The recent death of Italian Nobel laureate and centenarian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini highlights one of the lesser-known segments of Jewish history in Europe. Levi-Montalcini’s enormous lifespan included tumultuous periods in the life of Jews in Italy – most notably, the rise of Fascism and Benito Mussolini and the subsequent Nazi Holocaust of World War II.
Born to a wealthy Jewish family in the northern city of Turin, Levi-Montalcini graduated in medicine. But after the Fascists blocked Jews from academic and professional careers in 1937, she found herself adrift, forced to conduct scientific experiments in her bedroom.
The trajectory of Jews, who have lived in the Italian peninsula since Roman times, has been rather unusual.
Indeed, the American Council For Judaism (ACF) stated in a report that at one time Italian Jews were among the most assimilated in Europe, if not the world. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a good number of Jews in Italy served as generals, Cabinet ministers and even prime minister.
ACF noted that in 1920, there were 19 Jewish senators in Italy. In 1910, Luigi Luzzatti, a Venetian Jew, actually became prime minister.
Cecil Roth, author of “History of the Jews of Italy,” wrote that after the liberation of the ghettoes in 1870, “there was no land in either hemisphere where conditions were or could be better [for Jews]. It was not only that disabilities were removed, as happened elsewhere too during these momentous years, but that the Jews were accepted freely, naturally and spontaneously as members of the Italian people, on a perfect footing of equality with their neighbors.”
The rates of intermarriage between Jews and Christians were much higher in Italy than anywhere else in Europe. Even the emergence of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in 1922 did not bring immediate hardship to the Jewish people in the country.
In fact, Jews were largely left alone during the first 15 years of Mussolini's Fascist rule in Italy, although Il Duce sometimes referred to the "alien character" of the Jews and the alleged power and influence of “international Jewry,” warning that they threatened the country’s sense of unity.
Still, during the early period of Italian Fascism, the Jews were a low priority to Mussolini.
Indeed, ACF cited that during the early years of the regime, some Italian Jews even joined the Fascist Party, including Ettore Ovazza, who was one of more than 200 Italian Jews who took part in the March on Rome in October 1922 that put Mussolini in power.
Mussolini also appointed a Jewish Fascist named Aldo Finzi as national police chief; while Margherita Sarfatti, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, became one of Il Duce’s many mistresses.
The Jewish author Giorgio Bassani, who wrote the acclaimed novel “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” (which later became a popular and acclaimed Vittorio de Sica movie), said that when he was a child it was not at all unusual for Italian Jews to belong to the Fascist Party.
Similarly, Alexander Stille, the author of “Benevolence and Betrayal,” which documented the lives of Jews in Fascist Italy, wrote: “Although there are instances of Jews making compromises with fascism elsewhere in Europe, these were isolated cases of personal opportunism, of private pacts with the devil. In Italy, Jewish fascism was a real ideological movement, a mass phenomenon, as much as that was possible in Italy’s tiny Jewish population.”
During an interview in 1932, Mussolini himself admitted: “Anti-Semitism does not exist in Italy. ... Italians of Jewish birth have shown themselves good citizens; and they fought bravely in the [First World] War. Many of them occupy leading positions in the universities, in the army, in the banks.”
Of course, many Italian Jews espoused strident anti-fascism -- among the most prominent Jewish Socialists and Communists were Claudio Treves and Renato Modigliani. Indeed, the anti-fascist movement in the northern city of Turin was dominated by Jews.
By late 1936, however, as Mussolini deepened his ties with Nazi Germany, the Italian Fascists began to clamp down on the Jews.
The publication of an inflammatory book in early 1937 called "Gli Ebrei in Italia" ["The Jews in Italy"] by Pietro Orano ignited a wave of anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist tracts across Italian media.
In 1938, imitating his German peers, Mussolini himself edited a manuscript called "Il Manifesto della Razza" ("The Manifesto of Race") which echoed such Nazi canards as the “pure Aryan race” and the supposedly malevolent influence of Jews in the public sphere.
Later that year, the Fascists imposed laws prohibiting Jews from studying or teaching in schools and called for the deportation of Jewish refugees.
[Stille noted, however, that even in 1938 after the first wave of anti-Jewish laws were enacted, about one-third of Italy’s Jews still belonged to the Fascist Party.]
Soon thereafter, other repressive legislation arose -- including a ban on intermarriage between Jews and “Aryans,” the prohibition of Jews serving in the army or government; and the confiscation of Jewish-owned property.
The darkening atmosphere prompted some Jews to convert to Catholicism, but forced many thousands more to emigrate.
As a result, between 1931 and 1939, Italy’s Jewish population plunged from about 48,000 to 35,000.
Ironically, the fall of the Fascist regime in September 1943 spelled a terrifying turning point for Italian Jews – while the southern part of the country fell under Allied occupation, the north and central regions (where most Jews lived) came under German control. By November of that year, Italy’s Jews (including refugees from other nations) were marked for transfer to concentration camps and certain death.
At least half of Italy’s Jews were deported during this period, while others, including Levi-Montalcini’s family, went underground. Historians believe some 8,000 Italian Jews were murdered by the Germans.
About 30,000 Jews were in Italy at war’s end, not including thousands of Jewish refugees temporarily residing in the country on their way to Palestine.
After the war, as Italy was more concerned about rebuilding its shattered society and infrastructure, the Jewish question became rather moot. Thousands of Jewish refugees from Libya even arrived in Italy to help replenish the tiny population.
Perhaps the most famous Italian Jew of the post-war period was Primo Levi, the chemist and author from Turin, who spent a year in the Auschwitz concentration camp and wrote about his experience in the book "Se questo è un uomo" ["If This Is a Man."]
However, during the 1970s, as Italy convulsed with political instability, Jews confronted new enemies: left-wing guerrillas and Arab terrorists. Making things worse, the Rome government adopted an anti-Israeli, pro-Arab stance with respect to Mideast affairs.
By 1980, about 41,000 Jews lived in Italy, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, more than half of them concentrated in Rome and Milan, the others mostly scattered around other northern and central Italian towns.
The overall figure declined to 31,000 by 1993 – largely due to increased rates of intermarriage and a falling birth rate.
Italy today is certainly not free from anti-Semitism; however, as in France, such acts are often committed by Arabs and Muslims.
On Tuesday, a group of Arab youths attacked a Jewish American tourist in Venice. In mid-December, vandals in the Sicilian town of Catania detached a menorah set up in a public plaza, preventing the lighting of a Hanukkah candle.
However, as a show of solidarity with the nation’s Jewish community, last month after the United Nations voted to upgrade the status of Palestinians, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti met with national Jewish leaders and vowed to maintain strong ties with Israel.
Monti emphasized his “government’s firm and determined intention not to hesitate to respond to any sign of a resurgence of anti-Jewish feelings” and added that “protection and safety of Italian Jews remains a commitment and a responsibility of the Italian State.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.