He who saves one life saves them all. (Talmud)
Elizabeth Bettina, an American of Italian descent, made an amazing discovery a few years ago. When she studied the number of Jews that were in concentration camps in Europe during World War II, she realized that the survival rate in Italian camps was much higher than in other countries; in fact out of all the Nazi-occupied countries, Italy's Jewish survival rate was highest, next to Denmark's. Approximately 80% of Italy's Jews survived while 80% of the rest of Europe's Jews perished. Determined to learn more, she set out to interview survivors of the Jewish Holocaust in Italy and one by one she wrote down their stories.
One of the main camps in Italy was at Campagna, near Naples, which had very little resemblance to Auschwitz or Birkenau or Dachau. At Campagna, inmates were allowed to keep their real clothes rather than wear the infamous striped pajamas. People were fed a proper diet. People were not overworked. Jews were allowed to worship at a synogogue. They were allowed to marry. Their children attended makeshift schools. They played soccer. And, above all, there were no gas ovens at Campagna. It was not a death camp, nor a work camp, but rather a detainment camp.
Elizabeth Bettina asked native Italians why the Jews were treated so differently in Campagna. One Italian responded by saying that they were seen as "Christiani", a term that meant they were "human beings". In a country that was largely Roman Catholic, they simply practised the golden rule: "Love thy neighbour as theyself". Ironically, eventhough Italy was allied with Germany for three years of the war, Mussolini did not adopt the same attitude towards the Jews that Hitler did.
The real threat to Jews in Italy came when the Axis fell apart on September 8, 1943. Hitler ordered troops to occupy Northern Italy where six of the detainment camps were situated. German soldiers raided these camps, including Campagna. However, a local Italian warned the Jews that they were coming and the Jews escaped into a nearby woods. One refugee, crouching amongst the trees, was so close to the German soldiers he could see their boots. They managed to stay hidden until the Germans left the camp.
As Germany had Oskar Schindler, who saved at least 1000 Jews during World War II by employing them in his metal works factory, Italy had Giovanni Palatucci, a government official who falsified documents to get many Jews out of the country, saving up to 5000 lives. Once the Nazis discovered what he was doing, they shipped him off to Dachau where he was gassed only two months before the camp was liberated, suffering the fate that he had saved so many others from.
The climax of Miss Bettina's story comes when she takes a group of Holocaust survivors from the United States to Italy where they visit the Vatican and have an audience with the Pope. It is a moving experience for the survivors. Later, Elizabeth took a group of survivors of survivor's family members to visit the camp at Campagna where they visited the "Museum of Memory and Peace" dedicated to the memory of the Jews interned there.
Just as many people informed on the Jews in Europe, there were others who risked their lives to save them. It is heartening to hear that Italy had many of these "saviours", including Giovanni Palatucci, who believed in the motto: "Ama gli altri come te stesso."
Book cover courtesy www.iicnewyork.esteri.it.