Lest We Forget: How Italy Helped Jewish Refugees in World War 2

http://thekoalamom.com/2009/07/book-review-it-happened-in-italy.htmlMost people are aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and what happened to Jews in central Europe during World War II.  Less well known is the story of Jews in Italy and how the Italians actually saved the lives of many Jewish refugees.  I find this story particularly interesting because my great-uncle actually fought in Italy during World War II.  Unfortunately, he passed away last summer, just a few months before his 100th birthday, so his stories of the war are now lost.

Italy in World War II

Italy passed anti-Semitic laws in 1938, but these were tolerable and many Jews simply continued doing business “under the table.” As early as 1939, many Jews in Germany were aware of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and tried to flee.  However, as Elizabeth Bettina explains in It Happened in Italy, “Without a visa, you could not enter another country, and during this time, almost every country in the world turned its back on the Jews” (Thomas Nelson, 2009).  Italy alone allowed Jews to enter without visas.  As a result, many Jews relocated to Italian cities and continued their lives and business there.

In 1940, Italy became Germany’s ally.  However, Italy didn’t cooperate in the Nazi’s plan to kill European Jews.  Italians didn’t participate in genocide or allow deportations from Italy to the Nazi extermination camps.  Jews were even protected by Italian military officers and officials.  Thus between 1941 and 1943, many Jews from German-occupied territories found refuge in Italy and Italian-occupied territories.

Mussolini was overthrown in 1943 and Italy joined the Allies.  Germany quickly invaded and began deporting Jews to German concentration camps.  Almost 10,000 Jews were deported and over 7,000 of these died in Auschwitz and other German camps.  However, many would have died if Italian authorities hadn’t obstructed the deportations.  Many Italian Jews were able to hide or escape southward to Allied-occupied areas of Italy.  Thus more than 40,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Italy (USHMM).

Italian Concentration Camps

While there were concentration camps in Italy, these camps were vastly different from those in Germany and Poland.  Eva Costabel, who was interned in the Italian concentration camp Porto Re, explains, “The Italian military did not want to deliver us to the Nazis… and they gave the Jewish leaders the right to administer the daily life of the camp, which gave us a fair amount of autonomy in our daily lives” (Bettina).

Internees in Italian concentration camps wore their own clothes, played cards, visited with their neighbours, and generally led normal lives.  Jewish internees were usually placed with their families; officials even transferred people from one camp to another camp to keep families together.  Jews in the camp were allowed to set up synagogues and practice their faith.

As Costabel says, “The camp was not a death camp.  They didn’t kill anybody” (Bettina).  Edith Birns, a survivor of Auschwitz, told Bettina, “The Italians treated them like human beings.  [My husband] Fred survived for six years in Italy.  No one could ever have survived six years in German concentration camps.”

In the horrors of this era of history, the story of Italy helping its Jews stands out as remarkable.  One country refused to follow Hitler’s lead and the result was thousands of lives saved.


  1. jakob ehrlich says

    It really struck me to learn that there was a book like ” It happened in Italy” The story of Jews saved by Italy.
    I happen to be a real survivor and witness to that. Me and my family were in Porto Re camp. I have recently travelled to Italy and thanked the Italian people(Southern Italy (Puglia) I was awarded the Honorary Citizenship I have spoken to the OSIA (organization Sons of Italian Americans) in Florida letting them know of this very little known fact.
    My story was published in the Palm Beach Post newspaper in Florida last year.(On the run from the Nazis)
    I shall continue to do this while still alive and be for ever grateful to our saviour ITALY

  2. says

    WOW! I never realized Italy’s side of the War. This sounds like a great book as I’m a huge History buff! I’ll have to read it! Since marrying my husband (whos family is GERMAN) I have learned there are MANY misconceptions about the wars. A lot of it is true, but a lot is not.

    • says

      Jennifer – I’m not surprised there are many misconceptions! Your husband’s perspective would be interesting. We really only get one side of the story over here!

  3. says

    Wow Bonnie, there is so much about this time that we just don’t know. Thank you for shedding some light on this. I must add that you say your great uncle’s stories are lost, but they don’t have to be. You can use your talent to write to share these with so many! Our children will soon only have these stories to learn from so that history does not repeat itself…


    • says

      Suz – yes, I’ve always thought about sitting down with my grandparents and getting their stories. I’m sure my grandpa would remember some of my great-uncle’s stories, or perhaps his kids and grandkids would have heard them. You’re right that it’s important to record these stories for our kids! :)

  4. says

    What an incredible read. And you’re right – how the Italians saved the Jewish refugees’ lives and allowing them their autonomy, is not something that I have ever heard of or read about. Amazing. I’m adding this to my list! Thank you!

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