Last weekend, on a gorgeously sunny afternoon in a remote (and extraordinarily picturesque) village high in the mountains of central Italy, I attended a ceremony that, in signature Italian style, was operatic in its mix of hyperbole and sincere commitment.
The occasion was the dedication of a new piazza named in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is widely revered in Italy as "the Italian Schindler," an almost legendary Raoul Wallenberg-type hero who reputedly saved thousands of Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps by, among other things, providing them false documents. He was arrested and sent to Dachau, where he died in 1945 just weeks before the end of World War II.
Palatucci has been honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among Nations, and the Roman Catholic church has begun the process that could lead to his beatification. The ADL, the Italian Jewish community and the Italian Police also have honored his memory. The ADL even created a curriculum to teach about him.
The new piazza in Polino, a tiny medieval fortress of about 300 people, joined squares, streets, schools and other places named for Palatucci all over Italy. Etched in stone, now, its name plaque honors Palatucci for "sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation."
The problem is that recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on whether Palatucci actually did what he is revered for doing. Though documentation shows that he saved at least a few Jewish individuals, the figure of 5,000 that is usually cited for the number he rescued appears to be considerably inflated. And though it is commonly believed that the Nazis arrested him and sent him to Dachau for saving Jews, this also does not appear to be the case -- he was sent there, research indicates, for having been in touch with Allied forces.
“A growing chorus of historians and scholars,” Italian journalist Alessandra Farkas wrote recently in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, say Palatucci “is nothing but a myth, a sensational fraud orchestrated by the alleged hero’s friends and relatives who claim he saved more than 5,000 Jews in a region where there lived fewer than half that number of Jews.”
The Primo Levi Center in New York organized a round-table discussion on the issue in April 2012. There, the former director of the department of the righteous at Yad Vashem, Mordecai Paldiel, said Palatucci had been recognized in 1990 as a Righteous Gentile for having helped save "just one woman" in 1940, and the commission had received no other information that he had saved others, though that might be possible. (The full round table can be viewed on line at: http://vimeo.com/40177189)
In Italy, the Giovanni Palatucci Association angrily rejected the criticism. And, in an article in the Vatican's official newspaper, Italian-Jewish historian Anna Foa wrote thar more documentation and study were needed before Palatucci's actions were discredited.
But the ADL announced it this week it would remove Palatucci’s name from its Courageous Leadership Award to Italian and American law enforcement officers. And the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is removing material on Palatucci from its exhibitions and web site. The Vatican is also said to be reviewing its recognition.
General view of Polino from above (in early spring).
The controversy dates back half a dozen years and more, as scholars for the first time began serious research on the history of rescuers .
“There is very little clarity on historical sources,” historian Marco Coslovich, who published a book in 2008 questioning the extent of Palatucci’s actions, said in an interview with the deputy director of the Primo Levi Center in 2010. “The Police archives have no records detailing what Palatucci has allegedly done to save thousands of Jews.”
Regardless of the facts -- whatever they may be -- Palatucci remains a beloved popular hero here, a potent symbol of what Italians like to believe they are, or what they could – or should -- be.
This was strikingly evident Saturday in Polino at the dedication ceremony. Speeches held him up as an example of righteous -- even saintly -- Christian behavior. And -- like the plaque denoting the newly named piazza -- honored him for “sacrificing his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation."
The mayor, in his red-white-and-green sash; regional police representatives; two priests, including a police chaplain, and other VIPS all took part. One of the words I heard them use most was “altruism” – a clear attempt to urge citizens to care for others, in a society where “family first” is often still a guiding principle.
In the end, I took part in the ceremony, too.
No Jews live (or probably ever lived) in Polino; there are only about 30,000 or so Jews among Italy’s 60 million people. A representative of Italian Jewry had been invited, but could not come because it was Shabbat.
I was at the ceremony not because I’m a Jew, but because I'm a friend of the local artist who created the sculptural monument erected in the new piazza: a bust of Palatucci framed by a gate bearing the "arbeit macht frei" Nazi slogan.
Still, as the speeches went on, and the police band played, and the priests blessed the monument, it became clear to me that a Jewish voice was sorely lacking. I felt compelled to say something, amid all the high ideals and abstract discourse about "Jews," their salvation and what that meant for Christian values.
So I asked to speak – and was welcomed by the officials when I did so.
The Mayor of Polino (in sash) unveils the monument and piazza Giovanni Palatucci plaque. The plaque reads that Palatucci "sacrificed his life to save thousands of Jews from deportation."
I didn’t know if anyone else there was mindful of the shadows being cast now over Palatucci's record, and under the circumstances I felt I could not even refer to this.
Perhaps it’s the thought that counts anyway – and despite the hagiography, the thought behind the ceremony was not just to honor someone who is widely believed to have risked his life to save Jews, but to encourage today's Italians themselves to step in and help people in need.
In my brief remarks I ended up, in fact, not talking about Palatucci at all, but about the importance – the duty -- to honor those who did what others did not do during the Shoah, and by extension those who do what others do not do in the face of today’s injustices. We have a teaching, I told them, that whoever saves one life is considered to save the world.
And then I also presented the message I always feel that I must expound when speaking as a Jew at Holocaust commemorations or similar events in small Italian towns where few if anyone in the audience has ever actually seen a living Jewish person.
That is, that we are people like them, human beings -- and not abstract stereotypes, or statistics, or eccentric oddities or victims in death camp striped pajamas.
And PS: more than 500 Italians have been named Righteous Gentiles, though few know any name other than Palatucci. I found it somewhat ironic that one of these heroes, Odoardo Focherini, who actually was deported and killed for saving Jews, was beatified by the Catholic church the day after the Polino Piazza Palatucci ceremony.