ROME (May. 20)
Attempting to smooth relations with Italy’s Jewish community, the long-exiled heirs to Italy’s abolished monarchy paid homage at the country’s foremost monument to Nazi barbarity.
But the gesture over the weekend did little to assuage Jewish uneasiness over the failure by Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, the son of Italy’s last king, to apologize for the monarchy’s support of the fascist-era persecution of Italy’s Jews.
“It’s a positive act, though it is still not sufficient to resolve all the problems,” Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, told reporters. “A visit doesn’t cancel out history.”
The union’s past president, Tullia Zevi, said: “We’ll see what significance this has in the future. As the English say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
On their third visit to Italy since Parliament lifted a 56-year ban last year on the royal heirs, Victor Emmanuel and his family made a previously unannounced stop Saturday at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome.
The caves, where 335 Italians, including 75 Jews, were massacred by the S.S. in 1944 in reprisal for a partisan attack that killed 33 German soldiers, are a national shrine and a memorial to Nazi victims.
Guided by a priest whose father was killed there, Victor Emmanuel laid a wreath that he said was intended as “a gesture of peace toward the Jewish community.”
Luzzatto recently criticized Victor Emmanuel for failing to make official contact with Italy’s 30,000-strong Jewish community now that he is no longer forced to live in exile. Friction with local Jews has provided a sour note to the royals’ three-day tour of Rome.
The chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, said he had received a “last-minute” fax from the royals requesting a meeting only on May 15, after Luzzatto’s criticism appeared in a front-page interview with a leading daily.
“I’m not saying it was he who signed the racial laws in 1938,” Luzzatto told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. “But as a Savoy heir, Victor Emmanuel has never distanced himself from them. And as long as the last name remains the same, because he doesn’t choose his heredity, the historic responsibility rests on his shoulders.”
Last Friday, Victor Emmanuel told reporters that the family hoped “to meet the Jewish community in Rome as soon as possible because we’d like to reiterate that also for us the racial laws were the darkest page in our family history.”
In 1938, Victor Emmanuel’s grandfather, King Victor Emmanuel III, formally promulgated the harsh anti-Semitic laws enacted by the fascist regime of dictator Benito Mussolini.
The laws forbade Italy’s Jews to marry non-Jewish Italians, attend school, hold public office or even own radios.
The royals were forced to leave Italy in 1946 after a referendum abolished the monarchy. All male heirs were banned from the country under Italy’s 1948 constitution, until a constitutional amendment passed last year allowed them to come back.
In November, on the eve of his first return, Victor Emmanuel issued a statement denouncing the anti-Semitic laws, saying they were “an indelible stain on the family’s history.”
This cut little ice with many Jews, however, as just five years earlier he had sparked outrage by declaring, “I don’t have to beg for anyone’s pardon” regarding the Italian racial laws — which, he said, had not been “that terrible, after all.”
Claudio Fano, a past president of Rome’s Jewish community, remained skeptical even after the family’s visit to the Ardeatine Caves.
Visiting the caves “is fashionable,” he said. “It has become an alibi for whoever is not mature enough yet for a real gesture of atonement.”