The Ital­ian Ex­e­cu­tion­ers: The Geno­cide of the Jews of Italy

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Gi­u­lia Miller is the au­thor of Study­ing Waltz with Bashir (2017) and Re­con­fig­ur­ing Sur­re­al­ism in Mod­ern He­brew Lit­er­a­ture (2013).

By Si­mon Le­vis Sul­lam Trans­lated by Oona Smyth with Clau­dia Patane Prince­ton Univer­sity Press 208pp, £21.00

ISBN 9780691179056 Pub­lished 7 Septem­ber 2018

The his­tory of the Holo­caust is fre­quently re­mem­bered in bi­nary terms: col­lab­o­ra­tors ver­sus those in the re­sis­tance; those who hid Jews from the Nazis and those who in­formed on them. In re­cent decades, there have been sev­eral re­vi­sion­ist stud­ies that seek a more nu­anced ac­count – for in­stance, look­ing at how Vichy France sup­ported cer­tain sec­tions of French Jewry in the years 194042 – or that chal­lenge the way in which a hand­ful of coun­tries still deny the full ex­tent of their com­plic­ity in the geno­cide, Ro­ma­nia be­ing a per­ti­nent ex­am­ple.

The Ital­ian Ex­e­cu­tion­ers falls into the sec­ond cat­e­gory. Sul­lam de­scribes in painstak­ing de­tail how or­di­nary Ital­ians, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the fas­cist po­lice and mil­i­tary, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally par­tic­i­pated in the ar­rest and per­se­cu­tion of Ital­ian Jews, and how this has been erased from pub­lic mem­ory and dis­course, re­placed by the myth of ital­iani brava gente – the “good Ital­ians”. Notably, Italy, like Ro­ma­nia, was ini­tially al­lied with Ger­many, but then switched sides to­wards the end of the war, and in both cases, there has been a “white­wash­ing” of the past, par­tic­u­larly with re­gard to an­tisemitism.

The myth of the “good Ital­ians” was also per­pet­u­ated by Ital­ian Jews who were des­per­ate to rein­te­grate af­ter the war, or who wished to ac­knowl­edge the lit­tle help that they did re­ceive.

It is per­haps not sur­pris­ing, there­fore, that of the 13,000 Ital­ians who were con­victed for war crimes or mis­deeds, an as­ton­ish­ing 10,000 were even­tu­ally par­doned, in­clud­ing fas­cist lead­ers and gov­ern­ment min­is­ters. Many of them went on to en­joy il­lus­tri­ous post-war ca­reers. In one very strik­ing case study, a com­mis­sioner at the Race Of­fice of the Venice Po­lice, who had over­seen the con­fis­ca­tion of Jewish prop­erty dur­ing the war, went on to head the very of­fice that re­turned such prop­erty to its orig­i­nal own­ers.

One of the most chill­ing chap­ters fo­cuses on Jewish col­lab­o­ra­tion and two Jewish in­form­ers, Mauro Grini and Ce­leste Di Porto. Grini used his knowl­edge of the Jewish com­mu­nity to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect. One wit­ness wrote that “He would stroll through Venice, and upon meet­ing an ac­quain­tance, would greet him, and then con­tinue on his way. But he was ob­vi­ously be­ing fol­lowed by a tail re­spon­si­ble for shad­ow­ing the ac­quain­tance in ques­tion.” Di Porto, nick­named the “Black Pan­ther”, was an 18-year-old Ro­man Jew, whose lover was a mem­ber of the Fas­cist party. Di Porto not only de­nounced mem­bers of her com­mu­nity, but even her own fam­ily. Sul­lam does stress, how­ever, that Jewish in­form­ers were rel­a­tively few in num­ber.

There are other en­gag­ing ac­counts in Sul­lam’s book, but un­for­tu­nately much of it is weighed down by a heavy-handed style that ex­haus­tively lists names, fig­ures and dates in a way that is schol­arly but dull. It reads a lot like a PhD the­sis, tremen­dously thor­ough and well-re­searched but lack­ing flair. How­ever, the ex­tent to which Italy has con­cealed its an­tisemitic past is stag­ger­ing, and Sul­lam cer­tainly gets this point across, al­beit in a patchy way; his re­search is a cru­cial con­tri­bu­tion to how we re­mem­ber the Holo­caust.

The myth of the ‘good Ital­ians’ was also fos­tered by Ital­ian Jews des­per­ate to rein­te­grate af­ter the war

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