A Debt To Honor: Ordinary Italians risked all saving Jewish strangers: 'We did what we knew needed to be done'
By Anthony Buccino

Because of the kindness ‘shown to Jews by Italians, of the 47,000
assimilated and natural born Jews in Italy in 1943,
nearly 40,000 men, women and children were provided
with false IDs, hidden in private homes, convents and monasteries
to protect them from Nazis and Fascists collaborators.

The last generation to tell their 50-year-old tale of survival gathered at Bloomfield College on Nov. 13 to pass along the ‘Debt to Honor’ - the true story of how nearly 40,000 Jews in Italy were saved from Nazi annihilation during W.W. II.

If caught, Italian men and women, ordinary workers, nuns and priests risked all sorts of retaliation from the Germans. They never talked much about their efforts to save the Jews. “It was the right thing to do,” was all most of them said in the years since the war.

Asked years later why they did what they did to assist the Jews, the Italians said, “We did what we knew needed to be done.” That is why it took nearly 50 years to recognize the rescue efforts made.

“It is the greatest story never told,” said Dr. Emanuele Alfano, chairman of UNICO National Anti-Bias Committee. Alfano’s committee worked with Dr. Joseph Volker, project ‘coordinator of A World of Difference Institute of the N.J. Anti-Defamation League to launch this Italians and the Holocaust project.

Dr. John Noonan, president of Bloomfield College spoke of the “horror in the face of near extinction of European Jews in our lifetime. . . through history we are made to remember and to grieve and, where we can, to give thanks.”

A Holocaust survivor who escaped death through efforts of Italians, Ursula Korn Selig said, “We are the last generation to tell our stories. After us, the stories will only be in hooks:’

Selig was hidden with her family at a house in the mountains. Her family hid in a bread-baking oven for three months until the American soldiers finally drove out the Germans and liberated the territory.

Because of the kindness ‘shown to Jews by Italians, of the 47,000 assimilated and natural born Jews in Italy in 1943, nearly 40,000 men, women and children were provided with false IDs, hidden in private homes, convents and monasteries to protect them from Nazis and Fascists collaborators. Through the efforts of common people doing what they thought was nothing extraordinary, nearly 80 percent of the Jews escaped certain slaughter.

The November convocation in Bloomfield debuted the film “A Debt To Honor.” The video documentary commemorates the rescue of thousands of Jews by ‘ordinary’ Italians during the Nazi occupation of Italy in 1943.

The film was written, produced and directed by Sy Rotter and is narrated by Alan Alda. Filmed in 1994, it includes a 50th anniversary memorial service in Rome marking the efforts of Italians to aid the refugees.

Included in the 30-minute video are archival scenes of Benito Mussolini’s rise to power as background for ‘understanding the role of Italian Fascism as the basis for official anti-Semitic policies at the time.

According to the film’s producers, the full five years of the war resulted in the deaths of 7,682 Italian Jews, roost perishing in Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany. They acknowledge that very few of these victims would have been captured by the Nazis without some form of Italian collaboration. However, they stress that most, if not all, of the remaining Italian Jews not captured were aided by other Italians and successfully evaded the Nazis and Italian Fascists.

Jews who were fortunate enough to escape Germany, Austria and other occupied European countries and flee to Italy with little more than the clothes on their backs, then found the politics of Italy under Mussolini’s Racial Laws of 1938 strip them of their professions and livelihoods.

“A Debt to Honor” focuses on interviews with Italian priests, nuns and other Italians who tell of their’ direct involvement in the rescue and safely they extended to Italian and Jewish fugitives, saving them from the Holocaust.

The Italian town of Assisi was declared a hospital center. From that town grew the central point of assistance for refugees where they were provided with false IDs, safety in convents, private homes and hotels.

Although no one kept specific records of who was helped and who escaped, nearly 300 Jews were funneled through Assisi to safety out of Italy.

Spies were everywhere, but the effort to help those in need continued. Italian Nazi Fascist spies were mingled throughout the citizenry and were most dangerous to the efforts to spirit refugees through the network of underground assistance.

The rescuers ‘took the risks without the knowledge of the danger to themselves. “We did what needed to be done,” said the niece of a factory owner who had built a partition in his building and hid refugees there for months.

Since Northern Italy was occupied at this time, but Southern Italy had been liberated, the underground used Southern Italian surnames for the forged papers of the refugees. With the false papers, the refugees were able to secure food vouchers.

Another effective ruse used by the underground was to dress the refugees as nuns and friars and conceal them in convents and monasteries. One bishop with a house full of refugees met more at the door. His response was to offer them his bedroom and he would sleep in his study.

Ida Lenti, an Italian baby-sitter for three orphaned Jewish refugee children took them across occupied territory to a relative’s home. There, 10 make ends meet, she took in washing for German soldiers. With the money they paid her, she was able to send the refugee children to school. She knew all along that if she was caught, she and the children would certainly be killed.

The film highlights that it was ordinary people who undertook the extraordinary actions to save the lives of persecuted people because, as they frequently said, “It was the right thing to do.”

Honored guests at the film debut included Jewish War Veterans Ruth K. Marx who was in the Women’s Auxiliary Army. Walter Schwarz, Sol Lasky who was at the liberation of Dachau, and Samuel Nehemiah the chief aide of N.J. Jewish War Veterans of U.S.A.

Also on hand to place the rescue efforts into perspective was Sister Margherita Marchione, author of many books, including “Yours Is A Precious Witness: Memoirs of Jews and Catholics in War-lime Italy.”

Efforts are underway through the UNICO National Anti-Bias Committee and the Anti-Defamation League with the assistance of Jeffrey Maas, chairman of the New Jersey Holocaust Commission on Holocaust Education, to incorporate this historical event into the New Jersey holocaust curriculum.

For information on viewing “A Debt To Honor” or incorporating the film into educational curriculum, contact UNICO National.

First published THE INDEPENDENT PRESS 0f Bloomfield, THE GLEN RIDGE PAPER, Page 6; Thursday, December 5, 1996

Copyright 1996 © Anthony Buccino

Links subject to change.

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New Jersey author Anthony Buccino's stories of the 1960s, transit coverage and other writings earned four Society of Professional Journalists Excellence in Journalism awards.

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