Italy’s Jews from Eman­ci­pa­tion to Fascism

Shi­ra Klein

By – May 7, 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.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

Discussion Questions


Shi­ra Klein’s Italy’s Jews from Eman­ci­pa­tion to Fas­cism sheds new light on the mod­ern Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in Italy and con­tra­dicts some wide­ly held beliefs. Klein shows how Jews, who came to feel at home in Italy after its 1871 uni­fi­ca­tion, were intense­ly patri­ot­ic; many even sup­port­ed the fas­cist regime that came to pow­er in 1922. Their Ital­ian patri­o­tism was so strong as to remain unaf­fect­ed by the an — ti-Jew­ish decrees pro­mul­gat­ed by Mus­soli­ni in 1938, which they wrong­ly attrib­uted to Ger­man pres­sure. Most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the par­tic­i­pa­tion of some Ital­ians in the roundups and depor­ta­tions that began after Ger­man occu­pa­tion of the coun­try in 1943 did not change the atti­tudes of many Ital­ian Jews, both at home and among those who had emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States and Israel. They large­ly remained in — vest­ed in the bra­va gente nar­ra­tive that por­trayed Ital­ians as uni­form­ly hero­ic and ready to help their Jew­ish com­pa­tri­ots in the face of Nazi evil.

Writ­ing Based on Archival Material

Shi­ra Klein’s Italy’s Jews from Eman­ci­pa­tion to Fas­cism uses mem­oirs, let­ters, diaries, archival mate­ri­als, and per­son­al inter­views to explore how Ital­ian Jews pro­mot­ed the view that Italy was good to them. In the years before the Holo­caust, most Jews liv­ing in Italy were fer­vent patri­ots, embrac­ing fas­cism and Mus­soli­ni. Remain­ing loy­al to Jew­ish cul­ture, they became thor­ough­ly Ital­ian from the time they were grant­ed eman­ci­pa­tion in 1848. While they were rude­ly awak­ened by the pas­sage of a set of anti­se­mit­ic laws near­ly a cen­tu­ry lat­er, in 1938, their alle­giance to Italy remained firm. In this out­stand­ing work, Klein inte­grates mate­r­i­al from the Cen­tral Zion­ist Archives, the JDC archives, and numer­ous archives in Italy into her tale to exam­ine a com­plex episode in history.