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Holocaust Survivor Tells How Italian Soldiers Saved Jews During Wwii

A Jewish Holocaust survivor who was rescued by Italian soldiers shared his story with the Italian Ambassador to the United States and the American Jewish Committee here this week to illustrate the compassion and humanitarianism of the Italians who rescued and protected Jews during World War II.

Ivo Herzer, whose family was smuggled into Italian-occupied territory in 1941 with the help of Italian soldiers, recounted his experience at a ceremony honoring the Italian Ambassador, Rinaldo Petrignani, at AJCommittee headquarters Monday.

Petrignani said he was “deeply moved” by Herzer’s dramatic account, which he said he heard for the first time at the ceremony. “Now I know you and your story and I will never forget it,” Petrignani said.

The AJCommittee presented Petrignani with a lithograph depicting a white dove inscribed with Shalom in Hebrew and English in deep gratitude “for assistance given by unknown and known Italians who risked their lives” to rescue Jews.

The ceremony came just two weeks before a major conference is scheduled to convene at Boston University November 6-7 to discuss scholarship and first-hand accounts of the little known but dramatic chapter of Holocaust history, the Italian rescue of Jews.

‘THIS SHOULD HAVE NEVER, NEVER HAPPENED’

After being presented with the lithograph, Petrignani said “I accept (it) with humility, with deep feeling and also with a sense of sadness because we all know that all this should never, never have happened.” He added that he accepted the honor on behalf of “the unknown Italians who are really the recipients.”

“This story has to be known and it has to be told,” Petrignani said. “The Italians who rescued Jews did not do it out of a lofty ideological conviction,” he said “but in the name of sincere, basic human solidarity.” The rescue of the Jews is “a history of which we can be proud.” Petrignani acknowledged some persecution of Jews and discrimination under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, but said “the persecution in Italy was not comparable to what happened in Germany.”

Petrignani said the Italian people rejected the discrimination and that those policies had “alienated the Italian people.” “There was help and denunciation at the same time,” he said. “But the Italians showed solidarity and human compassion.”

A NIGHTMARE AND A RESCUE

Herzer shared a brief account of his family’s experience with the Italian Ambassador and members of the AJCommittee and the National Italian-American Foundation who attended the ceremony.

Herzer and his family lived in the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, when Italy, Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria occupied Yugoslavia in April, 1941. About 70,000 Jews lived in pre-war Yugoslavia and about half came under the vehemently anti-Semitic rule of the Ustasha, the Croatian fascist party, during the occupation. Herzer’s family was among those who found themselves in the Croatian-ruled territory and decided to attempt an escape to the Italian occupied zone.

On July 30, 1941, Herzer and his family left home with fake travel documents and boarded a train for Spalato, the capital of Dalmatia occupied by the Italians. But guerillas had blown up part of the railroad tracks and the family was forced to disembark in a town called Gospic, a stronghold of Croatian fascists.

As he exited the train, Herzer saw a long line of Jewish families in chains wearing yellow badges being marched off to a Croatian concentration camp. Quite by chance, Herzer’s father met a small group of Italian soldiers near the home where the family hid after the aborted escape. He managed to convey to the soldiers that he was part of a group of Jewish refugees who feared for their lives.

The sergeant reassured Herzer’s father that he would obtain permission to put the refugees on a train to Italy. The sergeant never got that permission. But late that same night, he brought a small contingent of Italian soldiers to the hideout and escorted the refugees to the train station. The soldiers even carried their luggage.

The refugees boarded an Italian Army train, where the sergeant remained by their side. They were served food and drink. The sergeant saw to it that his refugees arrived safely in Fiume, Italy, where he beseeched the authorities to care for the Herzer family. Then he left. Herzer never knew his name.

Sadly, the Italian authorities turned back the refugees and Herzer’s family was sent back to Zagreb, where the Ustasha had, just one day after their departure, come to take them off to a concentration camp and then occupied their apartment.

A SECOND ESCAPE

The family escaped a second time to Susak, near Fiume, where they hid from authorities. After a few weeks, the Italian police discovered the refugees, but released them one day later. They were taken to the town of Cirquenizza, and there the top officials of the Fifth Corps of the Second Army promised the refugees protection and freedom to the degree that was possible in those days.

Later the Herzers and other refugees were put into internment camps in Italian territory but were free to study, worship in a camp synagogue and organize themselves in any way. Herzer completed his high school education within an Italian camp.

CITES EXAMPLES OF COMPASSION

Herzer recalled two particular experiences from that time which he said illustrated the deep-felt humanitarianism and compassion of the Italians towards the Jews.

On Yom Kippur, October 1, 1941, the military authorities in Cirquenizza lifted martial law and prohibitions on public assembly to allow the Jews to hold Yom Kippur services in a school.

A few months later, just before Christmas, 1941, an Italian version of the USO visited the town and the commander of the Army unit there invited the Jewish refugees to the show. The Jews, the only civilians invited to the show, were seated in the first row and told they were the guests of honor.

About 15 percent of Croatian Jews survived because they crossed into the Italian occupation zone, Herzer said. “In those years, when Europe abandoned us — Italy was our true homeland,” Herzer said. All historians and survivors “agree that the basic motivation for this was the Italian humanitarianism,” he said.

Herzer’s experiences have impelled him to organize the testimonies and scholarly work on Italian rescues of Jews during the Holocaust. The culmination of his efforts will come at the November 6-7 conference in Boston which he will chair. Conference organizers said they hope to produce a book based on the interchanges at the conference.

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