Starting in the last months of World War II, surviving family members of Jews who had been deported to extermination camps prompted the first attempts to locate their loved ones and gather information about their journeys and fates. Soon after, in 1945, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities created the Comitato Ricerche Deportati Ebrei, CRDE, (Research Committee on Jewish Deportees). Adolfo Massimo Vitale, a colonel of the Italian army dismissed during the Racial Laws who had long lived abroad, led the Committee. It was Vitale who compiled the first list of the Italian deportees.
In 1955 the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation opened in Venice with the mission to reconstruct Jewish life and preserve the remnants of its past. Vitale’s list became indispensable in tracing the destiny of the Italian deportees and in writing the history of the Shoah in Italy. Without Vitale’s early work, much of would have been lost forever. Following this first phase, the research was advanced under three of CDEC’s directors, Roberto Bassi, Guido Valabrega and Eloisa Ravenna. During this time CDEC moved its headquarters from Venice to Milan, where records concerning the deportees were permanently transferred.
In 1972, CDEC’s staff decided to cross-reference Vitale’s list in order to follow proper historiographical standards. They initiated new research aimed at collecting every available document in any relevant archive inside and outside of Italy. This phase was entrusted to Giuliana Donati, who was involved with the project until 1974.
Under Donati’s guidance, CDEC acquired a large archive of handwritten documents, containing individual name cards for each victim. The available biographical data for each name was thoroughly checked and new data was added. In 1979, CDEC considered publishing the complete list of all Jews who died in Italy or were deported from Italy in the 1943-1945 period. This project was directed by Liliana Picciotto.
In the meantime, new documents come to light: the census of 51.000 individuals the fascist government recorded as Jewish in 1938, the registry of Italian jails with the names of Jews who were arrested, the records collected by prosecutors during the trials of Nazi war criminals operating in Italy. Vitale’s original list was vastly expanded through these new documents. In 1986, CDEC received its first computer, a rarity at the time, which transformed research capabilities: the data collected up to that point was merged into an innovative database. In 1991 Liliana Picciotto published Il Libro della Memoria. Gli ebrei deportati dall’Italia (1943 – 1945), (The Book of Remembrance. Jews deported from Italy 1943 – 1945, Mursia, 1991).
Three subsequent editions came out as the research continued to expand. In 2013 the database– which in addition to Jews deported from the Italian peninsula included those from Italian controlled Aegean Islands– was finally made available online. CDEC also made available the database of foreign Jews interned in Italy, a work-in-progress curated by Anna Pizzuti and the late Francesca Cappella at the Scuola Normale di Pisa.
CDEC is preparing to publish the results of a vast research project regarding survival strategies of Jews in Italy, based on the analysis of over 8,000 personal stories. This will be the first comprehensive historical analysis conducted nation-wide on survival and rescue, cross-referencing testimonies, documents and other historiographical records.