50 Years Later, Files in Attic Document Italy’s Fascist Laws

More than 2,600 files documenting how fascist Italy’s anti-Semitic laws were applied to individual citizens before and during World War II have been recovered after lying hidden for more than 50 years in an attic.

The discovery of the documents in the northern Italian town of Merano was made by Federico Steinhaus, the president of the 50-member Jewish community of Merano, and was announced at the end of last week in Rome.

At the same time, it was announced that the files would be turned over to Italy’s Central State Archives, which already houses thousands of similar documents.

Several documents in the newly discovered trove reflected efforts by the fascists to ascertain the racial status of Umberto Saba, one of Italy’s most important 20th century poets. Saba was the pen name of Umberto Poli.

“The name Umberto Saba does not appear in the local birth registry,” one document stated. “From the inquiries carried out at the local Jewish community, it appears from the birth register that a certain Umberto Poli, born in Trieste March 3, 1883, of Ugo Abramo Poli and Rachele Coen, could, according to the rabbi of the community, be identified with the individual in question.”

FILES WERE DIRECTED TO MUSSOLINI

Documents attempting to ascertain whether an individual was to be considered Jewish were addressed personally to dictator Benito Mussolini, so that he himself could take the decision.

These involved particularly complicated cases involving generations of mixed marriages and conversions — both to Judaism and to Christianity — and politically sensitive cases.

One of these cases involved the sister of a former prime minister who tried to be declared non-Jewish.

“From the documents produced, it is revealed that the individual is daughter of a father of the Italian nationality (Tuscan) belonging to the Jewish race and of a mother of English nationality,” the file stated.

The file also noted that the woman had enrolled in the membership lists of the Rome Jewish community, but that she had also converted to Protestant Christianity.

Everything points to her being of the “Jewish race,” the file concluded.

“Bearing in mind, however, the repercussions that such a decision could have, particularly regarding her late brother, this case is being brought to your attention, Duce (or Leader, as Mussolini was known), for the decisions you think should be adopted,” a letter in the file stated.

“These documents are part of the patrimony of memory,” said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “We must preserve the memory of such realities. They are a warning for the youth of today.”

Written in bureaucratic language on official forms, the documents include appeals by people who hoped to escape persecution because they were children of mixed marriages or had converted to Christianity.

The documents also included materials that tracked how the laws were applied against individuals, requests to examine the Jewish background of specific people, and orders to intern in concentration camps foreign Jews who had been found in Italy.

The documents came to light when an elderly Merano man who ran a moving company told Steinhaus last year that he had come across eight wooden chests filled with documents “relating to Jews” in the attic of his firm’s building. The documents were subsequently turned over to the Jewish community.

“He doesn’t remember how they got there,” Steinhaus said. “Either he can’t remember or he doesn’t want to remember.”

The documents included files on 2,600 individuals prepared by the General Directorate for Demography and Race of the Italian Interior Ministry, known as the “Demorazza.”

The directorate was set up in July 1938 to coordinate a policy of racial discrimination for all the branches of the Italian government. The directorate carried out a census of Italy’s 42,000 Jews, then oversaw the application of anti-Semitic laws put into effect later that year.

In March 1944, the directorate’s functions were transferred to the General Inspectorate for Race of the so-called Republic of Salo, founded in the north of Italy by hard-core fascists after most of Italy was liberated by the Allies.

“The documents of the ‘Demorazza’ constitute the most faithful testimony to the daily, concrete application of the racial laws on the part of the fascist regime,” the Union of Italian Jewish Communities said in a statement.

Earlier this month, neo-Fascist candidates were defeated in hard-fought electoral battles for the mayoralty of Rome and Naples, but neo-Fascists won the mayoral races in several smaller cities in south-central Italy.

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