Palatucci, shadows cast on the life of the “Italian Schindler”
Said to have saved over 5,000 Jews in a region where there were not even half that
number. Myth or sensational hoax?
From our correspondent ALESSANDRA FARKAS
NEW YORK – His Wikipedia page remembers him, in at least ten different languages, as “the Italian police commissioner who saved thousands of Jews from being deported to Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War and for this was deported to the Dachau Concentration Camp, where he died.” “For his actions, Giovanni Palatucci was decorated with the ‘Medaglia d’oro’ award for civil merit, and honored as one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem (September 12, 1990) and ‘Servant of God’ by the Catholic Church,” according to the free encyclopedia.
ITALIAN SCHINDLER OR FRAUD? – But if we heed the growing chorus of historians and scholars who for years have been studying the most celebrated of “righteous” Italians, the myth of Palatucci is nothing more than a sensational fraud orchestrated by the alleged hero’s friends and relatives who claimed he had saved over 5,000 Jews in a region where there
lived less than half that number of Jews. The hypothesis of a massive rescue mission by Palatucci had already been categorically denied by the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs in a memorandum dated July 1952 and later by Yad Vashem’s Institute of the Righteous commission in 1990. At a round table discussion organized by the Centro Primo Levi at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò in New York, the ex-director of Yad Vashem, Mordecai Paldiel explained that under his supervision, in 1990, Palatucci was recognized “Righteous Among the Nations” for having helped “just one woman,” Elena Aschkenasy, in 1940, and that the commission “did not find any evidence or testimony that he might have assisted anyone outside of this case.”
PRIZES, RECOGNITIONS AND BIOGRAPHIES – And yet in 1955 the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities recognized him and in 1995 the Italian government decorated him with the “Medaglia d’oro” award for civil merit. During the ecumenical ceremony for the Jubilee on May 7, 2000, Pope John Paul II included him among the martyrs of the 20th century.
THE DROWNED AND THE SAVED – The biographies then recall the 800 Jewish refugees who in 1939 secretly boarded a Greek ship, the Agia Zoni, that departed from Fiume on March 17, 1939 headed for Palestine and that is said to have been personally organized by the heroic commissioner. But from the diary of the group’s guide preserved at Yad Vashem and the documents of the port authority collected in the Italian State Archives, it becomes clear that it was actually an operation of the Jewish Agency of Zurich, carried out under the strict watch of Palatucci’s superiors who not only exacted a painful process of extortion but also sent back to the border the neediest refugees, the stateless and those who came from Dachau.
FROM REALITY TO MYTH – From the archives we find that Palatucci was an officer of public security at the police headquarters in Fiume from 1937 to 1944, where he worked in the immigration bureau and was in charge of the census of Jewish citizens on the basis of which the Prefecture applied Mussolini’s Racial Laws. Precisely in Fiume the census was conducted so thoroughly and the laws applied with such zeal that it provoked international protests and a reaction from the Ministry of Internal Affairs itself. According to the monograph by Silva Bon Le Comunità ebraiche della Provincia italiana del Carnaro Fiume e Abbazia (1924-1945) and the data collected in the Libro della Memoria by Liliana Picciotto, during Palatucci’s brief regency the percentage of Jews deported from Fiume was among the highest in Italy. The family portrait recently published by Silvia Cuttin, Ci sarebbe bastato, clearly and accurately depicts the tragic experience of the Jews of Fiume.
A ZEALOUS AND WILLING FASCIST – In Giovanni Palatucci, Una Giusta Memoria Marco Coslovich reconstructs the ambiguous professional profile of a vice commissioner of police who at just thirty years of age swears loyalty to the Republic of Salò. “Palatucci never served as chief of police in Fiume,” Coslovich reveals, “but as an adjunct vice commissioner under the control of superiors who were notoriously anti-Semitic.” As opposed to being in conflict with them, documentation shows that he was considered a model public servant. Considered to be “irreplaceable” by the prefect Testa, he fully enjoyed the favor of his superiors.
Between April and the beginning of September 1944, he was regent and directly dependent to the upper echelon of Salò, Tullio Tamburini and Eugenio Cerruti. Even the historian Michele Sarfatti in the episode of the television program La storia siamo noi dedicated to Palatucci, in 2008, expressed doubts as to the plausibility of the disproportionate numbers attributed to a community that numbered just over a thousand people, furthermore, who between immigration and internment were reduced to little more than 500 by October 1943.
HIS UNCLE, THE BISHOP – Between 1952 and 1953, bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci availed himself of the collaboration of Rodolfo Grani, a Jew from Fiume of Hungarian origin whom he had met during Grani’s brief internment in Campagna. However, the historian Mauro Canali, expert in the history of the fascist police system at the University of Camerino, maintains that in the copious documentary evidence regarding Grani there is no indication that he ever met Giovanni Palatucci. Someone who did, however, meet Palatucci was the Baron Niel Sachs de Gric, also a Fiume-based Jew of Hungarian descent, a lawyer in the ecclesiastical court and representative of the Holy See for the Concordat with Jugoslavia. In 1952, the bishop sent De Gric an article for publication in the periodical Osservatore Romano with an “invitation” to sign it with his own name. The documents attributed to Grani and Sachs, whose authenticity demands to be verified and neither of which received the commissioner’s assistance, are the origin of the entire Palatucci epic. The last piece of the legend to fall is the one connected to the circumstances of his death. The arrest warrant signed by Herbert Kappler and deposited in the Central Archives of State leaves no doubt: Palatucci was accused of treason by the Germans for having transmitted to the enemy (the British) documents of the Social Republic of Salò requesting negotiations for Fiume’s independence. Not for having protected the Jews of that city.
Translated by STEVE BAKER