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The Jewish Week. False Heroes And The Holocaust: Disputing The ‘Brava Gente’

Alexis Herr

Every age needs its heroes, so it seems. And in post-war Italy, a low level official named Giovanni Palatucci seemed to fit the bill. But recent reports challenge Palatucci’s legacy as the “Italian Schindler” and in so doing trigger a question, Why are we so attached to uplifting Holocaust narratives?

Oscar Schindler’s work to save Jews has become so iconic that to learn of Hitler is to know of Oscar Schindler. The supposed heroics of Palatucci have been trumpeted in Italy for decades, earning him praise from institutions responsible for safeguarding Holocaust memory such as Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Why are we so eager to promote positive stories when the Holocaust is indisputably among the darkest chapters of human history? Palatucci’s unmasking reminds us that the genocide of European Jews should be understood as a lesson in humanity’s capacity for destruction more than a demonstration of benevolence.

Benevolence, however, has been the cornerstone of Italian Holocaust memory. Called the “brava gente,” or benevolent Italians, Italy has enjoyed a celebrated status as a nation of resistors to Nazi atrocities. The story of Giovanni Palatucci is but one example of such propagandized bravery. Palatucci was thought to have saved thousands of Jews while serving as a police chief in Fiume, Italy. His eventual death in Dachau at the age of 35 was believed to have been a result of his courage.

In the postwar era, Palatucci became analogous with wartime Italian resistance. So celebrated was the former police chief, that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recognized his efforts with a “Courage to Care Award” in 2005. Then in 2007, he group created the “ADL Giovanni Palatucci Courageous Leadership Award” bestowed to outstanding Italian and American law enforcement officers. And Yad Vashem includes him in its list of Righteous Among Nations, a status that honors those exhibiting incredible sacrifice and courage to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Thanks to the Primo Levi Center in New York, we now know Palatucci actually helped German Nazi and Italian Fascist forces arrest and deport Jews. And he was only sent to Dachau when he was alleged to have embezzled money. Since the announcement of this farce, the ADL has retracted Palatucci’s 2005 decoration and redacted his name from the award for law enforcement officers. And we can assume that once Yad Vashem authorities confirm the Primo Levi Institute’s findings, they too will strip him of the prestigious Righteous Among Nations title.

The misguided celebration of Palatucci for more than half a century has brought into sharp focus a need to reevaluate local participation and collaboration during genocide. In the last ten years, some historians have challenged the accepted Italian “brava gente” myth, however its long lasting effects have continued to influence representations of Italian actions during the Judeocide.

The “brava gente” myth emerged in the postwar era as a means of uniting a long divided nation. Some Italians did risk their lives to save Jews, earning them the title of the “brava gente.” Yet despite popular opinion, others endeavored to support the genocide of Europe’s Jews, or did nothing to stop it. Why is it that the stories of resistors, true and false, have received greater attention than those of collaboration and persecution? Perhaps it is time for a wakeup call.

Genocide is one of humanity’s greatest shames. Its existence – in Europe sixty years ago to the annihilation of innocent Darfuris in Sudan today –should be a reminder of what we are capable of as a race and inspire us to address this flaw in ourselves. Instead of meditating on the evil everyone is capable of, we often promote stories of rescue and resistance to brighten a darker reality. Stories of true “brava gente” are an important feature of the past as they might inspire us to act similarly if we find ourselves in a similar situation. But in order to truly applaud the bravery and benevolence of those individuals we must not be afraid to admit that we too are capable of supporting genocide just as Palatucci did six decades ago.

It remains to be seen if the new story of collaboration attached to Palatucci’s name will forever alter his legacy, or if he will be forgotten altogether along with so many others who supported Fascism and aided Nazis prior to and after the German occupation of Italy. It is my hope that Palatucci’s name remains present in our minds, no longer as a celebration of humanity’s goodness and instead as warning sign of its darkness.

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