The state of research: conversation with Annalisa Capristo

How would you describe the current state of research on the Racial Laws in Italy?


There is today an extensive body of literature analyzing the development of the Italian historiography on the Fascist persecution of the Jews. A good summary and critical bibliography of its various trends and phases can be found in Guri Schwarz 2005 and Gabriele Rigano 2010. Indeed, this historiographical body is itself part of the history of persecution and poses important questions both in terms of critical scholarship and public conscience.

Until 1988, for reasons linked to the politics of Italy between the end of World War II and the Cold War, the historical narrative is characterized by the denial of Fascist anti-Semitism and racism before the Racial Laws, a general self-absolutory reconstruction of the period, and the insistence on the “myth of the good Italian”. Jews and non-Jews alike have accepted this sanitized version of the past that allows a non-controversial integration of the Fascist period into the post-war Italian society.

For decades, historians and the general public across the borders have accepted notions that have no correspondence in historical reality: that anti-Semitism did not exist in Italy before 1938, that the anti-Jewish policies were a consequence of the alliance with Germany, that the racist campaign did not encounter consensus, and that the Racial Laws were never seriously applied.

The 1961 publication of Renzo De Felice’s Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo was the first contribution to the study of the Fascist persecution and reflects the atmosphere of denial of that period  (see: Sarfatti 2004). De Felice’s work, albeit its many merits, has burdened the development of research and conferred scholarly status to the myth of the good Italian. Moreover, instead of being considered the first step toward a history of the persecution in Fascist Italy, the book immediately became the official version of facts and remained such for thirty years to follow.

Only in 1988, with the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Racial Laws, we begin to see a tangible historiographical turn.

We owe primarily to Michele Sarfatti (Sarfatti 1988, 1994 e 2007) and to the work of CDEC ( a comprehensive reconsideration of the interpretative categories of the Shoah in Italy.

Sarfatti has thoroughly documented the harshness of the Fascist persecution of the Jews and the intrinsic racism of the regime. His studies and those of Liliana Picciotto (Picciotto 2002) clearly demonstrate the responsibility of Fascism in the deportation and extermination of Italian Jews during the years of the Italian Social Republic. In Italy and abroad, this interpretative revision has met some opposition. Even though the historiographical landscape is still somewhat divided, Sarfatti’s views are today widely accepted and have generated an important new trend of studies.

Younger historians became aware of the significant social impact of the persecution of Italian Jews, and began to focus on its consequences in the professional, academic, and cultural worlds. It is in this context that the emigration of Italian Jewish intellectuals, and the ways in which it intersects with the exile of anti-Fascists and political dissenters became a full-fledged field of study. Following this wave, new research documented the story of foreign Jews who had found refuge in Italy (see: Voigt 1993-1996). Several general and monographic studies begin to offer access to interviews and testimonies of Italian Jews who fled to different destinations (Smolenski-Vigevani-Jarach 1998).

What are the main references and sources that are available to scholars who approach the study of the 1938 emigration of Italian Jews for the first time?

As of today there is no comprehensive study of the emigration of Italian Jews. On this topic too, the year 1988 represents a seminal moment, with the publication of Mario Toscano’s essay L’emigrazione ebraica italiana dopo il 1938. Recent literature addresses the expulsion of Jewish academics and their difficult reintegration after the war (Ventura 1997, Finzi 2003, Gagliani 2004 and Pelini-Pavan 2009, Lincei 1990, Capristo 2002), and the emigration toward such countries as Great Britain, Argentina, Australia, and Palestine (Sponza 2000, Montagnana 1987, Smolenski-Vigevani-Jarach 1998, Broggini 1998,  Marzano 2003). Available are also several biographies and autobiographies of intellectuals who left Italy between 1938 and 1943, and studies on the Jewish participation in the anti-Fascist activities outside of Italy. In addition to this, a handful of general volumes on Italian emigration now contain references to the “racial exiles” (Audenino-Bechelloni 2009; Tirabassi-Audenino 2008).

Among the Jews who fled Italy, maybe about 1,800 reached the United States. For a long time no systematic information was available on this group. Early references to stories of Italian Jewish exiles in the US can be found in Davie 1947, Prezzolini 1950, Capon Fermi 1968, and Zevi 1984 as well as in Mario Toscano’s contribution. In the past decade, however, important studies have begun to document this chapter of history (Tosiello 2000; Capristo 2006; Gissi 2008, Camurri 2009, 2010) and several biographies and memoirs have been published and/or made informally available to scholars. With a growing interdisciplinary body of archival documents and testimonies, this important moment of the Italian immigration in the US begins to emerge as a story.

As far as archival sources, the research is following several paths: in Italy, where we are working on institutional and personal archives (Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche, Archivio centrale dello Stato, archives of universities, academies, hospitals, conservatories, etc.) a map of the available documents is slowly taking shape. Parallel to this some scholars are mining archives in the countries of destination. For instance the records of aid organizations, universities, community centers, as well as personal papers such as those of Max Ascoli, Anna Foa Yona, Giorgio Cavaglieri, Paolo Milano, Danielle Luzzatto, and Peter Treves, only to mention a few, are slowly appearing on the radar screen of researchers. Moreover, independent writers like Gianna Pontecorboli have begun to collect precious oral testimonies from the exiles of 1938, their children, and grandchildren.

Several Italian universities have established projects documenting the ways in which the Racial Laws affected their institutional life. How widespread are these projects and are there collections of particular interest?

In the past years the effects of the Racial Laws on the Italian Universities have been widely studied (a critical bibliography can be found in Dell’Era 2004; and more recent case studies including Capristo 2007, Pelini-Pavan 2009, Galimi-Procacci 2009). We can say that we now have a fairly complete picture of the  expulsions. This recollection does not include independent scholars, visiting professors, “lettori,” etc. many of whom still remain forgotten.

Even though most major universities in Italy have made available their records on the Racial Laws, new information continues to surface from local campuses and the State Archives. Not long ago, for example, on the occasion of an exhibition on the application of the Racial Laws at the University of Turin, previously unknown documents were unburied that demonstrate the capillary degree to which the laws were implemented.

Can you mention some of the main research projects in the field? 

In my view the most important project concerns the complete mapping of the world of Italian Jewish exiles, with particular attention to the Americas. This study will shed light on other important topics, including the reaction of the international intellectual circles to the Racial Laws, and the actual rescue operations that were made available to Jewish Italians on the run.

Another important project coordinated by Raffaella Simili at the University of Bologna concerns the women scientists who lost their position following the Racial Laws and in many cases were forced to emigrate.  A book surveying the project will be coming out this month.

Is there research conducted in the US on the Italian Jewish exiles? 

It seems to me that the main interest of scholars in the US is still the political emigration, the anti-Fascist exiles like Gaetano Salvemini. Naturally this study is closely intertwined with that of the racial emigration but the links are still be fully explored. The study on Max Ascoli by Rosario Tosiello is a step in this direction. Another example is the essay of Charles Killinger.

Can you identify one endeavor that you consider crucial to consolidate the work that has been done so far?

It would be very important to develop a system of inter-institutional finding aids including archival sources, current research projects, critical bibliographies, and cross-references. The finding aids can be updated through the contribution of scholars and other practitioners conducting research on a personal or institutional level. This resource should also function as a platform to foster exchange and cooperative projects.

Annalisa Capristo received her degree in Philosophy from the University of Rome “La Sapienza” and her specialization in Library and Information Science from the Scuola Vaticana di Biblioteconomia. Her fellowships include the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Storici di Napoli, the Biblioteca Vaticana, and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei. She is a librarian at the Centro Studi Americani in Rome. Dr. Capristo’s extensive research on the anti-Semitic and racist policies of Fascism resulted in the seminal study L’esclusione degli ebrei dalle accademie italiane (Zamorani, 2002), and in many important  case-studies.


Patrizia Audenino e Antonio Bechelloni, L’esilio politico fra Otto e Novecento, in Storia d’Italia. Annali 24, Migrazioni Torino, Einaudi, 2009, pp. 343-369.

Renata Broggini, La frontiera della speranza. Gli ebrei dall’Italia verso la Svizzera, 1943-1945, Milano, Mondadori, 1998

Renato Camurri, Idee in movimento. L’esilio degli intellettuali italiani negli Stati Uniti (1930-1945),  in «Memoria e Ricerca» 31, maggio-agosto 2009, pp. 43-62.

Renato Camurri, Un intellettuale cosmpolita. Introduzione a Franco Modigliani, L’Italia vista dall’America: Battaglie e riflessioni di un esule. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2010, pp. IX-XCV.

Laura Fermi, Illustrious Immigrants. The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-1941, Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Annalisa Capristo, L’espulsione degli ebrei dalle accademie italiane, Torino, Zamorani, 2002.

Annalisa Capristo, Arnaldo Momigliano e il mancato asilo negli USA (1938-1941). ‘I always hope that something will be found in America’, in «Quaderni di Storia» 62, gennaio-giugno 2006, pp. 5-55.

Annalisa Capristo, Il decreto legge del 5 settembre 1938 e le altre norme antiebraiche nelle scuole, nelle università e nelle accademie, in «Rassegna mensile di Israel» 73, n. 2 (maggio-agosto 2007), pp. 131-167.

Davie 1947

Maurice R. Davie, Refugees in America. Report of the Committee for the Study of Recent Immigration from Europe, New York and London, Harper & Brothers, 1947.

Renzo De Felice, Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo, Torino, Einaudi, 1961 (Nuova ed. ampliata, 1993; ed. USA: 2001)

Dell’Era 2004

Tommaso Dell’Era, La storiografia sull’università italiana e la persecuzione antiebraica, «Qualestoria», 32, 2004, n. 2, pp. 117-129.

Finzi 2003

Roberto Finzi, L’università italiana e le leggi antiebraiche, 2. ed. riv. e ampliata, Roma, Editori Riuniti, 2003.

Daniela Gagliani, Il difficile rientro. Il ritorno dei docenti ebrei nell’università del dopoguerra, a cura di Dianella Gagliani, Bologna, Clueb, 2004.

Galimi-Procacci, «Per la difesa della razza». L’applicazione delle leggi antiebraiche nelle università italiane, a cura di Valeria Galimi e Giovanna Procacci, Milano, Unicopli, 2009.

Alessandra Gissi, L’emigrazione dei “maestri”. Gli scienziati italiani negli Stati Uniti tra le due guerre, in Donne e uomini migranti. Storie e geografie tra breve e lunga distanza, a cura di A. Arru, D.L. Caglioti, F. Ramella, Roma, Donzelli, 2008, pp. 145-161.

Bruno Groppo, L’emigrazione ebraica in Argentina 1938-1943, in «Azzurra», 8 (2000), n. 19-21, pp. 5-55.

Killinger 2005

Charles Killinger, Fighting Fascism from the Valley: Italian Intellectuals in the United States, in Peter I. Rose (ed.), The Dispossessed: Anatomy of Exile, Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005, pp. 133-156.

Lincei, Conseguenze culturali delle leggi razziali in Italia, Roma, Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1990.

Marzano 2003

Arturo Marzano, Una terra per rinascere. Gli ebrei italiani e l’emigrazione in Palestina prima della guerra (1920-1940), Genova, Marietti, 2003.

Marcello Montagnana, I rifugiati ebrei italiani in Australia e il movimento antifascista «Italia libera» (1942-1946), in «Notiziario dell’Istituto storico della Resistenza in Cuneo e provincia», n. 31, giugno 1987, pp. 5-114.

Francesca Pelini e Ilaria Pavan, La doppia epurazione. L’Università di Pisa e le leggi razziali tra guerra e dopoguerra, Bologna, Il Mulino, 2009.

Liliana Picciotto, Il libro della memoria. Gli ebrei deportati dall’Italia, 1943-1945, [nuova ed.], Milano, Mursia, 2002.

Prezzolini 1950

Giuseppe Prezzolini, America in pantofole, Firenze, Vallecchi, 1950.

Gabriele Rigano, Storia, memoria e bibliografia delle leggi razziste in Italia, in Leggi del 1938
e cultura del razzismo. Storia, memoria, rimozione, a cura di Marina Beer, Anna Foa, Isabella Iannuzzi, Roma, Viella 2010, pp. 187-209.

MIchele Sarfatti (ed.), 1938: le leggi contro gli ebrei,  numero speciale della «Rassegna mensile di Israel», 54, 1988, n. 1-2. 1994

Michele Sarfatti, Mussolini contro gli ebrei. Cronaca dell’elaborazione delle leggi del 1938, Torino, Zamorani 1994.

Michele Sarfatti, La Storia della persecuzione di Renzo De Felice. Contesto, dimensione cronologica e fonti, in «Qualestoria» 2004/2, pp. 11-27.

Michele Sarfatti, Gli ebrei nell’Italia fascista. Vicende, identità, persecuzione, Nuova ed., Torino, Einaudi 2007 (1. ed. 2000; ed. USA: 2006).

Guri Schwarz, Interpreting fascist anti-Semitism. Jewish memories and the scholarly debate in Italy, from Liberation to the present, in Beyond camps and forced labour. Current international research on survivors of Nazi persecution. Proceedings of the first international multidisciplinary conference at the Imperial War Museum, London, 29-31 January 2003, edited by Johannes-Dieter Steinert Inge Weber-Newth, Osnabrück, Secolo, 2005, pp. 398-411 dei papers su CD-ROM

Simili, Raffaella, Sotto falso nome. Scienziate italiane ebree (1938-1945), Bologna, Pendragon, 2010

Smolenski-Vigevani-Jarach 1998

Eleonora Maria Smolenski-Vera Vigevani-Jarach, Tante voci, una storia. Italiani ebrei in Argentina, 1938-1948, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1998.

Sponza 2000

Lucio Sponza, Jewish refugees from fascist Italy to Britain, in The Jews of Italy. Memory and identity, edited by B.D. Cooperman and B. Garvin, Bethesda, University Press of Maryland, 2000, pp. 425-442.

Maddalena Tirabassi e Patrizia Audenino, Migrazioni italiane. Storia e storie dall’Ancien Régime a oggi, Milano, Bruno Mondadori, 2008.

Toscano  1988 [2003]

Mario Toscano, L’emigrazione ebraica italiana dopo il 1938, ora in M. Toscano, Ebraismo e antisemitismo in Italia. Dal 1848 alla guerra dei sei giorni, Milano, F. Angeli, 2003, pp. 185-207.

Rosario J. Tosiello, Max Ascoli. A Lifetime of Rockefeller Connections, in “The Unacceptables”. American Foundations and Refugee Scholars between the Two World Wars and After, a cura di Giuliana Gemelli, Bruxelles, P. Lang, 2000, pp. 122-129.

Gabriele Turi, Ruolo e destino degli intellettuali nella politica razziale del fascismo, ora in G. Turi, Lo Stato educatore. Politica e intellettuali nell’Italia fascista, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 2002, pp. 121-146.
Angelo Ventura, La persecuzione fascista contro gli ebrei nell’Università italiana, in «Rivista storica italiana» 109 (1997), n. 1, pp. 121-197.

Voigt 1993-1996

Klaus Voigt, Il rifugio precario. Gli esuli in Italia dal 1933 al 1945, Scandicci (FI), La Nuova Italia, 1993-1996 (ed. or.: Zuflucht auf Widerruf.  Exil in Italien 1933-1945. Stuttgart, Klett-Cotta, 1989-1993).

Tullia Zevi, L’emigrazione razziale, in L’antifascismo italiano negli Stati Uniti durante la Seconda guerra mondiale, a cura di Antonio Varsori, Roma, Archivio Trimestrale, 1984, pp. 75-82.

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