Italians took everything from Ursula Korn Selig’s family during World War II, including a hotel the family owned on the Riviera and the money they carried after fleeing Germany’s persecution of Jews in 1938.
Italians also saved her family from almost certain death in Nazi concentration camps, Mrs. Selig said, hiding them in a succession of secret shelters in Italy between 1938 and 1944, often at the risk of the Italians’ own lives.
The two faces Italy displayed toward Jewish citizens and refugees just before and during World War II have become the focus of recent historical research that both undermines that country’s wartime image as a nation of benign captors, and rekindles memories of heroic Italian individuals.
Mrs. Selig, 85, who has lived in Manhattan since 1950, offered her double-edged testimony after a panel discussion on the new scholarship at theMuseum of Jewish Heritage, in Battery Park City, on Wednesday evening — days before Jews commemorate Kristallnacht, the night of deadly attacks by German Nazis in November 1938.
The new findings contradict the conventional belief that Italians began to enforce anti-Semitic laws only after German troops occupied the country in 1943, and then reluctantly. In a spate of studies, many of them based on a little-publicized Italian government report commissioned in 1999, researchers have uncovered a vast wartime record detailing a systematic disenfranchisement of Italy’s Jews, beginning in the summer of 1938, shortly before the Kristallnacht attacks in November.
That year, Mussolini’s Fascist government forbade Jewish children to attend public or private schools, ordered the dismissal of Jews from professorships in all universities, and banned Jews from the civil service and military as well as the banking and insurance industries.
Ilaria Pavan, a scholar at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, said a series of incrementally more onerous laws in 1939 and 1940 revoked peddlers’ permits and shopkeepers’ licenses, and required Jewish owners of businesses — as well as stock or bond holders — to sell those assets to “Aryans.” Bank accounts were ordered turned over to government authorities, ostensibly to prevent the transfer of money out of the country.
There is little record of the sums involved in the confiscations and forced sales of Jewish-held property between 1938 and 1943, said Ms. Pavan, who was a member of the official government commission charged with investigating the anti-Semitic plundering. But between 1943 and 1945, when the Italian government was under the direct supervision of German overseers, the looting of property of Jewish Italian citizens and Jewish refugees who had fled to Italy in hopes of sanctuary, she said, totaled almost $1 billion in today’s values.
After the war, encouraged in part by Italy’s American occupiers, Italians embraced a spirit of national reconciliation that “allowed the construction of a sanitized collective memory,” said Alessandro Cassin, the publishing director of the Centro Primo Levi, a research institute in Manhattan that promotes the study of Italian Jewish history, and that organized the panel discussion.
The whitewash was possible, in part, because by comparison with the horrors inflicted by Nazi Germany, the Italian government was “not as lethal,” said Guri Schwarz, an adjunct professor at the University of Pisa. It did not sanction physical abuse of Jewish citizens, did not execute anyone in the internment camps established for Jews in southern Italy, and did not begin to send Jews to Nazi concentration camps until the German occupation in 1943, he said.
Of the 45,000 Jews counted in Mussolini’s census of 1938, about 8,000 died in Nazi camps. About 7,000 managed to flee. About 30,000 lived in hiding before being liberated by Allied troops, Mr. Schwarz said.
One of those hiding was Mrs. Selig, who was among about 100 people in the audience for the discussion on Wednesday.
“It is a very complex situation,” she said, when asked afterward about her feelings toward wartime Italy and Italians. Thirteen years old when her family fled Berlin and settled in northern Italy in 1938, she said her experience in Italy over the next eight years ran the spectrum from the despair of destitution to the exhilaration of freedom.
“They took everything from us,” she said. “My father and mother were quite wealthy when they arrived in Italy. But when they came to the United States after the war, he had to work as a night watchman, and she had to work in the garment district.”
On the other hand, as she said during a question-and-answer period after the presentation, “I would not be here if not for Italians.
“An Italian woman hid me, an Italian priest put me in a convent where I wore a nun’s habit, and an Italian boy risked his life to bring us food,” she said.
Harry Arlin, 83, an audience member who said his family was interned in an Italian camp for several years, also stood to describe his experiences, saying, “If the Italians hadn’t taken us to their camp, we would have been sent to the German’s camp, and we would have been killed.”
Michele Sarfatti, the author of several books on Italian Fascist anti-Semitism, said a higher portion of Italy’s Jews survived the war than their counterparts in most other European countries.
But Italian culpability for the persecution of Jews remains relatively unknown, and largely unacknowledged by Italians, Professor Pavan said. “People were made destitute, people were turned into ghostly nonentities in their own country,” she said. “This is also true.”
A version of this article appears in print on November 5, 2010, on page A28 of the New York edition with the headline: Scholars Reconsidering Italy’s Treatment of Jews in the Nazi Era.