-hand sources, informing and bringing to life the equally well researched historical data.
Tedeschi’s achievement lies in having his subject —Italian Jews under Mussolini’s racial laws— raised from a demographic statistic, an impersonal loosely defined category, into a diverse group of people, whose political inclinations, aspirations, social standing, courage – or lack thereof, and sheer circumstances, move them to react in a variety of ways to a country that has turned its back on them.
After a career spent studying intolerance and religious persecution during the Renaissance and the Reformation, John Tedeschi brings a wide perspective to his own family’s story of persecution and exile, placing it within the larger context of the history of Italian Jews.
This endeavor is clearly the result of a lifetime of reading, reflection, and profound questioning.
The seventy-six years that separate the publication of this book from the day in 1939 when the author and his immediate family sailed to America, account for its tone. Though in many ways precocious, John Tedeschi witnessed his family’s departure through the eyes of an eight year old. Silences about what and why the Tedeschi family had fled accompanied them for many years in the United States. One imagines that the early childhood memories followed by displacement and reserve, amplified the inner urgency with which Tedeschi has delved into the personal and historical material.
The book provides a succinct chronology of events: from the formation of the first Fascist cells (Fasci Italiani di Combattimento) in 1919, to the German surrender of May 8th 1945. It also tracks events relevant to author’s immediate and extended family.
Before fleeing Italy for the United States, his father, Cesare Tedeschi (1904-1974) a physician, had been chairman of the Department of Pathology at the University of Ferrara. He sailed from Genoa with his immediate family consisting of his wife Piera Forti (1904-1990), two young children, Guido, later called John, the author, and his younger brother Luca (1934-2010). “My father had been a member of the Fascist Party from a very young age, had served in the military reserve, volunteered for the Ethiopian war in 1935 (but was not called to active duty) and participated in various government initiatives, including serving as a consulting physician in Ferrara for the local detachment of Fascist youth, the Balilla. He had enrolled my brother, age three or four, and me, slightly older, in the youngest uniformed children’s group under Party’s aegis, the Figli della Lupa”.
From the beginning Tedeschi brings the reader in media res with a poignant discussion about how and when persecution began. Following Michele’s Sarfatti—whose ground breaking book, The Jews In Mussolini’s Italy, was translated in 2007 by John and his wife Anne, the author traces Mussolini’s concern for racial purity back to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. He then goes on to question the widely held vew that most Italian Jews were caught unprepared by the Racial Laws of September 1938. Retrospectively it is hard to miss such initiatives as the mounting press campaign and the Manifesto of Racist Scientists with their vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric that paved the way for the laws. Yet many Italian Jews chose not see the writing on the wall.
Tedeschi’s nuanced argument brings forth the many conflicting testimonies, including that of his own cousin, the literary critic Marco Forti, then a teenager, for whom the legislation came as a shock, as well as the opposite case that of the anti-Fascist Vittorio Foa, who, despite being incarcerated at the time, had premonitions as early as in 1937.
In 1938 Italian Jews were a small, well integrated and often-influential minority representing roughly one thousandth of the population. The Jews lived mostly in cities in the center and center north of the country. They had taken part enthusiastically in the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy, and by then were well represented in academia, the professions, the arts, government and even the military. They had adhered to Fascism in roughly the same percentage as other Italians, yet had joined or lead anti-Fascist movements in greater numbers. A small number of families had reached great wealth, but most were middle class and some outright poor. Some were religious, others not. Only a small percentage was attracted to Zionism. In other words, they were a highly diversified minority, which reacted to adversity and later outright persecution in a variety of ways.
One of the challenges of writing about the collective behavior of Italian Jews lies precisely in the vast differences in their relationship with the Catholic majority, the State, Fascism and discrimination.
John Tedeschi successfully captures the variety of responses to persecution within Italian Jewry, by focusing first on the particular —his own family and their immediate circle in Florence, Rome and Ferrara— and then expanding the discussion to the wider context in Italy as a whole. In his narrative the Jews are never a passive and undifferentiated group subjected to a great injustice, but are portrayed as individuals whose motivations and actions, whether fearful or courageous, misguided or well pondered, we can relate to. Some examples. Following the Lateran Pacts of 1929, Catholicism became the State religion and Judaism a so-called “tolerated cult”.
The ensuing law of 1931 (Legge Falco) established, under the Regime’s control, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. Tedeschi points out “The law at once curbed the freedom of action of Italian Jews, but also gave them recognized status as one of the minority religions. […] All Jews in a given city belonged to a Community to which they were obliged to pay dues. To withdraw from it, they had to submit a formal request and perform an actual abjuration”. One would be tempted to think that the small number of those who abjured were trying to distance themselves from their identity as Jews but here, and throughout the book, Tedeschi shows how individual motivations were at times completely different. In the case of the Florentine jurist Ugo Castelnuovo-Tedesco (a brother of the composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, a relative by marriage of the author) his withdrawal from the Jewish Community of Florence was “in protest of the new role subservient to the government under which the Union and the Communities now found themselves”.
Similarly enlightening are the discussions regarding the 1938 census of the Jewish population, the Regime’s inconsistencies and contradictions in its definition of a Jew, and the personal impact this had on individuals.
“Bruno Segre, a young anti-Fascist of Turin who had a Catholic mother but did not profess any religion, was considered a Jew, while his brother, who had been baptized before the start of the racial laws, was considered Aryan. Even though the two boys had the same parents, the children were of two different races”.
While Italy was systematically enforcing racist laws depriving Italian Jews of fundamental rights (education, work, property), the general population did not protest. As a measure of comparison “In the Netherlands, which ultimately suffered the loss of a large portion of its Jews, the people of Amsterdam went on strike in February 1941, against the first anti-Jewish measures, and students protested the firing of Jewish professors. No such general sympathetic actions took place in Italy when the anti-Semitic provisions began to go into effect in 1938”.
Short of any widespread solidarity, on a personal level what hurt most were individual acts of hostility. “A survivor from the small Tuscan town of Pitigliano writes of the hostility, the slights, the indifference, the rebuffs, experienced by her family upon encountering old ‘friends’ on the street after the promulgation of the racist laws. She tells of an uncle, a decorated veteran of World War I, who, meeting a friend in the Piazza del Duomo, held his hand in greeting. The ‘friend’, however responded by slapping my uncle in the face, with many people looking on. No one reacted, no one showed disapproval, perhaps out of fear, more likely indifference”. Faced with the discrimination by the State against the Jews, Italians acted largely as bystanders yet Tedeschi is careful to distinguish the reaction to the stripping of rights from the reaction to the subsequent threat to the very lives of the Italian Jews. “In terms of the general population, it is crucial to distinguish between the two phases of Jewish persecution, the by and large nonviolent stage and the later violent one. During the first, commencing formally in 1938, with few exceptions, Italians publicly remained silent, abstaining from criticizing the anti-Jewish legislation, and often rushed with alacrity to fill the vacant positions, especially in the universities. In the second phase, the period of the physical persecution and deportation that began at once in September 1943, with the German occupation and the reconstruction of the Fascist state, many Italians were shocked into action and came to the aid of the beleaguered Jews, offering them shelter and assistance at great risk to themselves.”
The historical narrative proceeds chronologically: from the beginning of the persecution, through the unfolding of the Regime’s anti-Semitic agenda, early Jewish responses to the racist legislation, the siege against publishing and scholarship, the impact of the laws on professional life, to the choice of a privileged few to emigrate. Further on it deals with the daily lives of the majority of Jews who remained, the formation of Jewish schools, coping with prohibitions and their economic consequences. Lastly, it covers the German occupation and the reconstruction of the Fascist State (Repubblica Sociale Italiana), the escalation of the persecution to the point that, later in fall 1943, Jews were declared outlaws in their own country and subject to arrest on sight. The choices were between survival in hiding or flight to Switzerland. Not only does the book raise a number of thought provoking historical questions that one may pose retrospectively, but also invites the reader to ponder on the anguished choices that Jews had to face during the uncertainty of those years.
The personal narrative instead focuses mainly on the Tedeschi family, their relatives the Forti and the Castelnuovo-Tedescos, as well as their circle of friends and professional Jewish and non-Jewish acquaintances. Within these families we trace a microcosm of Italian Jewish life and the unfolding of the small and large events that mark those dramatic years.
Ample space is dedicated to the Florentine composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, from an Italian Sephardic family which had resided in Tuscany for over 400 years. A child prodigy, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was composing by the age of nine. His formal education began at the Istituto Musicale Cherubini in Florence in 1909, leading to a degree in piano in 1914 and a composition diploma in 1918. His growing European reputation was aided by performances of his music under the aegis of the International Society of Contemporary Music. Also active as a performer and critic, he accompanied such internationally famous artists as Lotte Lehman, Elisabeth Schumann, and Gregor Piatigorsky and played in the Italian premiere of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. In 1924, Castelnuovo-Tedesco married Clara Forti (the author’s aunt). His life and career are exemplary of the many young promising artists and professionals whose career came to a standstill because of racial discrimination, and who chose to emigrate.
Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s first large-scale work—a comic opera based on the Machiavelli play La Mandragola—was awarded the Concorso Lirico Nazionale prize, and opened in Venice in 1926. From then on, he appeared destined to a stellar career: “In 1930 his music received an American premier when Arturo Toscanini directed his Symphonic Variations in New York City. The following year Jasha Heifetz commissioned Castelnuovo-Tedesco a violin concerto, The Prophets […]. Before the Regime’s ban on the public performances of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music (and that of all Jewish composers) in 1938, “surreptitious measures were afoot to ostracize prominent Jewish figures from the country’s public and cultural life […] Without prior notice a scheduled radio production of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Second Violin Concerto, […] was cancelled in January 1938, pursuant to a directive imparted by Mussolini himself […] that the performance of music by Jewish composers on Italian radio was to be ‘reduced’ ”.
Unlike his older brother Ugo, who was an early anti-Fascist militant, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco had not been openly opposed to the dictatorship. In fact only three years prior to the ban on public performances of Jewish music, he had been selected personally by the dictator to compose an opera on the martyred Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, to be performed in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, the very spot where the monk had been executed. The opera was performed to acclaim twice and was attended by among others, the composer’s friend, Nello Rosselli, who along with his brother Carlo had been early opponents of the Regime, and the leaders of the anti-Fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà.
The events around the silencing of Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s music, which was not performed in Italy again until after the war, sheds light on a number of other issues. Even before the racial laws, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, like other Jewish artists, had been singled out by envious colleagues, in this case by the prominent composer Gian Francesco Malipiero, who dismissed his work as “Jewish”.
When the composer began to realize how his career was being threatened by the racist laws, as other Jews did, he tried to appeal to personal friends who held high positions within the Fascist party. In his case he appealed to Alessandro Pavolini, a childhood friend. Pavolini, who became Minister of Popular Culture (Minculpop), and in 1943 one of the founders of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), did not help, despite closeness implied in the composer’s letter which addressed him as “Dear Alessandro” and concluded with “In the meantime, believe me with ancient, affectionate friendship, yours Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco”.
While other scholars (most notably Michele Sarfatti, Giorgio Fabre and more recently Michael Livingstone) have delved into the origin, scope, and implementation of the racial laws, what Tedeschi adds is a description of the impact of the laws on individual lives, whether dealing with the purging of Jews from publishing, from the professions or from schools and universities.
The harshness of the laws, on both a practical and psychological level is exposed through a series of telling details as well as personal testimonies. The laws stripped Jews of their public presence, their visibility and most devastatingly, their dignity and self-respect.
For each new discriminatory measure, we are given examples of Jewish ingenuity and countermeasures. When Jewish names were purged from telephone books, for example, “enterprising Jews in Venice proceeded to compile impromptu lists of the phone numbers that had been eliminated from the official directories and distributed them to their co-religionaries”. When Jewish students were excluded from all Italian public schools (an even more draconian law than the one adopted in Nazi Germany, which initially limited the Jewish presence to 1.5 percent of the total enrollment), the Jewish communities set up their own schools, taught by many first-rate Jewish professors who had been expelled from universities.
“It appears from many firsthand recollections that have come down to us that attendance at the fully Jewish Schools could be rewarding, liberating experiences, although this, of course, was not the case for the children in the segregated Jewish sections of the state public schools, or for that matter, at the annual appearance of the Jewish children to be tested by Aryan teachers in the state schools at the end of the academic year. What made the Jewish schools seem such a pleasure to attend? They were generally small —Rome an obvious exception—and the teachers were almost uniformly experienced and excellent, with so many former university and liceo professors among them. Corrado De Benedetti speaks of his education at the school on Via Vignatagliata in Ferrara as “magnificent years of study in an environment that was wholly ours, Jewish and anti-fascist”. Similarly, for a student in Livorno the small Jewish school “succeeded in filling a void into which we had all been plunged. We were all friends, very cheerful, and, hard to believe, carefree”.
John Tedeschi, who left with his family in 1939, remembers the first year under the racial laws and his own experiences in Italian schools under Fascism. Although he was tutored at home, he had to appear at a local public school at the end of the academic year to be examined on a variety of subjects, from “Fascist culture” to manual training.
“One of the more curious features of my report card is the protective brown wrapper in which it came, stamped “Pagella Scolastica—Diploma di Promozione, provided by a bank, the Cassa di Risparmio of Florence. The inside back cover of this piece of ephemera— one wonders how many have survived— contained a political harangue addressed to children, to the Balilla and Piccola Italiana, listing what would be expected of them when they grow up”.
As with much else in the book, the author carefully chronicles the difference from city to city, of scholastic arrangements for Jewish children who could no longer attend public school. In Milan, a Jewish nursery and elementary school, had been in existence for decades when suddenly in 1938-39 they had to accommodate four hundred expelled high school students; in Genoa high school students met on the upper floor of the synagogue on Via Bertora; in Florence a Jewish elementary school, the Talmud Torà which had opened in 1646 and had been meant for boys who intended to pursue Hebrew Studies, offered instruction through middle school, while liceo students were instructed in small classes that met in private homes; in Ferrara as in many other cities, the Jewish school experienced a tremendous increase in students and had to rapidly adapt by employing new teachers and offering classes from nursery through high school.
The children of Nello Rosselli had been given home schooling in Florence starting before the racist laws to avoid Fascist indoctrination, a practice adopted by a few families in various cities. Among the many anomalous cases, was that of the Jewish children from Corfù in Trieste: “After Italy launched its disastrous invasion of Greece, in October 1940, nationalist fervor led school authorities to order the expulsion of children of Greek descent. This included twenty-six students in the Jewish school from families who had long resided in the city after fleeing persecution in Corfù in the nineteenth century and whose rights to residency should not have been questioned”.
While neither the civil society nor the Church had opposed the racist laws, the book makes explicit reference to some individuals who either because of their anti-fascism, or human solidarity or conscience, offered the persecuted Jews practical help and sympathy. Among others, were the jurist Piero Calamandrei and the historian Gaetano Salvemini (later at Harvard). More common were those who initially had not opposed the discriminatory measures (or indeed benefitted from them) and later, with remorse offered help to some Jews. From this last group, Tedeschi mentions the renowned historian Delio Cantimori. Back in 1934, Cantimori had met, befriended and admired the work of the medievalist Giorgio Falco, twenty years his senior, and yet had not spoken a word in protest for his dismissal from the University in 1938. However later “at the height of the Jewish manhunts during the German occupation of the capital, 1943-1944, Cantimori and his wife, Emma, risking their own lives, offered sanctuary in their apartment to Serena Cagli Basaldella, the Jewish wife of the noted sculptor Mirko, and the sister of the equally renowned painter Corrado Cagli”.
The book presents convincing arguments against the diehard legend that the racist laws were not systematically enforced, enforced unwillingly, or contained myriad loopholes. The laws defined who was to be considered Jewish and proceeded to strip those it defined as such of nearly all basic rights, downgrading them to second class citizens, no longer an integral part of Italian society.
If that were not enough, it proceeded to distinguish (thus creating division and groundless expectation) between “regular Jews” to be discriminated against, and slightly less undesirable Jews. “Italian Jews were offered the possibility to apply for a status that would mitigate some of the lesser disabilities imposed by the anti-Semitic laws. […] Mussolini, proclaimed that “Jews who hold Italian citizenship who possess unquestionable military or civic merits in regard to the country or the regime will find understanding and justice” […]. Persons who qualified would receive the quaintly named preferential title of discriminati “discriminated”, conveying just the opposite of what the term usually signifies.”
“Discrimination” did not (after September 1943) ultimately, protect those who had obtained it and proved to be one more “false assurance” by the Regime. Tedeschi documents, through a range of individual experiences, the complexities and varieties of Jewish lives in the early years of the persecution, when within the same family some obtained “discrimination,” others were married to Catholics, and children were sometimes considered Aryan.
From 1938, so-called “mixed” marriages between Jews and Aryans were prohibited “to safeguard the purity of the Italian race”. The aim of having citizens of “Italian race” live separately from those of the “Jewish race” proved illusive from the start, in view of the high percentage of mixed marriages from before 1938. Within the author’s family mixed marriages and conversion to Catholicism were not infrequent. “One of my mother’s older sisters, Nella, married a Catholic, Giorgio Piccardi, in the early 1920’s, and herself converted to his faith a few years later. […] Such acts of abandonment of the traditional Jewish religion were rarer in the1920’s than they would be later and could arouse strong emotions in families” […] By the time of the anti-Semitic laws in 1938, one Italian Jew out of three selected a spouse outside the faith.”
“The preponderance of Judeo-Christian unions also caused problems for the state intent to applying the racist laws. The undersecretary in the Ministry of the Interior, Guido Buffarini Guidi, in an extensive, undated report for Mussolini (possibly written in October 1940) described the difficulties encountered in enforcing the discriminatory policies. Chief among them was the fact of the roughly 11,500 Jewish families, over half (6,820) were in mixed marriages with one of the spouses Aryan, and of these another half (3,400) were giving their children a wholly Christian education and upbringing. ‘This situation,’ the minister states, ‘makes more difficult if not impossible a more energetic racial program aimed at a clear-cut separation between Jews and Aryans’ ”.
In the end, whether baptized, “discriminated” or not, Italian Jews wound up trapped in a country that persecuted them as it planned for a future in which there would be no room for Jews. Again the author’s family experience is exemplary of how futile the father’s “discriminated” status or his and his brother’s baptism would prove. “When my brother and I were baptized in September 1938, virtually coinciding with the beginning of the first anti-Semitic decrees in Italy, our conversion was a useless gesture as far as the regime was concerned since we, along with our parents, were of the Jewish race”.
Tedeschi expertly reconstructs the extremely limited choices and the short window of opportunity for Jews who saw the writing on the wall and opted to leave following the racist laws. The timeframe for legal emigration was less than two years from September 1938 until Italy’s entrance into the war in June 1940. A freeze on Jewish assets, bureaucratic difficulties from the Italian side, as well as the challenges in obtaining a visa from a foreign country were often insurmountable, even for the few who had money and international contacts. For most Italian Jews, emigration simply never presented itself as an option.
Following individual families’ struggles to obtain visas to escape Europe in 1938-1940, the reader cannot avoid pondering on today’s restrictive immigration policies of most Western countries for those escaping war, famines and persecution.
Even after Mussolini’s removal from office by the Fascist Grand Council in July 1943, Marshall Badoglio’s new government did not abrogate the racial laws. Although many Italians rejoiced at Mussolini’s downfall, there was no popular protest over the continued persecution of the Jews. The Vatican, which in 1938 had failed to speak out against the racial laws, limiting its objection to restrictions for the so- called Aryan-Jews, the mixed-marriage families containing a formerly Jewish spouse who had converted to Catholicism, now urged Badoglio to keep the racial laws in effect. The Vatican Secretariat of State, through Pietro Tacchi Venturi, a highly placed Jesuit, felt that “the racial laws contained some beneficial elements that should be maintained, seemingly oblivious that by this date the Vatican had ample knowledge of the mass killings of Jews in the East”:
And the laws remained in effect.
In the last chapters of the book, the author chronicles with precision and empathy the fate of the Jews who after September 8th 1943 until the end of the war, found themselves victims of manhunts carried out jointly by the Italians and Germans. The Italian Fascists performed over fifty per cent of the arrests, while the Nazis relied heavily on paid Italian spies and informers.
While compiling convincing evidence of how the identification and arrest of Italian Jews—at that point destined to be deported to extermination camps in Poland—could not have occurred without the Italian authorities handing over the lists of Jews assembled during 5 years of racist laws, Tedeschi also attests to the acts of courage and generosity of segments of the population who offered shelter and help to the Jews.
With the exception of the few who were able to travel to Southern Italy and reach the areas liberated by the advancing Allied troops, the remaining Jews in Italy were suddenly trapped. The options were reduced to survival in hiding or a perilous attempt to reach Switzerland. “Nazi-Fascist guards made many controls on the trains and patrolled along the passes to the border; it was not unknown for unscrupulous guides, after having been paid, to abandon and betray their charges. After all there was a bounty for every Jew who was turned in. Nor was everyone who managed to scrape together the substantial necessary funds, overcome the dangers of the clandestine journey and reach the border, admitted by the Swiss authorities”.
Research on the deportation of Jews from Italy to death camps is still in progress. As of 2015, the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan identified 9,800 deportees including 1,834 people from the Dodecanese islands and about 750 individuals, mostly refugees, whose identities have not been yet been recovered. Only approximately 12% of them survived deportation. Though the book does not state this explicitly, the reader can’t help but wonder what it would have taken to hide the many thousands of remaining Jews for the months from September 1943 until April 1945, in the midst of civil war, at a time when much of the Italian army had disbanded and large sections of the civilian population had been displaced by the allied bombings.
Unlike many personal accounts of the tragic years from 1938 to1945, this book manages to provide a bird’s eye view of what was happening in Italy during those years, to Jews and non Jews alike, recounting the story of persecution within its larger perspective. The primary subject matter—the Italian Jews under Fascism— is treated like a complex ecosystem working within larger ecosystems: the rise of the totalitarian state, Italian society, the persecution of European Jewry, World War II, in a widening set of references.
While learning about the struggles of the Jews, the reader is made aware of the range of behaviors of the general population that spanned from indifference toward the plight of the Jews —the taking over of their professions and assets, informing against them— to various forms of solidarity and assistance. One of the many stories is that of Roberto Vivarelli, a friend of the author, who in 1944, at age fifteen, had attempted (and failed) to join the RSI’s elite fighting unit, Decima Mas. His memoir, La fine di una stagione, serves here to attest to “the enthusiasm with which Vivarelli and so many youths flocked into the ranks of the RSI and eagerly greeted the German occupiers. […] Vivarelli asserts that among the young militants in the RSI “the Jewish question simply did not exist”.
In his portrait of the Italian Jewish world, the author dedicates some pages to the noteworthy story of the Italian Jewish aid organization DELASEM (Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants) active between 1939-1947 and deserving a long overdue specific study. Tedeschi outlines its activities correctly as follows: “DELASEM founded originally to assist foreign Jews streaming into Italy in the 1930’s from other parts of Europe, an activity extended clandestinely to Italian Jews when they began to be rounded up after 8 September 1943. The DELASEM, from that point operating underground, was supported primarily by American Jewish capital funneled through Switzerland to Italy, where it was administered by Catholic religious authorities in Genoa, with the encouragement of its archbishop”. Lacking a definitive study on DELASEM, the author resorts to using uneven evidence, combining the solid work of Collotti and Sarfatti with less persuasive sources. For example, when following the hasty posthumous recognition as a Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, the book ascribes to the champion cyclist Gino Bartali an active role in DELASEM.
As of today, Bartali’s role as DELASEM’S courier on the Assisi-Florence route has not been substantiated by any historical findings and therefore remains a mere hypothesis. Emerged decades after the events, Bartali’s alleged endeavors bear a striking resemblance to several documented stories such as those of Giorgio Nissim (Pisa 1908 – 1976) and Mario Finzi (Bologna 15 July 1913 – Auschwitz 22 February 1945). While Nissim left us his memoirs (Liliana Picciotto, Giorgio Nissim. Memorie di un ebreo toscano 1938-48, Carocci, Rome 2005), Mario Finzi — a law school graduate and promising pianist— is less well know and deserves further recognition.
A documented reference to a courier for DELASEM comes from Don Leto Casini (Leto Casini, Ricordi di un vecchio prete (Giuntina, Florence, 1987), a parish priest in Varlungo, Florence, who together with Father Cipriano Ricotti was involved in DELASEM’s rescue network, which in Florence was headed by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, until his arrest:
“A clandestine typography in Bologna was providing the false I.D. cards which transformed into Italians so many Poles, Russians, Germans, Hungarians etc. I obtained the I.D. format photos and gave them to a young Bologna Jew, who was constantly rushing between myself and the typography. He was a truly exceptional messenger… his name was Mario Finzi. After his death, one can say of him what is written on Machiavelli’s tomb: Tanto nomini nullum par elogium. There is no adjective that might qualify the nobility, both the intellectual and spiritual stature of his soul. I deem myself truly fortunate in having known him and to have collaborated with him in such a humane endeavor…”
In a 1948 article, “Ricordando Mario Finzi”, in the journal “Israel” n.35, p.4, Lelio Vittorio Valobra, a lawyer and DELASEM’S President, refers explicitly to Finzi’s long bicycle rides. Valobra recounts Finzi’s contribution in helping a group of orphaned Eastern European Jewish children, whom, with the help of DELASEM, had been transferred from Ljubljana to Villa Emma, in the town of Nonantola near Modena, and finally to safety in Switzerland.
“At Villa Emma, Mario Finzi took on the role of Delasem’s point person for Bologna. He arranged for arrivals and accommodation, he proved to be more than active, he was fervently enthusiastic. I remember asking Mario in those days the reason for his feverish activism, for his eagerness to help (…) of his long grueling cycling trips along the main road between Bologna and Nonantola; (…) about how, after those 28 kilometers on a bike in the sun and dust, could he sit down and talk (…) and play for the children on a run-down piano, and, at the same time, be involved with cots and blankets, special permits, bureaucratic procedures (..) all done with his contagious generosity (…). Mario surprised me with a response in which he anticipated what we ourselves were only able to articulate later: “these kids, and we who help them, are no longer alone, we are no longer isolated (…) The peasants who saw them arrive … they helped us unconditionally, with a solidarity which we did not suspect they possessed (…) They understood that the tragedy of our people and the fate of these 70 children is also their own tragedy and fate; (…) They understood that their own peace and freedom … were linked to the emergence of a new world in which it would no longer be possible for 70 children to be forced to flee to survive. ” (…) Mario had understood all this before the others (…). He had understood that fighting for the freedom and justice of the Jewish people is fighting for all humanity”
Tedeschi’s Italian Jews Under Fascism 1938-1945 is an impressive and important contribution to the study of the era, which will appeal to scholars, students and the general public alike. Post-war Italy did not hold the equivalent of Nuremberg Trials, did not arrange for the restitution of confiscated assets to the Jews, nor arrange uniformly for the reintegration of those who had lost their positions as professors or civil servants. More than 70 years after those events, Tedeschi’s careful examination of the Jewish persecution has much to offer as Italy faces new migratory waves accompanied by new forms of intolerance. With its dense, carefully annotated 433 pages, enriched by copious illustrations and photographs, this book makes for an engaging, informative often touching and dramatic read.