Italy's Jews from Emancipation to Fascism

Cambridge University Press  2018


This well-researched book brings a new and original perspective to what Shira Klein calls “the myth of Italian benevolence” toward Jews during World War II. Dr. Klein takes an especially close look at the portions of the myth perpetrated by Jews themselves, and brings new clarity to the still-significant debate about the extent of Italy’s role in the Holocaust.

Using memoirs, letters, diaries and personal interviews, the author painstakingly uncovers how Italian Jews promoted the view that Italy was good to them—despite the fact that they were victims of Italian persecution. In the years before the Holocaust, most Jews living in Italy were fervent patriots. While they held fast to their Jewish culture, they became thoroughly Italian in their minds and hearts. From their emancipation in 1848 until they were rudely awakened by the passage of a set of anti-Semitic laws nearly a century later in 1938, their allegiance to Italy was firm and passionate.

There were 45,000 Jews living in Italy in 1938, when the racist laws were enacted. As in other Axis countries, the children were expelled from school, family businesses were taken over, and many of the Jews were imprisoned in Italian concentration camps. Klein presents a finely outlined picture of the depth and breadth of Italian anti-Semitism, which, though far milder than German racism, nonetheless presents a picture of significant complicity in the Holocaust.

Yet, the mistaken idea that Italy was good to Jews during the Holocaust still prevails.

Skillfully using the voices of the Italian Jews who lived through the events, Dr. Klein demonstrates how and why Jews in the interwar period accepted and sometimes even supported Italian fascism, bolstered the myth of Italy’s wartime innocence, and created a narrative about their lives that is often at odds with reality.

The book is unusual in that it covers both the war years and the pre- and post-war experiences of the Jews, following the migration of many to America and Palestine. The scope of the book allows the author to present the sweep of history in a deep and convincing way as she strips away prejudice and sets the events in a clear, cold light.

Few works have studied the subject of Jewish support for fascism, and Dr. Klein’s exposition is both fluid and fluent. Students and scholars of Jewish studies, modern Jewish history, Italy and the Holocaust, fascism, and the Second World War will find this book thought-provoking and very worthwhile.

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