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Behind the Headlines a Remarkable Chapter

July 8, 1985
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

In the early spring of 1941, when Hitler’s troops overran Yugoslavia, thousands of Jews fled across the border into Italy or entered the country by sea. Their lives were saved owing to the humanitarian instincts of the Italian people, including many carabinieri — the police.

This was a remarkable chapter at a time when Jews in Western Europe were being deported to the east for eventual slaughter in the death camps; when at best, Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis were unwanted and harshly treated. It is remarkable because Italy was then governed by a fascist dictatorship. The Rome-Berlin Axis, formed by Hitler and Mussolini was at the peak of its power. Virtually all of continental Europe was under Nazi occupation and the invasion of the Soviet Union was only a few months away.

The rescue of Yugoslavian Jews by Italians is largely a forgotten incident–except among Jews in Italy and in Israel where, two years ago, the “Committee of Gratitude to the Italian Population” was organized. Last month, this group paid tribute to the benefactors of Jews at a ceremony in the Quirinale, the presidential palace in Rome.

Bernardo Grosser, a Jewish community leader who had charge of Jewish refugees in Italy during the war, and Iso Doron, a former refugee who headed an Israeli delegation of “thankful survivors,” presented President Allessandro Pertini with a 1,000-page book. Each page contains the name of a Yugoslavian Jewish man or woman who was saved by the Italians in 1941.


Grosser estimates that “at least 30,000” Jewish refugees of all nationalities owe their lives to the Italian people. One project of the committee which he and Doron helped found is to trace the names of all of them.

The ceremony was attended by the Israeli Ambassador to Italy, Eytan Ronn, and the Italian Consul in Jerusalem, Marino Fleri, who accompanied the Israeli delegation to Rome for the event. Other participants included three Italians who hold the Yad Vashem Medal, the mayors of several small towns whose populations risked their lives to save an estimated 5,000 Yugoslavian Jews, and Jewish community leaders from all over Italy.

They were received warmly by President Pertini who spoke of his lifelong “solidarity with and respect for the Jewish people and their quest for a land and a state of their own.”

“The Italian people have never been racists,” Pertini declared. “Mussolini led the country to its ruin by his alliance with and emulation of Hitler.” The President recalled that his own brother, like himself a Socialist, was deported to his death at the Flossenburg concentration camp and thus shared the fate of six million Jews. “His name is enscribed on a stone in front of the crematorium oven there,” Pertini said, grimly recalling his recent pilgrimage to the site.

The Jewish refugees who came into Italy were hidden in empty villas or were housed with private families. Subsequently they were provided with false papers.

Doron later described to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency his memories of his experience as a Jewish youth fleeing Yugoslavia. He came in an Italian ship and was landed, along with 300 other refugees near Fiume on the Adriatic Sea. Officially they were “war interns” or prisoners.

He said 100 Italian carabinieri and a train awaited them. Women and children were escorted first on to the train and the window curtains drawn so they would not have to see their male relatives handcuffed — two to each carabinieri — and put aboard another carriage.

But no sooner were they on the train then the handcuffs were opened. The men were cautioned to be prepared to snap them shut if an “enemy official” came by.

At 5 a.m. the train arrived at Treviso. The group was met by the local police chief who assured them that all measures had been taken for their safety. Families were reunited and located at abandoned resort hotels. They were supplied with all necessities, from bedding to silverware. Local groceries supplied them with food beyond the wartime rations, Doron recalled.


At the Quirinale ceremony, Walter Reggiani, the young Mayor of Nonantola, a small town near Modena, and the town’s woman traffic officer, Paola Goldoni, represented the older generation of townspeople who had saved 90 Jewish refugee children during the war.

They were housed at the “Villa Emma.” When their place of refuge was endangered, they were distributed among many families in Nonantola until they could be supplied with false identification papers and packed off to neutral Switzerland.

Nonantola’s population has two trees growing in the Yad Vashem Valley of the Just in Jerusalem. They were planted in honor of a local physician, Dr. Morreali, and the parish priest, Don Beccari, who is still alive. Nonantola was just one of many Italian towns where similar “miracles” were performed for Jewish refugees, Grosser and Doron said.

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