Italy in World War II
Italy passed anti-Semitic laws in 1938, but these were tolerable and many Jews simply continued doing business “under the table.” As early as 1939, many Jews in Germany were aware of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and tried to flee. However, as Elizabeth Bettina explains in It Happened in Italy, “Without a visa, you could not enter another country, and during this time, almost every country in the world turned its back on the Jews” (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Italy alone allowed Jews to enter without visas. As a result, many Jews relocated to Italian cities and continued their lives and business there.
In 1940, Italy became Germany’s ally. However, Italy didn’t cooperate in the Nazi’s plan to kill European Jews. Italians didn’t participate in genocide or allow deportations from Italy to the Nazi extermination camps. Jews were even protected by Italian military officers and officials. Thus between 1941 and 1943, many Jews from German-occupied territories found refuge in Italy and Italian-occupied territories (see United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).
Mussolini was overthrown in 1943 and Italy joined the Allies. Germany quickly invaded and began deporting Jews to German concentration camps. Almost 10,000 Jews were deported and over 7,000 of these died in Auschwitz and other German camps. However, many would have died if Italian authorities hadn’t obstructed the deportations. Many Italian Jews were able to hide or escape southward to Allied-occupied areas of Italy. Thus more than 40,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Italy (USHMM).
Italian Concentration Camps
While there were concentration camps in Italy, these camps were vastly different from those in Germany and Poland. Eva Costabel, who was interned in the Italian concentration camp Porto Re, explains, “The Italian military did not want to deliver us to the Nazis… and they gave the Jewish leaders the right to administer the daily life of the camp, which gave us a fair amount of autonomy in our daily lives” (Bettina).
Internees in Italian concentration camps wore their own clothes, played cards, visited with their neighbours, and generally led normal lives. Jewish internees were usually placed with their families; officials even transferred people from one camp to another camp to keep families together. Jews in the camp were allowed to set up synagogues and practice their faith.
As Costabel says, “The camp was not a death camp. They didn’t kill anybody” (Bettina). Edith Birns, a survivor of Auschwitz, told Bettina, “The Italians treated them like human beings. [My husband] Fred survived for six years in Italy. No one could ever have survived six years in German concentration camps.”
In the horrors of this era of history, the story of Italy helping its Jews stands out as remarkable. One country refused to follow Hitler’s lead and the result was thousands of lives saved.