Giovanni Palatucci






Giovanni Palatucci Between History and Hagiography

Alessandro Cassin interviews Marco Coslovich

Marco Coslovich
Marco Coslovich is an historian and educator based in Trieste. The focus of his research is historical testimony and 20th century conflict, history, and memory. He has published books on the Nazi extermination camps, totalitarianism, and the Fascist persecutions of the Jews. Marco Coslovich regularly publishes articles in Italian newspapers and magazines. He is president of the organization Historical Perspectives and director of the oral history project “The last roll call” collecting video interviews with survivors of the Fascist, Nazi, and Communist regimes. Among his best known books are: Gli anni negati, F.K.L. on the experience of deportation from a woman’s perspective, Nemici per la pelle, on divided historical memories, Come amare le viole del pensiero?-Dio non c’era a Ravensbruk, the diary of Nora Pincherle. In 2008 Coslovich published Giovanni Palatucci: a Fair Memory, the result of 15 years of research on Giovanni Palatucci, an Italian police officer who was based in Fiume between 1939 and 1944 and allegedly helped save several Jewish families during the war years. The essay reframes the story of Palatucci within the historical context of his time, and discusses the politicization of scholarship in this field. Marco Coslovich took part in an Italian television special on Giovanni Palatucci and co-produced with Ennio Guerrato the documentary Il tramonto di Spartaco on the concentration systems in Nazi Germany and Communist Yugoslavia. For a full bibliography and information on Marco Coslovich’s work visit:

Of the trends that have characterized the debate on the Shoah in Italy the one focusing on the “rescuers” or alleged rescuers has recently come back in fashion. Among these, the story of Giovanni Palatucci holds a special place. A police officer at the Questura of Fiume between 1937 and 1945, Palatucci was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Dachau, where he died. Starting in 1953 the State of Israel followed by the Catholic Church, the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities, and the Italian Police have identified Palatucci as a hero who allegedly saved thousands of Jews.

Marco Coslovich, teaches contemporary history at the University of Trieste. He has dedicated fifteen years to the study of the Palatucci case. In his book, Giovanni Palatucci, A Fair Memory, Mephite 2008, he argues that the image of Palatucci as the “savior of thousands of Jews” results from a romanticized reading of historical facts that have never been properly substantiated. Today, as political opinions on Italian history between 1945 and 1949 are igniting new public debates, the figure of Palatucci acquires new relevance.

A.C. Until July 1943 when Mussolini was deposed, Italy was Hitler’s main European ally. However, Italy never underwent the equivalent of the Nuremberg trial, or a systematic process of defascistization. The men and women of the Fascist militia, the political leadership, and the “boys of Salò,” along with their collaborators responsible for the arrest of thousands of Jews, were never held accountable. Nevertheless, sixty-four years after the end of the war, the myth of Italian benevolence remains largely based on the fact that nearly 80% of Jews in Italy survived.

M.C. As we know from Liliana Picciotto Fargion’s exhaustive research (The Book of Memory. The Jews Who Were Deported from Italy 1943-45, Mursia 1991), Italians were independently responsible for half of the arrests of Jews on Italian territory. They delivered themselves the prisoners to the Germans. These roughly 3,000 arrests demand a reassessment of the role of the police during the Italian Social Republic (RSI).

The role of Catholicism is another essential point. It cannot be denied that both ordinary Italians and clergy rescued and hid Jews. There is also the other side of the coin. An example is Giovanni Preziosi, editor in chief of Italian Life, a former priest and catholic activist, who became a fervent advocate of anti-Semitic policies within the Italian Social Republic. In November 1943, the Republic of Salò introduced new racial laws, which, as the historian Michele Sarfatti demonstrates (Gli Ebrei nell’Italia Fascista, Einaudi 2000) were harsher than those of 1938, and more ferocious than the Nuremberg Laws. In this context of great ambiguity within the Catholic world and the Italian police delivering thousands of Jews into the hands of the Nazis, a character such as Giovanni Palatucci, a police chief with a Catholic background, fit to a tee. He became the hero needed to deflect attention from a shameful chapter of Italian history. This explains how the myth of the good Catholic policeman who saves Jews defying the Nazis has been accepted without proper fact checking.

Palatucci has been referred to as “angel of the Jews,” “Italian Schindler,” “silent hero,” “precursor of ecumenism”. At a time when the Italian police seeks to rehabilitate its own role during the RSI, and the Catholic world needs to dissipate the shadows that still surround its history and the actions of Pius XII, Palatucci becomes a symbol of common purpose: yesterday he saved the Jews, and today saves the image of the Police and helps forget the role of Catholic anti-Semitism.

A.C.  Do you see in the re-evaluation of Palatucci an opportunity to redefine the political and historical context in which he operated?

M.C. I think that on the ground of verifiable historical evidence, we need to separate the activity of Palatucci and other policemen from any political manipulation that eludes the scope of historical research. It is not for me to say whether behind the rediscovery of Palatucci there is a plan to redesign our national history. However there seems to be an attempt to use him as a symbol of a new historical narrative.

A.C. The subtitle of your book “A Fair Memory” suggests that your goal is not to attack Palatucci, but to reconstruct the facts of his life through historical documents.

M.C. The need for saints and heroes is at odds with the principles of democracy. Whoever, like Palatucci, saved even one Jew from the massacre, deserves respect and admiration. But to respect a man means to shed light on his actions, without posthumous distortions. His image would benefit more from substantiating even one single action in favor of the Jews, than from the current attempt to transform him into a “saint-martyr”. Paradoxically, this ends up obscuring his real contribution.

A.C. How did you become interested in Palatucci?

M.C. In 1994, Ennio Di Francesco, a police officer and author of the book An Inspector, proposed to organize a conference on Palatucci. I became involved with the project through Vittorio Foa and his daughter, the historian Anna Foa, both convinced of Palatucci’s role as a rescuer. I obtained Palatucci’s file from the State Archives, and I found it incomplete even at that time. Today the file is no longer accessible because the Ministry of the Interior is conducting research on the Palatucci case, in connection with the process of canonization. The conference never took place, but Anna Foa encouraged me to publish the results of my research in the Rassegna Mensile di Israel (1995). It was the beginning of my fifteen-year project, which encountered many difficulties, as it inconveniently attempted to debunk the formula of the “saint-rescuer”. Mursia, my publisher, along with others, refused to take on the book. Eventually it was released by Mephite, a small publisher.

A.C. With time and resources, do you think one could find documents and information that could shed further light on Palatucci?

M.C. I believe it would be interesting to analyze the documents and testimonies that substantiate his recognition as a Righteous Among Nations in 1990 and are filed at Yad Vashem.
(Editor’s note: In preparation for this interview, CPL has obtained from Yad Vashem copies of the two testimonies that led to the recognition: one by Pina Castagnaro, who declared that, her mother told her that at Palatucci’s request, she gave hospitality to Jews in transit through Fiume. This testimony, dated 1956 and addressed to the UCII was not accepted because indirect. The other by Elena Aschkenazy, indicates that Palatucci delayed the internment of her husband of a few weeks and provided transit visas to her sister in law. It is unclear what the action of rescue is, since the Ashkenasys went the internment system like 9,000 foreign Jews in Italy and did not seem to benefit from any special assistance).

A.C. And in Italy?

M.C. In spite of the fact that there is hardly a city without a street, a square, or a school named after Palatucci, there is very little clarity on historical sources. The Police archives have no records detailing what Palatucci has allegedly done to save thousands of Jews. Years ago, after Palatucci’s beatification, the popular TV detective reality show “Chi l’ha visto?” dedicated a segment to Palatucci soliciting testimonies on his life. Besides questioning the reliability of calls from unknown mythomaniacs as sources for historical research. I question the methodology that first declared him a saint and a hero and then searches for supporting testimonies to prove its point.

A.C. On the other hand we have an abundance of folkloric anecdotes.

M.C. We do. In Avellino Palatucci is a sort of Patron Saint. He is called the “the Hero of Irpinia”. In 1998 the local diocesis released a devotional card with his photo as the “Last Questore of Italian Fiume, Servant of God”. After canonization, candidates go through four stages: servant of god, venerable, beatus, and saint. On the back of the card there is a prayer. The more people pray to him and get their prayers answered, the more it confirms Palatucci’s blessed status. Giovanni Palatucci is on his way to canonization and I have no doubt that he will be confirmed. But all of the above, with all due respect, has nothing to do with historical research.

A.C. The attitude of the Italian military and police toward the Jews is often a source of misunderstanding. This is due to the overlapping of two separate situations. On one side, starting in 1936, Italian Jews were subjected to increasingly restrictive and persecutory measures that lead to state sanctioned anti-Semitism in 1938. On the other, there was a sort of protectionism toward foreign Jews residing in Italian territories. Fiume represents a separate case. Why?

M.C. Fiume became Italian in 1924 when Mussolini, with the treaty of Rapallo, put an end to the project of an autonomous region. An agreement with the rising Kingdom of Yugoslavia defined new borders. Fiume has always had a strong independent tradition. Riccardo Zanella, who served as president of the short-lived Free State of Fiume from October 1921 until March 1922, was the personification of this spirit. Fiume became Italian and the suburb of Sussak was assigned to Yugoslavia. Therefore during the war Fiume did not fall under military control even though it was a territory of military operations. The distinction between police and military, which elsewhere is substantial, does not apply to Fiume.

A.C. This created a paradoxical situation for the Jews…

M.C. Both Fiume and Abbazia had a substantial Jewish presence. Having lived under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jews saw in the Savoia family and the Kingdom of Italy an unprecedented guaranty. In 1848 with the Albertine Statute the House of Savoy had created the conditions for Jewish emancipation. In 1938 the racial laws established that foreign Jews who had become Italian citizens before 1919 would be stripped of their citizenship. Instead of “Italians of the Jewish race” they became stateless. It was a true betrayal.

A.C. Giovanni Palatucci arrived in Fiume in November 1937 as a deputy police commissary. A few months later the racial laws and the “Jewish question” become his main assignment.

M.C. Yes. For the reasons I mentioned, starting in 1938 the Jews of Fiume were completely ostracized and became subjected to much worse conditions than those of the Jews living in other parts of the Kingdom of Italy. Palatucci was in charge of the Questura’s foreign office and had to sign permits for every movement of the Jews of Fiume who were now foreigners in their hometown. If someone, for example, wanted to go to Trieste, he or she had to receive a special permit from Palatucci’s office.

A.C. Let’s take a step back. Palatucci arrived in Fiume at age 28. What do we know about  him in those years?

M.C. He came from a patriarchal family typical of the rural South. He was brought up with strong values of austerity and religion. The family prided itself in having some members in the upper echelons of the Church.

A.C. But he decided to leave Irpinia…

M.C. He certainly did. He moved to Turin to study law. Considering that one of the most important Law Schools in Italy is in Naples, only a few miles from Palatucci’s hometown of Avellino, it seems that he made a deliberate choice to move away from the family environment.

A.C. His first job with the Police is in Genoa, but he was not particularly satisfied with it…

M.C. He did not want to remain in the Police and was hoping to move to the Ministry of Justice.

A.C. But Rodolfo Buzzi, the Questore of Genoa, punished him and requested his transfer to Fiume as “volunteer adjunct inspector”.

M.C. According to Buzzi, Palatucci’s behavior was “not appropriate for a policeman: he leads a carefree life, he is a womanizer, and he is very independent”. We know of several minor disciplinary provisions against him, due to administrative delays and failure to fulfill his duties. Records indicate that he was photographed with different women in areas of the city where a policeman should not have spent his free time. Rosai saw him as a thrill-seeker. The last drop was a candid interview in which Palatucci criticized the public administration and complained about his job as being “bureaucratic and disconnected from the life of the people”. This is all documented in his personal file through Buzzi’s reports.

A.C. But this has nothing to do with politics. Is there any sign of anti-Fascist activity?

M.C. I did not find anything political.

A.C. If Palatucci’s transfer to Fiume was a punishment, what did it mean that his position was “voluntary”?

M.C. “Volunteer adjunct inspector” is a bureaucratic term; the position was not voluntary at all.

A.C. Fiume is at the crossroad of Italy, Central Europe and the Balkans. Do you think that Palatucci appreciated its unique character?

M.C. As soon as he arrived in Fiume Palatucci asked to be transferred. Fiume was a difficult city, not very “Italian” in some respects. He lived in Fiume as an exile, making six or seven requests to be transferred to a Northern city such as Turin or Milan. His direct superior was Temistocle Testa, the prefect of Fiume, who was a zelous Fascist and a vehement anti-Semite. Testa gave Palatucci a crucial position handling foreigners, thus making him indispensable. When the war broke out Testa appointed  him to the censorship commission from which he intercepted letters from the front and elsewhere. It’s a known fact that Testa blackmailed many entrepreneurs involved with the business of war, whether for military supplies, logistics, or seized assets. Through this activity he accumulated a vast personal fortune. Testa stopped all of Palatucci’s attempts for transfer and continuously praised him as the most competent of his officers.

A.C. How were the Fascists viewed in Fiume in 1937-38?

M.C. The Fascists were never well regarded there. The independent spirit was always strong in Fiume.

A.C. And the Croatian minority?

M.C. The Croatian population was more numerous in the outskirts than in the city itself. Ethnically speaking, the city was mostly Italian. There was however, a significant Hungarian presence leftover from the old empire, as well as a German minority. The Italians were largely in favor of autonomy. Fiume was also subjected to the aggressions of the Fascist militia and remained somewhat marginal to the regime.

A.C. You argue in your book that the actions of Palatucci remained within the limits set by his superiors, the Questore and the Prefect. Since 1922, prefects (whose appointment was political) represented one of the highest government positions. Starting in 1928, well before the war, prefects could even order the internment of foreigners. In Fiume there were two Chiefs of Police, Testa, the prefect with special assignment, and Vincenzo Genovese, the questore. What was the relationship between Testa, Genovese, and Palatucci?

M.C. Genovese acted jointly with Testa and he too was a zealous anti-Semite. Palatucci worked under them and could not avoid their control.

A.C. Do we have documents of any political or ideological conflict between Palatucci and his superiors?

M.C. I did not find evidence of any conflict. In fact after 1943 Paltucci initiated some political contacts outside of the Questura. These contacts were mostly with Fascist leaders like Giovanni Rubini and Riccardo Gigante. His political references always remained within the Fascist system. Rubini and Gigante, fearing a Communist takeover and the annexation of Fiume by Yugoslavia, prepared a plan known as the Rubini Memorandum.

A.C.  You wrote that the Chief of Police Arturo Bocchini was skeptical regarding the possibility to implement the racial laws. Do you think that Palatucci had similar feelings?

M.C. I don’t think so. What we know is that the under the dictatorship, the police was the only government agency that was in contact with the public. Many policemen worked with informers and through them perceived the racial laws as difficult to implement and contrary to the feelings of the general population. We must be careful however, not to confuse this public sentiment with the reductive notion of “Italiani brava gente”.

A.C. Are you implying that the Italian police was not equipped to implement this kind of legislation?

M.C The implementation of the racial laws was extraneous to the modus operandi of the police.  There were difficulties on both levels: discriminatory and repressive. The police was aware of the gap between political directives and public opinion. Not because the Italian population was pro-Jewish, but because many perceived this kind of policy as unreasonable and misdirected.

A.C. An aspect of the problem may be that it was difficult for the police to see in the Jews an actual political danger.

M.C. Certainly. For the police dangerous were not the Jews but the anarchists, the communists, and the socialists. The police was trained to identify subversive groups or individuals who organized a clandestine network of resistance, not religious groups or minorities.

A.C. But weren’t the policemen the ones in charge of enforcing the racial laws?

M.C. The Police was not used to the idea that a legal action can follow a racial or biological concept. Conducting investigations by last name, by birth, or genetic classification did not belong to their professional mindset. This missing link was replaced by administrative measures and special offices were set up only to oversee the application of the laws. Bureaucracy compensates for what I see as a cognitive deficit. The minute casework produced by the Police is a clear sign of this mechanism. In Fiume, for instance, Testa made Palatucci conduct additional anagraphic inquiries on the Jewish community precisely because of the need to fill the logical gap between the mindset of the Police and the racial system. Palatucci could not stop this mechanism and in fact becomes its interpreter.

A.C. What kind of discretion did Palatucci have in the application of the law and did that change after 1943?

M.C. Palatucci reported directly to Testa who always praised his work. It is difficult to speak of discretion. If he had any ability to act independently and help Jews up to 1943, he lost it completely after September 8th, 1943 when Badoglio signed the armistice with the allies and the Germans turned into occupiers.

A.C. Those who regard Palatucci as a rescuer of Jews, insist on the fact that he sent Jews from Fiume to Campagna under the protection of his uncle Giuseppe Maria Palatucci Bishop of that city.

M.C. To interpret the internment into the Fascist camps as a form of rescue is historically absurd. After 1940, when Palatucci sent some Jews to Campagna, he did so following the disposition of the Ministry of the Interior. The camp of Campagna was established by the Fascist Regime. Out of the fifty camps set up for stateless individuals (Slovenian, Croatian, etc.) more or less ten were established for the Jews. Campagna, hometown of Palatucci is one of these. I must ask: “For how long will we continue to think that internment camps were a system to save Jews?  The South of Italy was liberated in the summer of 1943 while the North in 1945. For this reason many Jews survived in the Southern internment camps. This cannot be considered a merit of Fascism, the Police, or Palatucci.

A.C. Do we know how many Jews were sent from Fiume to Campagna?

M.C. Not exactly, but when the Allies liberated the camp of Campagna in September of 1943, out of 150 Jews, 20 or 30 plausibly had arrived there from Fiume, Abbazia and Sussak. As far as Bishop Palatucci is concerned, there are many questions surrounding his actions. On May 2nd, 1942 he sent a letter to Carmine Senise, Chief of Police in Rome, in which he requested the removal of the Jews from Campagna and let him use the camp for the activities of the Fascist Youth. He received funds from the Vatican to support conversions. The context in which Bishop Palatucci began to promote the idea of the alleged rescues carried out by his nephew is also controversial. After the war, Palatucci’s family made an application for public subsidy which was rejected due to an open financial inquiry concerning Giovanni Palatucci activity in Fiume. It is at this point that Bishop Palatucci began a campaign that lead to the first recognition in Israel in 1953.

A.C. What was the role of the Questura of Fiume vis-à-vis the “Jewish question”?

M.C. The Questura of Fiume played a crucial role with respect to the Jewish communities of Fiume and Abbazia that after 1938 came under its control. Moreover it oversaw the border where Jews from Croatia and Yugoslavia fleeing the persecution of the Ustashi tried to cross with the help of Delasem (the Italian Jewish Relief Agency).

A.C. What changes when Italy enters the war? Delasem complained that Testa rejected Jews at the border. Testa praised Palatucci…

M.C. The Questura played an important role because it oversaw one of the few points of transit for Eastern European Jews. The records indicate that their policies were strict. In 1941 Carlo Morpurgo, secretary of the Jewish Community of Trieste, met with Vincenzo Genovese to intercede for the Croatian Jews on behalf of Delasem and the Jewish Community of Trieste. The report he wrote afterwards spoke clearly of how the Italian authorities methodically rejected Jews who arrived at the Croatian border and left them in the hands of the Ustashi. Moreover he remarked on the spite with which Genovese treated him. In this phase the Questura worsened a situation that was already extremely difficult. The hypothesis that under theses conditions Palatucci could have saved thousands of Jews is not reflected in the documents available to historians. And if Morpurgo would have had that kind of inside support, he would not have organized the mission to Genovese.

A.C. It seems that at this point Palatucci was completely dependent on his superiors.

M.C. I believe he was. Especially after 1943, when he became acting Questore, he was completely subjected to higher orders. With the arrival of the Germans he was forced to consign all weapons, he is left without telephone, cars, and the few policemen under his command did not receive their salary. He remained in charge of an office that had neither means nor autonomy. For this reason he went to the Ministry of the Interior of the Republic of Salò in Maderno, and requested that at least salaries be paid.

A.C. In the Operationzone Adriatisches Kustenland all military and political powers belonged to the Nazis. What was the situation of Palatucci?

M.C. Palatucci was the head of an office that had been completely deprived of its powers and functions. The relations with the RSI were mainly administrative. The Fascist Territorial Militia functioned under German control. At the border of the Litorale Adriatico with Mussolini’s Italy, there were checkpoints and a special permit was required to cross it. Permits are valid for one week only. Palatucci had to save himself and what was left of his men. It is difficult to imagine how he could have saved thousands of Jews.

A.C. Do you think that until the war started Palatucci might have perceived himself as a rescuer of the Jews?

M.C. As I state in my book, there are several testimonies of Palatucci’s kindness toward the Jewish community, which was profoundly integrated in the city. Palatucci understood the incongruence of treating the Jews as foreigners. The Jews were more rooted in Fiume than anyone else and it was unpleasant to subject them to controls and restrictions. Palatucci was a Southern gentleman and he behaved as such. However, there is no evidence that this kindness translated into actions, let alone into a rescue system of the magnitude that some attribute to him.

A.C. Did Palatucci have contacts with the Yugoslavian Liberation Army?

M.C. Not at all. And I believe that no massive rescue would have been possible without the help of the Yugoslavian Liberation Army, which was the only entity in that territory that could have helped. But under the Germans, Palatucci had neither the autonomy, nor the necessary infrastructure.
In addition he established contacts with Gigante and Rubini who were trying to oppose the Yugoslavian resistance and their communist inspiration.

A.C. Until Italy entered the war, the Fascist regime was one of the few in Europe to let in Jews who had fled other countries. Why?

M.C. Klaus Voight (Il rifugio precario, Gli Esuli in Italia dal 1933 al 1945.  Firenze, La Nuova Italia 1993) studied this topic in great depth. From his study it emerges that the regime wanted to get rid of the Jews coming from Austria after the Anschluss and in general from all the countries where anti-Semitic persecution were already in full action. The Fascist Regime had an agreement with the British who wanted to limit the immigration to Palestine from Eastern Europe. The main Italian ports operated under this agreement. However, smaller ports like Fiume were not subjected to the same scrutiny. The transit of migrants through Fiume became a considerable business opportunity. Italian ship-owners sold old ships to Greek companies that embarked refugees with visas to unlikely countries like China. In the best cases they clandestinely landed them in Palestine. More often than not the refugees were forced to travel in unsafe conditions and subjected to extortion. There was also a conspicuous business revolving around the release of more or less temporary visas of which Fiume was one of the main centers. The fact that the Regime allowed Jews to enter Italy must be read against this economic background.

A.C. Do you feel that this ambiguity was already within the way the agreement was set up?

M.C. I believe so. The government turned a blind eye on the secondary ports where Jews on the run were embarked on boats similar to those that arrive today from Albania and North Africa. Zionist groups were willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money to rent wrecked ships from unscrupulous ship-owners.

A.C. Between 1938 and 1940 four ships of clandestine Jewish emigrants left Fiume. Did Palatucci have a role in those episodes?

M.C. One of these episodes, that of the Greek boat Hagia Zoni has been used as one of the main proofs of Palatucci’s alleged activity as a rescuer. The documents I analyzed indicate that Palatucci followed the orders of the Ministry of the Interior. The Regime wanted to avoid the presence of Jews on Italian territory. Any kind of hospitality Italy might have offered to groups of refugees, would have clashed with the Racial Laws. At the same time the government did not want to limit the business of the ship-owners and saw in these ambiguous arrangements an opportunity to show Italy’s support in the desemitization of Germany.

A.C. Are you saying that Palatucci cannot be considered independently responsible for the rescue of the Hagia Zoni that left Fiume in 1939 with 460 passengers?

M.C. In 1995 the Italian daily La Repubblica  published an article entitled “Story of the Italian Schindler”. The article stated that “in March 1939 Palatucci saved from the Gestapo 800 German Jews who had fled Nazi Germany ”. The documents I reference in my book tell a different story.
Palatucci oversaw the departure of the Hagia Zoni following the orders of the Ministry of the Interior and of Temistocle Testa who expressed concern that the presence of refugees in Fiume might have compromised tourism. It is symptomatic of the intention of the article that the number of refuges is arbitrarily doubled and that a simply verifiable data such as the fact that there was no Gestapo in Fiume in 1939 is accepted without fact checking.

A.C. How do you reconcile the documents in which Testa and Genovese praise Palatuci for his thorough work and the narrative of Palatucci the rescuer?

M.C. The work of Palatucci in Fiume under the Regime, thus before 1943, is continuously praised by his superiors. We have no testimonies that I am aware of indicating that Palatucci was involved with the rescue of Jews. However we have documents from Jewish relief organizations and Zionist groups attempting to organize the escape of Jewish groups to Palestine, that document the help of other Italian functionaries, but not Palatucci. We have plenty of records that Testa and Genovese, both virulent anti-Semites who enforced all anti-Jewish measures with a vengeance, continued to praise Palatucci’s work to the very end.

A.C. After the fall of Mussolini, the territorial Militia (the police of the RSI stationed on the Litorale Adriatico) conducted an inquiry on Palatucci, with ambiguous findings…

M.C. The report of the Militia is full of petty accusations: undue distribution of cigarettes, irregularities in the management of meals and salaries, a non transparent system of bonuses, appropriation of a radio set seized from a Jewish woman. I think we must read this report in the context in which was produced. The Militia saw in Palatucci a representative of the former ally that had betrayed Germany: the Royal army. The Militia of the RSI attempted to gain favor with the Germans, thus displaying an excess of zeal in shedding a negative light on Palatucci. For this reason I would not give a lot of credit to this report.

A.C. And then the Nazis arrived….

M.C. Palatucci became acting Questore upon the arrival of the Germans. At this point he had no place to go. He couldn’t even go home: on September 14, 1943 Campagna was liberated by the allies. This is another instance in which a situation that was imposed by circumstance –it was impossible to leave Fiume– has been re-written as an act of heroism of a man who does not want to leave his post. We know that Palatucci had been trying to leave Fiume all along. Now, with Italy split in two, the way home was cut off by the advancing frontline.

A.C. Do you think that he might have helped some Jews during this time?

M.C. We have several testimonies that he was kind and personable. There are indications that he might have had an emotional relationship with a Jewish woman. So it is possible that he may have helped some individual Jews he knew. The situation he found himself in made it an objective impossibility to act on the scale later attributed to him – with no documentary evidence – of thousands of Jews saved. The only possible efficient partner was the Yugoslavian Liberation Movement that had control of the territory. There is no evidence however that he sought out their help. The Nazi presence in the urban areas was all pervasive and well organized. Trieste had a fully functioning death camp in San Sabba. The head of the SS in the Litorale Adriatico was the Gruppenfuhrer Odilo Globocnik, the butcher who had lead the Aktion Reinhardt  in the camps of Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec. He had been responsible for the massacres of Jews in Poland before Auschwitz became operative. What could have Palatucci done, a policeman without even a working phone, against someone like Globocnick?

A.C. Palatucci was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Dachau. Could this be a consequence of possible actions in favor of the Jews?

M.C. I doubt it. According to the arrest warrant, Palatucci was accused of “intelligence with the enemy”. The warrant is signed by Herbert Kappler, liaison officer between the German and Italian police, who was responsible for the Ardeatine massacre and the roundup of the Jews of Rome. Had Kappler known of any actions of Palatucci’s in favor of the Jews, he would have had no reason to conceal it, on the contrary. The German report against Palatucci stated that he had attempted to send a document concerning the Rubini Memorandum to the Allies in Switzerland. The Germans also suspected that Palatucci was involved with the financial dealings of the RSI police. At the time of the arrest, 140,000 Italian lira (roughly equivalent of today’s $8,500) was missing from the Questura funds. The corruption in the RSI police was wide spread. For example, Tamburlini, the RSI Chief of Police, was tried by the Germans for a vast corruption scheme.  This was not an isolated case. Even if we allow for the possibility that Palatucci had helped some Jews, the reason for his arrest was a different one. I am inclined to view Palatucci’s arrest connected to  his attempt to establish contact with the Allies and against this background of alleged corruption.

M.C. Can we give a political judgment of Palatucci?

M.C. In all the years I conducted research on Palatucci, I have not encountered evidence that he was involved with politics and anti-Fascist movements. He was raised and formed by the Fascist Regime. He made a career within the State Police and always remained attached to an image of Italy forged by Mussolini. Except for the brief period spent at the University of Turin, a city of liberal and anti-Fascist tradition, he never had contacts with the world of political dissent. He was a policeman who did his job.

A.C. In rescaling the image of Palatucci, you put into perspective his unique posthumous status, particularly with respect to the many other obscure functionaries who endeavored to protect and save Jews.

M.C. There were Italian policemen who helped Jews risking their own lives. The Prefect of Trieste, Francesco Del Cornò produced documents that helped Jews escape to Switzerland for as long as it was possible to do so. Calogero Pisciotta of the Questura of Trieste, who did the same, was deported to Dachau. Certainly there were men within the system whose actions saved a number of individuals. But the reality of the situation was that each person was able to save a handful of people. The numbers in Palatucci’s story have grown exponentially since 1950 into an inflationary delirium.

A.C. Why then should we remember Palatucci?

M.C. If Palatucci saved even one Jew, it is important to remember him. Unfortunately, the emphasis and rhetoric that pervade his posterity make his historical truth almost impenetrable. I have entitled my book “A Fair Memory,” in an attempt to remember the actions that are documented and what he really did. After so many years of research I wonder whether this is still possible. The cloud of rhetoric, cheap patriotism, superstition and bad conscience that envelops Palatucci is such, that it might be impossible to reconstruct a profile of the real man. I do not deny that he might have had some worthy initiatives and actions toward individual Jews. Unfortunately, at this point, the historian can no longer demonstrate it. The grotesque celebratory machine built in his name cannot be sustained by the most elementary historical inquiry. Fewer documents are now available respective to when I first started and the gap between memory and history may prove insurmountable.

A.C. Do you think that the figure of Palatucci may be a catalyst for a Jewish-Catholic dialogue?

M.C. Dialogue is always good, but I don’t see how a dialogue can be based on half-truths and the manipulation of history.

A.C. Could you reconstruct the pathway that has led to the current image of Palatucci?

M.C. The route to the recognition of Palatucci is meaningful. In 1953  a street is named after him in Ramat Gan, Israel. In 1955 the Jewish National Fund names a forest after Palatucci and immediately afterward the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities awards him a gold medal.
These recognitions follow a state investigation of Palatucci as collaborator of the RSI. However, the inquiry into Palatucci remained open even after the amnesty of 1946 (pointing to some damning evidence), and well after 1947, when the commission in charge of investigating former RSI officials had concluded its activity. In the early 1950s Palatucci’s father requested financial compensation for the death of his son in Dachau and was rejected by the state Police. At issue were still the missing funds of the Questura of Fiume.

A.C. If this was the situation in Italy, why did Israel award the first recognition?

M.C. I have not seen the files in Israel and can only speak hypothetically.
I think Israel, a new country at the time, needed international recognition and to establish positive international ties. In those years Israel began to acknowledge individuals who had helped Jews throughout Western European countries. Palatucci seemed to fit the mold.

A.C. And in 1990?

M.C. In 1990 Israel declared him Righteous Among the Nations. At the same time the Church established a beatification committee.

A.C. But this isn’t this something that concerns only the Church?

M.C. I would venture to say that the intentions of the Church and the Police on one hand, and of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities on the other, converge. Church and State find a dialogue through what Palatucci represents and the opportunity he offers to re-write and edulcorate the history of the persecutions of the Jews in Italy.

A.C. What was happening in Italy in those years, that could explain this commonality of interests?

M.C. In 1995 Palatucci was awarded the Medal of the Italian Police, which, after the reservations of the 1950s, accepted him as a hero. We must also consider that this was happening during the papacy of John Paul II that became known as a “factory of saints”. More canonizations were made under Wojtyla than the period between the Council of Trent  (1545 -1563) and the day he was elected Pope.

A.C. Are there other canonizations that you find controversial?

M.C. Cardinal Alojzije Viktor Stepinac, Archibishop of Zagreb since 1937, was canonized in 1998. He was a well-known anti-Semite during the Regime of the Ustashi. The policy of John Paul II in regards to saint making is one of sanitizing the past and historical revisionism.
In this sense State and Church move in concert, in the pursuit of common political and cultural goals. Those are the years when Wojtyla visited the synagogue of Rome. In this context, a Catholic policeman who saved Jews became highly desirable.

A.C. What did the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities sought to obtain through the recognition of Palatucci?

M.C. A better dialogue with the Catholic world, which is obviously desirable. It also provided a sensitive element in the debate on the papacy of Pius XII, whose silence during the persecution of the Jews carried considerable weight at the international level. A committee that included several rabbis was preparing the publication of the archives of Pius XII.

A.C. Several books on Palatucci were published before yours?  How do you regard them?

M.C. In my view they are works without historical merit, which do not honor the name of Palatucci. They are sloppy hagiographic reconstructions. Consider the one by Michele Bianco. The title says it all: A Holocaust in the Shoah. The Righteous Questore by the Jesuit Piersandro Vanzan attempts to create an ideological link going from Palatucci directly to Pope Pius XII. Palatucci becomes in fact a testimonial to the Pope’s commitment to protect the Jews. The Catholic apologists, understandably, do their job. Unfortunately historians are not doing theirs. A national community that organizes public memory in this manner, amid the silence of historians, is a grave matter.

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