Several readers have told me about a N.Y. Times article entitled “Italy’s Treatment of Jews in World War II is Reconsidered.”
I just read the article, and I think it’s fair. Mussolini’s government promulgated anti-semitic race laws in 1938, which is long before the Nazi occupation began on Sept. 8, 1943. Those laws were damaging, insulting and ugly. (You can read Tullio Bertini’s translation of the ordinances by clicking on the FAQs for A Thread of Grace and scrolling to the end of the page.) The difference in Italy was that such laws were not impossible to get around.
While doing the research for A Thread of Grace, I was told many stories about Jews “selling” their businesses to gentile friends or Catholic relatives so that they could continue to operate commercially. Bank accounts were also placed under the names of friends or family to protect the assets from the kind of confiscation that was taking place elsewhere. At the beginning of the occupation, the treasures of synagogues were placed in bank vaults or in hidden church basements. Published memoirs, interviews and histories confirm what I heard from my sources.
Obviously, people had to be quiet about those arrangements at the time — the transactions were illegal, by definition. After the war, when assets were returned, there was private gratitude by the surviving Jews and an attitude among the gentiles of, “Niete! It was nothing! I was in a position to help, so naturally I did.”
These were all face-to-face deals, enforced by nothing but a sense of decency. The people who participated in such deals have died. Only those who were very young during the war are alive today. They were rarely made aware of under-the-table dealings of their elders before, during or after the war.
For those like Ursula Korn Selig, featured in the NY Times article, the fiercest memories are of post-war displacement and deprivation rather than of the quiet circumventions of the race laws that took place earlier. Even so, these younger witnesses do testify that their own survival was made possible by Italians. As Mrs. Selig says in the article, “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.”
That said, it’s important to note that my novel’s title is A Thread of Grace, not “A Giant Braided-Steel Cable of Grace.” Jewish survival in Italy is not a feel-good Holocaust story. People were made destitute. People were turned into ghosts in their own country. They were driven into the mountains to live like hunted animals. When they were captured in Italy, they were deported to Auschwitz at a time when that death camp was operating at full capacity.
Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of Italian gentiles risked their lives and their families and their property to shelter Jews when it was a capital offense to do so. They kept secrets and they kept people alive. That is a singular shining thread of decency woven into the vast black tapestry of the Holocaust.