Italy’s Holocaust Amnesia

A grotesque painting by a prominent Italian artist that demonizes Jews in an act of “ritual murder” has focused attention on Italy’s current political climate, in which a surge in anti-Semitic rhetoric, neo-fascism and Holocaust denial are whipping up tensions.

The painting, called “The Martyrdom of Simon of Trent According To Ritual Murder” is a lifelike depiction of evil-looking Jews draining the blood of a terrified Christian child, based on an infamous blood libel in 15th century Italy.

Two-year old Simon’s disappearance and death in 1475 were blamed on the leaders of the Jewish community of Trent, who were arrested and brutally tortured. Fifteen innocent people were burned at the stake, and the town was destroyed in a pogrom that erupted following the executions. The aftershocks of this atrocity provoked a widespread surge in anti-Semitic violence throughout medieval Europe.

Giovanni Gasparro’s massive painting portrays several of the vilest-looking perpetrators wearing shtreimels, although this form of head covering appeared only centuries after the incident, in regions remote from Trent.

The historical incongruity—certainly no accident—conveys the artist’s toxic message: Far from being a bygone relic of ancient times, “Jewish ritual murderers” are in our midst today, and can be found everywhere

Battle Over Censorship

The 7-foot monstrosity with its Jew-hating tropes resides in a private collection, but an image of the painting was unveiled in April on the artist’s social media website where it garnered considerable attention, much of it positive.

Who are these thousands of online Gasparro admirers who, judging by their comments, are delighted with his bigotry? They appear to be coming from opposite sides of Italy’s political spectrum; neo-Nazis; traditional Catholics; pro-Palestinian jihadist and left-wing “antifa” (anti-fascist) extremists.

In supporting Gasparro, these fans unfailingly cite Gaza and the Israeli “murder” of Palestinian children. Poles apart and bitterly adversarial on almost all major issues, these groups have no trouble finding common cause when it comes to hatred of Jews and Israel. Israel. Ancient blood libel myths and other Jew-hating symbols re-emerge with the Italian brand of pro-Palestinian propaganda

Responding begrudgingly to a wave of protests against the painting’s hate-mongering, Facebook compelled Gasparro to remove the offensive posts from his account. This drew cries of “unfair censorship” that mimicked protests in Italy’s parliament regarding a recent proposal to form a commission to investigate hate-mongering and anti-Semitism.

The move was vigorously opposed by Italy’s rightist blockwhose parties are hostile to immigrants and Jews. “This is really about political censorship,” protested a spokesman. “Now they could call me racist for wanting to curb migrant boat landings. Or could censure a mayor for saying he wants to assign housing projects to Italians first.”

The entire right-wing opposition abstained from the proposal to monitor hate speech. It passed, however, without their votes.

The idea to create the committee came from Senator Liliana Segre, a Holocaust survivor. Segre expressed bewilderment at the abstentions, telling Italian reporters they made her feel “like a Martian in the Senate.”

To her surprise, her proposal triggered a stream of abuse against her on social media. When the hate messages she was receiving escalated to death threats last November, the government assigned her a security escort.

Ruth Dureghello, president of the Rome Jewish Community, says this shameful escalation is a sign of “Italian society’s seven decades of failure in education” since World War II.

“It’s a real crisis for all of us, for the democracy,” she told NPR. “That this survivor needs protection is a clear throwback to the past.”

Segre, who was deported to Auschwitz at 13, was granted the title of ‘senator for life” in 2018 by Italy’s president, in recognition of her efforts to educate schoolchildren about the Holocaust from the perspective of her personal odyssey.

She occasionally speaks up for minority rights in a country increasingly infected by far-right populism, whose leaders preach “Immigrants out!” and “Italy for the Italians!” These right-wing groups also tend to embrace conspiracy theories about Jews controlling world finance and exploiting the poor.

That anti-Semitism is resurging in Europe, and that Jewish schools and shuls require police protection is nothing new. But the news that a gentle 91-year old Holocaust survivor required a police escort to counter death threats stirred a strong response in Italy, capturing headlines in several leading dailies.

What Kind of Country Is This Where a Death Camp Survivor Needs a Police Escort?” demanded one paper, quoted by The Atlantic.

The image has evoked memories of fascism under Mussolini who was an ally of Nazi Germany, although a majority of Italians are too young to know much about that period, and the older generation prefers not to remember.

Fascism’s Long Shadow

Unlike some other countries that supported fascist or collaborationist regimes during the Holocaust, critics say, Italy never came to terms with its wartime activities, and never fully stamped out fascist ideology afterward.

Postwar democratic governments in Italy whitewashed the past, pretending that Italian fascism had been a momentary aberration and was now dead and buried. There were very few war crimes trials and no one paid a price for crimes committed against the Jews.

The rampant evil of the perpetrators, enablers and bystanders was swiftly covered up.

Fascists simply returned to the new society, resuming their careers as if nothing had happened. Many continue to secretly nurture nostalgia for the old fascist order, in which passionate nationalism gave people a sense of superiority over “outsiders.”

Noemi Di Segni, the president of the Union of the Italian Jewish Community, Italy’s largest Jewish organization, said the increased tolerance for “Mussolini and fascist nostalgia” in Italy was “creating an uncomfortable climate for Jews.”

“The police protection of Ms. Segre,” she said, “is not only to protect the senator, it’s about protecting Italy.”

Many rank and file Italians agree with her. NPR quoted a restaurant owner in Milan saying that what happened to Segre makes him ashamed to be Italian. It’s also, he says, a warning.

“Unfortunately, history teaches us that when Jews are under attack, that leads to persecutions, dictatorships and misfortunes for society as a whole,” says di Porto. “Therefore, non-Jews are the first ones who should be worried about what’s happening here.”

‘The Good Italians’?

Holocaust-trivialization and denial find fertile ground in Italy. Italians have “wiped their Holocaust slate clean,” critic say, by taking refuge in having been a reluctant partner in the alliance with Hitler’s Germany, with many arguing that most did their best to protect Italian Jews.

Italian historians have described Italy during the 1930s and 40s as benevolent and protective towards the Jews. Most have ignored Italy’s anti-Semitic campaign beginning in 1938 that expelled the Jews from Italian society, branding them as “foreigners” and “intruders,” and setting the stage for their annihilation.

The fact is, thousands of Italian civilians helped the Nazis murder Jews during the Holocaust, according to a recently translated Italian book, The Italian Executioners: The Genocide of the Jews of Italy by Simon Levis Sullam, a professor of modern history in Venezia, Italy, and in Oxford.

The book, published in 2015, contradicts popular assumptions that Italians did not cooperate with the Nazis in sending Italian Jews to their death. It examines the active participation of ordinary Italians in the deportation of Italian Jews between 1943 and 1945, as well as of the subsequent erasure of all guilt during the postwar years.

The Italian Executioners argues that many ordinary Italians were willing to become executioners in the assault on Italian Jews, and that this secret guilt lies at the heart of Italian national identity.

From 1943 until Italy was liberated by the Allies, citizens served as truck drivers, transit camp guards, train conductors, or in numerous other capacities to enact the “Final Solution” in Italy. As in other parts of Europe, civilians played an essential role in not only identifying and informing on Jews, but sometimes arresting Jews themselves.

Levis Sullam examined the fate of more than 6,000 Italian Jews (out of a population of 40,000) who were hunted down, deported, and murdered during the last two years of World War II. As in Germany and the Netherlands, meticulous records helped identify and isolate the country’s 40,000 Jews and speed up the deportation process.

As Iliana Segre attests in her memoir, “The manhunt began…an astonishing round-up…exhaustive efforts to uncover Jews—even children and newborns. Italian police commissioners handed over detailed lists with addresses that had been written up by the fascists: they had organized the manhunt so that the occupying Nazis’ search would be enormously simple.”

Levis Sullam focuses on local Holocaust history gleaned from Italian archives, naming the leading anti-Semites in several cities, and quoting from radio broadcasts, political speeches, and anti-Semitic schoolbooks.

“Jews be burnt, one by one, and their ashes scattered in the wind,” intoned a broadcaster on Radio Roma in 1938 that is quoted in the book.

As in other parts of Europe, civilians played an essential role in not only identifying and informing on Jews, but sometimes arresting Jews themselves. For nearly two years, citizens served as truck drivers, transit camp guards, train conductors, or in numerous other capacities to enact the “Final Solution” in Italy.

Rejected by Swiss, Betrayed by Italians

Segre was arrested with her father in early 1944, as they tried to escape to Lugano, Switzerland. Swiss border police handed them over to Italian authorities who handed them over to the SS. They were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

Liliana was one of 776 Jewish Italian children under the age of 14 who were sent to the Nazi death camp. Only 25 survived. In Auschwitz, she was immediately separated from her father. He died there weeks later.

When Auschwitz was finally liberated in Jan. 1945, Liliana was not there to witness it. She had been sent on a death march with tens of thousands of prisoners who continued to suffer Nazi atrocities until April of that year.

“First we crossed Poland and Silesia and then, we were in Germany,” she recalled during a speech in Brussels at an EU memorial conference on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January.

“After months of marching on frozen, wounded feet…eating snow and dirt….we arrived at the Jugendlager in Ravensbruck at the end of April. How many dropped dead of starvation or were murdered for not being able to keep up! Although the war was over in many places [this was after Auschwitz and other camps had been liberated], no one, in all the towns we were marched through, opened the window or threw a piece of bread to us.”

Liliana and other half-dead survivors were liberated by the Soviet army in March, 1945.

The war had already been over for Italy for close to nine months. Rome was the first city to be liberated by the Allies in June, 1944, after months of bitter fighting. By the fall, the rest of the country was in Allied hands.

For more than a half-century, Liliana remained quiet about her tragedy, even to her own children and grandchildren. But in the 1990s she began taking part in dozens of school assemblies and conferences of all types to describe what she had endured. She became for Italians the human face of the Holocaust’s impact on Italian Jewry.

In Nov. 2019, to counteract what many identified as an increase in minority bashing, she called for the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate hate, racism and anti-Semitism on social media.

She suddenly found herself at the heart of a national uproar pitting political extremists from opposite sides against each other. Part of the brouhaha was ignited by neo-fascists belittling Holocaust history, using rhetoric typical of Holocaust deniers.

Levis Sullam believes that Italy has ignored the “era of the executioner” in order to prop up its national identity by embellishing the “era of the savior” (with 400 Italians being honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Gentiles.) That has helped pave the way for the growth of Holocaust denial.

In the author’s assessment, the minimizing of Italians’ role in the Holocaust began with the passage of a 1946 amnesty. “Although half of Italy’s murdered Jews were arrested by Italians as opposed to Nazis,” he writes, “the persecution of Jews was not considered a crime or a specific offense” after the war. The guilt of the collaborators was thus allowed to fade from national consciousness.

Some experts refer to a destructive force spawned by Holocaust guilt that haunts the perpetrator although he cannot remember the evil, or doesn’t want to remember. Guilt of this sort morphs into hatred for the victims, for bearing witness to the terrible crimes that might otherwise be submerged in the drift toward Holocaust “amnesia.”

In Italy, even as the country spends millions on beautiful Holocaust memorials, that drift continues, driven increasingly by denial. For as everyone knows, it is far easier to honor dead Jews than to respect living ones.

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The Spread of Blood Libel in Europe

The allegation that Jews engage in ritual murder made its debut in the 12th century, when allegations that Jews had murdered a young boy to acquire Christian blood for matzah-baking erupted in Norwich, England.

Within just 50 years’ time, Christians in eight European cities had accused Jews of ritual murder.

The libels crisscrossing Europe began to follow a nightmarish pattern: Criminal investigations and interrogation under torture leading directly to mob lynching, or “judicial” murder—usually burning at the stake. This was often followed by wholesale expulsions of Jewish populations.

By the end of the 13th century, the number of blood libel outbreaks had more than tripled and spread to almost every corner of Europe. This was in spite of some principled rulers and medieval popes issuing edicts that declared ritual murder charges unequivocally false.

An Extortion Tool

Over the centuries, the blood libel became deeply rooted in Christian culture, in large measure an outgrowth of the church’s continued demonization of Jews. The demented ravings of the 16th century Jew-hating priest Martin Luther, in particular, cemented the ritual murder charge in the Christian worldview.

But there was often a mercenary motive behind the libel, writes historian Emily Rose in Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. “Sometimes it was a way [for the accusers] to get money or make their town more famous as a place for pilgrimages, after a murdered child became a martyred “saint” and his/her grave converted into a shrine.”

Some Christians purposely hid their children and pretended they had been kidnapped and killed, so that they could use blood libel to extort money from Jews. Others who owed large sums to Jewish moneylenders resorted to fomenting a blood libel against their creditors in order to free themselves from debt.

For example, Hungary witnessed major blood libel cases in Tyrnau in 1494 and 1536, as well as in Posing in 1529. The Posing atrocity was instigated by the local count, Ferenc Wolf, who owed sizable sums to Jewish creditors. [Hillel Kieval; YIVO]

After Wolf proclaimed in public that Jews had killed a Christian child in order to use the blood for ritual purposes, thirty Jews were arrested, among them community leaders, including Rabbi Moshe ben Yaakov haKohen and his children. All were burned at the stake; the remaining Jews were expelled from the city. The local count was thus freed of his debt to the Jewish moneylender.

The boy, for whose “murder” the Jews were slaughtered, was eventually found alive.

The blood libel was transferred to the Arab world by Christian missionaries, surfacing in the infamous Damascus Affair in 1840. Today it is a recurring feature of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism.

In “the blood libel of the century,” as the internationally publicized 1913 Mendel Beilus trial came to be known, a brilliant team of Russian defense attorneys strove to dismantle the poisonous stereotypes about Jews once and for all.

Although Beilus was acquitted, the Jew-hating tropes continued to simmer beneath the surface. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hitler exploited these libels to demonize all Jews.

Not surprisingly, the blood libel continued to incite violence even after the Holocaust ended, inciting murderous attacks on Jewish Holocaust survivors in the Polish cities of Keilce, Krakow and Rezeszow.

*****

Excerpts from “The Final Journey,” a Holocaust Memoir by Liliana Segre

During the last days of January, the fifth cellblock in San Vittore Prison filled with Jews shipped from all over Italy; there were about seven hundred of us.

At a certain point, a German came into the cellblock and read the names of those who were to leave the following day for an unspecified destination. There were some 600 names, it went on and on.

The next morning, January 30, 1944, a long line of silent, suffering people filed out of the fifth cellblock into the prison yard.

We walked through another cellblock filled with common criminals. They leaned out over the railings and threw oranges, apples, biscuits down to us; but most of all, they shouted words of encouragement, solidarity and blessing! I will never forget this. These were men who, seeing others going to their slaughter for no reason other than they were Jewish, felt true pity.

It was our last contact with human beings. We were loaded brutally onto the trucks and driven through the deserted city. At the intersection with Via Carducci, I caught a split second glimpse of my home at Corso Magenta number 55. For the last time.

When we got to the Central Station, the convoy of trucks drove into the cavernous sublevel; we were unloaded next to the sidings that are still there today, in the bowels of the station.

It all happened so quickly. With kicks, fists and truncheons, the SS and Italian police herded us into the livestock cars. As soon as the car was filled, the doors were bolted shut and the car was lifted in an elevator up to the departure platform.

It was not until they started joining the cars together that any of us grasped what was happening. Everything had taken place in the darkness of the sublevel underground station, illuminated with powerful spotlights only in strategic points, amidst shouts, barking dogs, whistles and terrifying brutality.

It was dark in the car. The train started moving and seemed to be headed south. It went very slowly, stopping for hours. Through the grates, we saw the countryside of Emilia in the winter mist and deserted stations with familiar names. The adults appeared somewhat relieved that the train was not directed towards the border. But in the evening it switched direction and we knew that we were heading north, towards Austria. We were filled with dread.

The sound of the wheels was drowned out by a chorus of sobbing. Shouts and pleas issued from the sealed cars but fell on deaf ears. The car was cold and fetid, the stench of urine…grey faces, stiffened limbs; we had no room to move. The weeping subsided into quiet desperation.

I fell into a delirium and couldn’t eat, like when you have a high fever. I hugged my father tightly. He was devastated, pale, with the reddened eyes, not having slept for days. He begged me to eat something. He still had a sliver of chocolate for me; I put it in my mouth just to make him happy but I couldn’t swallow anything.

A prayer group formed in the center of the car. Several religious men – I remember Signor Silvera among them – swayed back and forth for a long time reciting the Psalms. They seemed to go on forever. They were the lucky ones.

The hours went by, days and nights went by, in total listlessness: it was difficult to mark time. Every now and then I saw someone get up stiffly to try to figure out where we were, peering through the grate, plugged with rags to shield ourselves from the ice-cold. We saw a landscape immersed in snow, small beckoning houses, smoking chimneys, bell towers…

The train stopped as we were entering the Black Forest and some were able to get off to get a bit of water and empty the foul bucket, surrounded by SS guards armed to the teeth. For the first time, we saw the words written on the cattle car: “Auschwitz bei Katowice.” In a flash, we understood.

There was a shattering silence in the car on those last days. No one cried anymore. Everyone held silent with the dignity and awareness of those on the eve of their death, facing their final moments. We hugged our loved ones, giving them all our brokenhearted love in a final good-bye.

And then, and then…we were in that unspeakable place, with the deafening obscene clamor of the murderers surrounding us on all sides…