Forty-five years after his death in the Dachau concentration camp in February 1945, wartime police officer Giovanni Palatucci was included in Israel’s Yad Vashem holocaust memorial as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. The honour was awarded for Palatucci’s key role in saving 5,000 Italian Jews from the Nazis. Thus he joined the pantheon of other Second World War heroes, including the German businessman Oscar Schindler, recognised for having risked everything in an effort to thwart the Final Solution.
Italy has enthusiastically lauded its countryman’s bravery as an example of heroism in the dark days of Mussolini’s race laws. In 1995 the Italian government awarded Palucci the Medaglia d’Oro for civil merit. The Vatican attributed to him the status of martyr and is considering the process of beatification.
But new evidence has called into question Palatucci’s reputation as “Italy’s Schindler” – and suggested that rather than save Jews, he was a willing Nazi collaborator who helped to send thousands to their deaths.
The research by Italian historians and Jewish institutions points instead to the possibility of an outrageous fraud, created by the man’s family and propagated by state institutions tarnished by Italy’s war record.
Even the stock claim underpinning Palatucci’s reputation appears to bear little scrutiny. How, ask critics, did he save more than 5,000 Jews escape a region where officially, the Jewish population was less than half that?
His bravery was said to have occurred between 1940 and 1944, during his time as police chief in the town of Fiume, a port on the Adriatic, which has since become part of Croatia and is now called Rijeka.
The tales of Palatucci’s heroism have been supported by official biographies — the latest of which, “Giovanni Palatucci: a right and a Christian martyr,” by Antonio De Simone and Michele Bianco, says he ensured thousands of Jews avoided the death camps by sending them instead to an internment camp in the southern town of Campagna where they would have been protected by Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, Giovanni’s uncle.
But Anna Pizzuti, editor of the database of foreign Jewish internees in Italy, told Corrier Della Sera newspaper that this assertion was “impossible”, adding: “No more than 40 Fiume residents were interned in Campagna. And a third of these ended up in Auschwitz.”
Biographies have also mentioned 800 Jewish refugees spirited out of Fiume in 1939 on a Greek ship that was headed for Palestine. This rescue operation, they say, was also the work of Palatucci.
However, port authority documents collected in the Italian State Archives suggest that credit lay with the Jewish Agency of Zurich – and that this was allowed to happen only with the agreement of Palatucci’s superiors, who cruelly refused permission for the poorest to sail.
In his book “Giovanni Palatucci: A True Recollection,” Marco Coslovich disputes even Palatucci’s official role. He says it was clear that “Palatucci never served as chief of police in Fiume,” but rather worked “as an adjunct vice commissioner under the control of superiors who were notoriously anti-Semitic”.
Crucially, he cites documentation that shows Palatucci was happy to obey commands and was considered “irreplaceable” by the head of the police.
Jewish historians in the US agree. This month, a letter from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to the Primo Levi Centre of Jewish Studies in New York claimed Palatucci was a “willing executor of the racial legislation… and collaborated with the Nazis”.
So how did the Palatucci’s heroic reputation come about? Coslovich and others claim that in 1952 Palatucci’s father Felice and his uncle, the bishop, created the story in order to obtain state pensions for surviving family members.
However, the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs records, in a memorandum dated July 1952, called into question the claims of heroism attributed to Palatucci. The more important question, therefore, might be: why have these claims persisted?
The Italian historian Simon Levis Sullam said that more than anything, the case of Giovanni Palatucci reflected the nation’s wartime guilt.
“I think Italians have in recent years been overwhelmingly preoccupied with finding and worshipping cases of “good” Italians, instead of dealing with Italian responsibilities during fascism and especially during the Holocaust,” he told The Independent, ahead of his talk at the International Association for Genocide Studies conference in Siena.
He noted, too that “most centre-right governments and [former Italian premier Silvio] Berlusconi personally” had been guilty of making ambiguous statements about Italy’s wartime record and its experiment with fascism. In January this year Berlusconi caused outcry after the Milan Holocaust memorial service by telling journalists that, leaving aside his racial segregation laws, Mussolini was “a leader, who in so many other ways did well”.
Others are also to blame as well, said Dr Levis Sullam, “especially Catholics in North America and in Italy, and also the Italian police”.
“Catholics always prefer to lay an emphasis on their rescue activities, which cannot be forgotten and which saved many lives, in order to avoid the question of the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust,” he said.
He suggested too, that the Catholic Church was keen to downplay its “contribution on theological and ideological grounds to the formation of modern anti-Semitism, as well as its support of the Fascist and Nazi dictatorships”.
“The Italian police,” he noted, “prefer to salute a supposed hero instead of dwelling on the responsibilities in the arrest of Jews and the confiscation of Jewish property in 1943-45.”
Regarding plans for Palatucci’s beatification, the Vatican says it has now asked a historian to look into the matter.
The Giovanni Palatucci Association has so far stuck by its hero, however, and attacked “revisionist historians”. It cites on its website individual cases where Jews claim relatives were saved by Palatucci’s direct intervention.
And in a key defence of Palatucci, its says that critics who claim it is untenable to suggest he saved 5,000 Jews in an area with a Jewish population of just half that number, have failed to take into account the huge number of migrant Jews from eastern or central Europe who may have been present.
Defenders of Palatucci has long pointed to his death, aged 35, in the dreadful Dachau concentration camp in February 1945 as a way of corroborating the story of his courage.
But the even the circumstances of his demise may belie their cause. It seems he was not sent to Dachau for saving Jews; documents in the state archives say he was incarcerated by the Germans for treason and embezzlement, having passed paperwork relating Fiume’s post-war independence to the British.