Paper Lives

Paper Lives- Survival and Deportation in San Donato Val Comino, 1940-1943

Anna Pizzuti’s website and book dispel myths and reconstruct life stories of foreign Jews in Italy during World War II

In the landscape of contemporary literature on the Shoah in Italy, Anna Pizzuti’s Vite di carta. Storie di ebrei stranieri internati dal fascismo, Donzelli 2009, Rome, is an apparently small book that packs a big punch.

Sixty-five years since the end of the war we are still struggling to understand the conditions that allowed some foreign Jews residing in Italy to survive while others were deported and murdered. As well as to understand the complex circumstances by which the Italian people alternatively protected and persecuted the Jews.

According to an estimate by the Italian Ministry of the Interior, in 1938, as the Fascists implemented the Racial Laws, there were 9170 foreign Jews living in Italy. At that point the Jews who had become Italian citizens after 1919 were stripped of citizenship and found themselves stateless.

“Foreign Jews”, in Fascist parlance, covered a mixed and heterogeneous group of people. Many had been born abroad, subsequently became Italian citizens and long time residents in Italy. Others began arriving as refugees from 1933 on, first from Germany, then from a wide variety of countries. Italy was one of the few countries to allow entrance to European Jews in flight from Nazi occupied territories. It was seen both as a place of relative safety and a departure point for further migration toward Palestine, the Americas and the Far East. Italy turned out to be a “refugio precario” (a precarious refuge), as defined by Klaus Voigt in his seminal book with the same title.

In the summer of 1940, as Italy entered the war, immigration became more difficult as the fascists proceeded to intern all foreign Jews either in camps or in small village under custody of the local police.

Internment, originally conceived as a way to isolate and neutralize the Jews -allegedly for wartime security reasons – provided a paper trail that later became the instrument that facilitated their arrest and deportation. After the Armistice in September 1943, Italian and foreign Jews alike were rounded up and sent to extermination camps.

Klaus Voigt, in his detailed study of the available data estimates the number of foreign Jews deported from Italy to be 2370. These numbers have suggested different interpretive narratives. One of the scenarios: as Hitler proceeded with the systematic slaughter of Jews throughout Europe, Italy, his closest ally, became a safe haven for many. This narrative also casts the Nazis as the persecutors and Mussolini as an inefficient operetta-like dictator, who passed anti Jewish legislation, yet allowed for loopholes of all kinds. The Catholic Church appears as a frequent protector of the Jews and the Italian people as “the good people” who never truly embraced racist ideology, often willing to shelter Jews. As any over simplification this contains blatant inaccuracies and misconceptions intertwined with some truths.

The fate of foreign Jews in Fascist Italy cannot be fully understood outside of the larger picture of state racism and anti-Semitism.
In her book, Vite di carta (Paper Lives), Anna Pizzuti focuses on a local story, which successfully becomes a stand in for the larger picture.

A first rate independent scholar, Pizzuti is the creator of an invaluable website, presenting the first comprehensive online data base on the foreign Jews interned in Italy.

The book traces the stories of 28 foreign Jews interned in the small medieval town of San Donato Val Comino, near the border between Lazio and Abruzzo, Following individual stories – how they got there and where they ended up – the author composes a mosaic of the varieties of fates that befell the Jews seeking refuge in Italy. There is a gradual revealing of the intertwined threads that connect these stories to what was happening in the rest of Italy and in Europe.

The power and originality of Pizzuti’s reconstruction lies in the rigor of her methodology. She allows documents, official briefs and the intricate mechanism of fascist bureaucracy to speak for themselves. In her words, “what is told in this book is not always the whole story of the lives of San Donato’s internees, but rather their story as it appears from the documents”. In the absence of testimonies from those that didn’t survive, the documents she chooses stand in for those lost voices.

The book is constructed by weaving testimonies, interviews and careful analysis of documents. The apparently neutral legal language of official documents, often betrays the political orientation of each bureaucrat, displaying varying degrees of zeal and/or human empathy.

Records show that the internment of foreign Jews in San Donato began in the summer of 1940. There were men, women and children who had arrived from Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Ukraine, some of whom had been residing in Italy for years. Initially the Podestà placed them in the only hotel in town, then, as more continue to arrive, they were scattered in local rooms rented by the municipality. Welcomed mostly with kindness by the local population, the Jews brought with them stories, cultural models, and languages unknown in the village. Despite their status as refugees, the locals looked on them as “ high class and refined”.

Although the hospitality of many townspeople was genuine, the conditions of this form of internment were marked by a lack of freedom, uncertainty, dread for the future and dire economic conditions. After selling their possessions, the prohibition to seek employment (even for doctors), put the Jews in a position of total dependency on the government and the charity of the local people. The government subsidy, a mere pittance at nine lira/ day for men, four for women and half a lira for children- arrived only sporadically. It was compensated only in part by the assistance of Delasem.

In the context of the racial laws, their internment was based purely on race, which meant the Jews had no prospect of legal appeal. Despite relatively tame conditions compared to those in Nazi occupied territories, their letters and appeals to the fascist authorities reveal the extent of the physical and psychological duress forced upon them. Their pleas point to the attempts (at times successful) to reunite with family members elsewhere in Italy, but also the anguish of having been stripped of their basic rights, contacts with their homelands, profession, social context and, to a large extent, their identities.

Internment legislation tended to split families apart with men usually sent to camps and women and children in small towns. However instances of families who managed to reunite did occur. Pizzutti reconstructs the stories of two such families in San Donato: the Tenenbaums and the Levis. In both cases, the couples had long resided in Italy, spoke the language fluently and knew how to navigate the bureaucracy, which was a factor in their succeeding to be together.

In 1940, following Italy’s entrance in the war, the internment laws found the Polish doctor Mordko Tenenbaum residing in Florence with his German wife, Ursula Steinitz Tenenbaum. While he was sent to the camps in the south, first to Campagna (Salerno) and later to Ferramonti (Cosenza), his wife was sent to San Donato. Alleging a case of tuberculosis and the need for her husband’s medical assistance, Ursula managed to have him transferred to San Donato, where they later gave birth to their daughter Katrin.

Similarly, in 1941 Enrico Levi (Lewi), who had been in the camp at Ferramonti, was able to join his wife Gabriella Kazar and their children Noemi and Italo in the town. Gabriella Kazar was among the handful of internees who tried to improve their lot by being baptized in the hope of an exit visa. She then sought the help of the Holy See in obtaining a visa for Brazil, but was rejected by Cardinal Luigi Maglione because the Vatican was only facilitating visa to Brazil for non Aryan Catholics baptized prior to 1935 (1). Gabriella Kazar was deported to Auschwitz and killed upon arrival on May 23, 1944.

The small group of Jews in San Donato is a microcosm that reflects the larger stories of European Jewry in flight from Nazism. Nine of them had reached the port of Trieste and were among the 302 Jews to embark on the Esperia, a vessel officially headed to Thailand, but in reality attempting to reach Palestine. The ship was intercepted by the Italian Navy near the coast of Libya and the passengers first interned there and later sent back to prison in Naples. From Naples nine of them were sent first to camps and eventually to San Donato. Margarete (Grete) Bloch was one of the women who arrived alone in San Donato in July 1940. Originally from Berlin she had sought refuge in Florence. By the time she arrived there, her son thought to be from an earlier liaison with Franz Kafka had already died at 7.

Out of the almost 10,000 foreign Jews in Italy (an abstract number), Pizzuti, concentrates on the individual stories of 28 of them. Through close analysis of surviving documents, she brings them into tri-dimensional reality and restores their dignity.

The book follows the lives of the Jewish internees between the summer of 1940 and the spring of 1944. Initially conditions seemed tolerable, but as the war progressed, they became increasingly difficult when food became scarce even for the villagers. With the fall of Mussolini on July 25th, 1943, the new government lead by the Marshal Pietro Badoglio did not revoke the Racial Laws, nor dismantled the internment programs, precipitating the Jews in a deeper state of uncertainty.  On September 8th Badoglio signed the Armistice with the Allies. As German troops descended upon Italy, diehard Fascists regrouped and proclaimed the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (RSI), whose own anti-Semitic laws surpassed the Nazi ones.

The fate of the Jews residing In Italy quickly became a function of geography. While in the South salvation came with the advancing allied troops, which turned former internment camps into Displaced Person centers, conditions turned dramatic for those in the Center North. Here the RSI soldiers, police and informers began a systematic manhunt, capturing and delivering Jews to the Nazis.

The geographical location of San Donato placed the town at the very southern tip of the Nazi Fascist occupied area, with the Allies only a few tantalizing miles away. The battle of Monte Cassino, with its tens of thousands of casualties, raged on only a few valleys away. From January 17th to May 18th, 1944, the Allied troops lay siege to the Gustav Line attempting to break through to Rome. During those months the Jews in San Donato, lacking both travel documents and money, could neither attempt to cross front lines, nor seek security in cities. As German troops entered the town, some hid in the nearby woods. Others fell into the Nazi’s trap (deceptive promises of food stamps and ID papers), came out of hiding and were promptly rounded up. So, on April 6th, 1944, 16 of the Jews of San Donato were arrested by Wehrmacht soldiers, a mere 42 days before the Nazi capitulation on May 18th. They were first imprisoned in Rome, then sent to the camp of Fossoli (Modena) and finally deported to Auschwitz. Only four survived.

The author follows the individual life stories of both “the drowned and the saved”, captured and survivors, beyond Auschwitz and frigid hiding grounds, to present day denouements. At the end of the book, Gertrude Adler who survived Auschwitz narrates in devastating detail her experience in a letter commented by Katrin Tenenbaum, now a philosophy professor at the University in Rome.

The power of Pizzuti’s arguments stems directly from her unadorned use of archival findings. Her approach affords a first hand, tangible contact with history. Paradoxically, the very bureaucracy set up to discriminate and eventually obliterate Jewish lives, through a painstaking reconstruction of the paper trail, becomes the undeniable proof of what occurred.

In Michele Sarfatti’s words: “If it’s true that for any Jew deported and murdered, there is an Italian gentile who slammed the door in his face, it is equally true that behind any survivor there is another Italian who saved him”.

One of the main merits of Vite di Carta, in its concentrated focus, is that it refrains from proposing a unifying theory on the fate of foreign Jews in Italy. Instead it invites further reflection on the intricate mass of puzzling and contradictory individual stories.

The Tenenbaums. Among the surviving Jews of San Donato, the story of the Tenenbaum family and its unlikely escape is evoked through vivid interviews. Doctor Mordko Tenenbaum, his wife Ursula and their baby daughter Katrin lived in a rented room in town. Their landlady, Franceschina Cardarelli, whose husband had emigrated to the US, was raising her three daughters alone. The Tenenbaums were well liked by the locals. In spite of work prohibition, Dr. Tenenbaum often took care of the sick in exchange for food. The family he now had to feed included his landlady and her daughters. After September 8th, 1943, the adult Tenenbaums were forced to hide in the nearby mountains, along with other internees and a group of Yugoslav partisan women. Their daughter Katrin was entrusted to Franceschina, who presented her as her own. During the cold nights, as the Allies began bombing the area, the Tenenbaums would sneak into town and take refuge in the basement of Costanza Rufo, a neighbor. There they hid inside a wall their last valuable possession: a German microscope. As food was running out and the Nazis were closing in, the Tenenbaums knew it was time to get out of the area and try to head to Rome. One morning Ursula dug up the microscope, hoping to leave town with her daughter and join her husband. In order to get through the Nazi roadblock, Costanza came up with an audacious scheme. She placed Ursula (all of 44 kg) in a large basket, covered them with manure, balanced the basket on her head and walked out of the town holding the microscope in a backpack and little Katrin’s hand, dressed as a peasant girl.

The Tenenbaums eventually managed to survive the rest of the war in Rome. The family chose to remain in Italy after the war. Their bond with the locals of San Donato remained intense, marked by frequent visits over the years. Ursula’s escape in a basket became a legendary story, a symbol of the town’s resistance to the Nazis. It acquired almost biblical overtones, passed down to the next generations. Maria Cardarelli, the landlady’s eldest daughter, a teenager at the time, emigrated to the US and settled in Boston where she still lives.

A storyteller by profession, one of the stories she recounts regularly – entitled Katia – narrates that mythical escape. Link to audio.

(1) Following the Evian conference, Brazil had joined the list of countries that would provide visas to Jews from German-controlled areas. Brazilian immigration quotas were based on nationality and not on religion with the exception of the 3,000 visas granted under the auspices of the Vatican. These were available only to Jews who had converted to Catholicism.

See also:
John Morley, Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust, 1980
Avraham Milgram, Os Judeos do Vaticano, 1994
Jeffrey H. Lesser: Welcoming the Undesirables – Brazil and the Jewish Question, 1995


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