Focus on Issues: Italy Struggles with Memory of Fascist-era Anti-semitic Legislation
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Focus on Issues: Italy Struggles with Memory of Fascist-era Anti-semitic Legislation

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Sixty years ago, fascist Italy enacted anti-Semitic legislation that led the way to the Holocaust in this country.

Italy’s public authorities and the country’s Jewish community are marking the anniversary with a series of commemorations, conferences, publications and other activities.

They are aimed both at memorializing the Jews who were persecuted as well as condemning the anti-Semitic policy of the fascist state.

But they also are directed at examining the behavior of most mainstream Italians who did little to protest or combat the racist laws.

“I’ll never forget the indifference,” recalls Tullia Zevi, until recently the longtime president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “It was bitter. Nobody took a stand.”

The fascist government of dictator Benito Mussolini passed the first of a series of anti-Semitic laws on Sept. 2, 1938. The laws were fully in place on Nov. 17, 1938 and affected more than 48,000 people.

They barred Jews from public life and subjected them to a wide range of humiliating restrictions and persecution.

Among other things, they barred Jewish students and teachers from public schools and universities. They barred Jews from marrying non-Jews, from working in a long list of professions, from serving in the army, from employing Christian servants, from staying in hotels, vacationing at resorts and placing classified ads in newspapers.

Thousands of Jews fled the country, including talented intellectuals and scientists, such as Rita Levi Montalcini, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1986.

The racist laws were a particular shock for Italy’s highly acculturated Jews. Unlike the case in Nazi Germany, the laws came with relatively little warning and more or less reversed the prior policy of the fascist regime.

Jews had been active participants in Italy’s independence movement, the Risorgimento, in the 19th century, and most felt a profound sense of Italian identity.

A number of Jews were early supporters of Mussolini, and, while many Jews were anti-fascist, thousands of Jews had joined the fascist party.

“The racist laws represented a deep wound, not just for the Jews, but for the country as a whole,” the Milan Jewish magazine II Bolletino said in its October issue. “For the first time the united state constructed in the Risorgimento cut off a group of citizens who had participated, side by side with others, in the construction of that state.”

Recalled Zevi, who was a teen-ager when the racist laws were imposed and fled Italy with her family to the United States, “From one day to the next, we became nobodies, ghosts. It teaches you about the fragility of the human condition.”

Indeed, part of the problem in looking back is the fact that many older Italians must confront their own behavior in the face of the persecutions.

Italy entered World War II as a Nazi ally and ended it on the side of the Allies. The Italian fascists arrested Jews and interned them in prisons and concentration camps, but Italian Jews were only deported to death camps after the Germans occupied Italy in 1943.

About 8,000 Italian Jews were deported to their deaths.

Indeed, Italians have won praise for their role in helping Jews survive during the war.

As a result, there has been a tendency to “push the idea that attitudes of solidarity shown by many Italians during the German occupation, when Jews risked deportation, had actually begun as early as 1938,” according to an article in the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera.

A survey of the grandparents of students at a Milan secondary school, the article said, showed that many thought that Italian anti-Semitic laws were only introduced after the German occupation.

A 1995 poll of young Italians aged 16-24 showed that only little more than 38 percent knew that Italy had ever imposed anti-Semitic laws.

The commemorations come at a time when renewed interest in the history of World War II is coupled both with a fading of memory and with debates over the true nature of Italian fascism and its legacy.

“There is a greater awareness in society, a continuous increase of information,” Michele Sarfatti, a researcher on anti-Semitism at the Milan- based Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation, told JTA.

“But at the same time,” he said, “the generations are changing. The people who actually remember that period are leaving the scene.”

A popular book and movie this past year brought the problem before the public in different ways.

The award-winning movie “Life is Beautiful,” which recently opened in the United States, tells the story of an Italian Jew who was deported to a death camp by the Nazis after the occupation. Fascist-era Italian anti-Semitism, however, was largely glossed over.

The film makes clear the extent of Jewish assimilation in Italy — the hero is not identified as a Jew until a shocking anti-Semitic incident halfway into the film.

In the book, “The Word Jew,” on the other hand, non-Jewish author Rosetta Loy focused on her own childhood memories of how the racial laws were accepted without protest by her own family and neighbors.

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