Holocaust hero or Nazi collaborator? The confusing story of ‘Italy’s Schindler’

An Italian police chief long celebrated for saving 5,000 Jews during World War II may have in fact been a Nazi collaborator, according to a New York-based institute that studies Italian Jewry.

Holocaust hero or Nazi collaborator? The confusing story of 'Italy's Schindler'
Giovanni Palatucci has been celebrated across Italy. Photo: parole al vento/Flickr

Giovanni Palatucci, who died in the Dachau concentration camp in February 1945, aged 36, was regarded as Italy's answer to Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who saved thousands of Jewish workers during the Holocaust.

Over the years he has been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial, and declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II, putting him on the path for beatification and sainthood. Yad Vashem said in 2015 that it was not revoking Palatucci’s inclusion in the Righteous Among the Nation.

Italy's Giovanni Palatucci Association, dedicated to preserving the memory of the police officer and supporting efforts to have him beatified, counts 3,000 members across the country. On January 27th – the Giorno della Memoria or Holocaust Memorial Day, dedicated to remembering the victims of the genocide – the organization holds a wreath-laying ceremony in Trieste at a plaque commemorating Palatucci.

But the Centro Primo Levi said in 2013 that it had coordinated research revealing that “Palatucci continued to work under the Germans and to provide information on the few Jews” in Fiume, where he was chief of police. After reviewing hundreds of documents, the centre said it had found no evidence that Palatucci had helped any Jews.

Fiume today is the Croatian city of Rijeka, on the Adriatic Sea.

Responding to the center's findings, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington took down references to Palatucci in its show, “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.” It also took down a case study of Palatucci from its website.

The Centro Primo Levi told the museum Palatucci was never police chief in Fiume, where there were in fact barely 500 Jews – far fewer than the 5,000 previously stated – of whom 80 percent ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

“Palatucci did not send hundreds of Jews to Campagna to be protected by his uncle,” said the centre's director Natalia Indrimi, who wrote the letter to the museum.

“According to the database of foreign Jews interned in Italy, only 40 Jews were interned in Campagna (in southern Italy, where Palatucci's uncle was the influential Roman Catholic bishop) and not by the order of Palatucci,” it said.

“Moreover it was a particularly vexed group – nine of them were eventually deported and one died following the hardship of internment.”

The Centro Primo Levi also rejected the notion that Palatucci destroyed documents concerning Jews in Fiume to ensure that they were not sent to concentration camps.

“Palatucci never destroyed the records of the Jews, which have been in the past five years the main source of information for historians,” Indrimi said.

“They are all available at the Rijeka state archive and any interested historian can consult them.”

Overall, she said, Palatucci – whose name is honored in piazzas and promenades all over Italy – “continued to work under the Germans and to provide information on the few Jews who were still in the area.”

“He was one of many government clerks who worked in the persecutory machine as if it were any other job,” doing nothing to ease the persecution of Jews, she said. Indrimi called Palatucci “a willing executor” of fascist Italy's racial legislation who, “after taking the oath to Mussolini's social republic, collaborated with the Nazis.”

But the Palatucci legend endures in Italy. A new public space bearing his name was inaugurated in Polino, central Italy, in 2013.

On the website of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation he had been remembered as “an Italian hero in the Holocaust” who was arrested by the Gestapo, accused of conspiracy and sent off to Dachau. However, this page has since been removed from the foundation's site.

In May 2005, the Anti-Defamation League in New York paid tribute to Palatucci as someone who did all he could to save Jews between 1940 and 1944 as Nazi German increasingly imposed its will on Benito Mussolini's regime.

“He issued false identity papers and visas, delivered food and money to those who were in hiding, gave warnings when the Nazis were planning a 'Jew hunt' and sent as many Jews as possible to the internment camps in Campagna and Puglia,” it said at the time.

A version of this article was first published in June 2013.

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Italian king’s heir apologises for monarchy’s Holocaust role

A descendant of Italy's wartime King Victor Emmanuel III has apologised to the country's Jewish community for his ancestor's role in dictator Mussolini's racial laws and the Holocaust.

Italian king's heir apologises for monarchy's Holocaust role
An archival picture of the Italian royal family in 1938 . Photo: AFP

“I condemn the 1938 racial laws, all of whose weight I still feel on my shoulders to this day, and with me the whole royal house,” 48-year-old Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy said of his great-grandfather.

Victor Emmanuel III had put his signature to an “unacceptable document”, he added in a letter posted to Facebook, “officially apologising” in the name of his family.

Almost 8,000 Italian Jews were deported from the country and murdered in Nazi extermination camps, most of them in Auschwitz.

Giving a TV interview alongside the letter, Emanuele Filiberto also vaunted his family's positive role in Italian unification and granting of equal rights to Jews from 1848.

Several Italian royals were themselves deported to Nazi concentration camps, he recalled.

After the war, Victor Emmanuel III abdicated in May 1946 and died the following year in Egypt.

His son Humbert II reigned for only a month before leaving for Switzerland when Italians opted for a republican constitution in a referendum.

Parliament only ended a constitutional ban on the House of Savoy's male heirs returning to Italy in 2002, after Emanuele Filiberto and his father Vittorio Emanuele swore loyalty to the republic.

The two men gave up on compensation claims demanding 260 million euros for their family's exile and the return of the royal family's confiscated property after a public outcry.

Emanuele Filiberto is married to French actress Clotilde Courau.