Giovanni Palatucci, police superintendent of Fiume in 1944, was arrested by the Germans and died in Dachau in February 1945. Declared Righteous Among the Nations In 1990 for helping Jews during his work at the police headquarters in Fiume, and recognized as a Servant of God by the Church, all of a sudden he was turned into a persecutor of Jews who zealously carried out the orders of the Salò [Italian Social Republic] and of the Nazis. At the origin of this shift was research sponsored by the Centro Primo Levi, New York, undertaken by an international committee of historians who analysed the existing documentation in both the Italian and Croatian archives.
I hope that the Washington Museum, which immediately deleted Palatucci’s name from its sites and exhibitions, has access to the documentation and not only to the lengthy analysis of it drafted by the Centro Primo Levi. On careful reading, this can at most downsize the number of Jews saved by Palatucci, reducing them from the 5,000 originally attributed to him to several dozen, and recasting the role he played in certain episodes. It can certainly not, however, transform him from a saviour of the Jews into a persecutor. I also hope it will be possible shortly to have access to the sources, just as the Centro’s action has made access available to their interpretation.
While waiting to be able to check the full reality of the events in the documents, I would like to mention certain elements of the issue as they emerge from the Primo Levi dossier. The dossier — on the basis of the numbers of Jews living in Fiume and the number of those from Fiume effectively interned by Fiume in the Camp of Campagna, where Palatucci’s uncle was bishop — essentially dismantles the thesis that the police officer was responsible for the mass rescue of the Jews of Fiume, that was pulled off in cooperation between Fiume and Campagna. Here too, in order to express a well-grounded opinion, we await further information, for example, on the actual routes of those Jews transferred from Fiume to Campagna.
Nevertheless the dossier tells us nothing about the individual rescues attested by those very Jews who were saved by Palatucci in the years subsequent to 1940 and during the years of the Nazi occupation. It is likewise silent about the witnesses who documented them. The dossier further informs us that the Bishop of Campagna did his utmost to improve the situation of those interned in the camp but emphasizes, as if thereby to detract from them, his proselytistic intentions; in other words the bishop would have liked to convert his prisoners. Yet let us not forget that we are speaking of a Church, especially the local Church – at that time still heavily marked by anti-Judaism – which was actively encouraging the conversion of Jews. To expect anything else would be utopian. I remember having spoken of this in these same terms to the late Fr Piersandro Vanzan, author of a biography of Palatucci (Giovanni Palatucci. Il questore giusto, Rome, Edizioni Pro Sanctitate, 2009) and a diligent propagator of Palatucci's story.
Furthermore, the dossier underscores the adherence to the Republic of Salò of the police officer Giovanni Palatucci, but tells us nothing about the possibility, supported by at least one source, that he may have acted as a member of the Committee for National Liberation under the false name of Danieli, which is another element to be evaluated or at least mentioned. We are told that the documents on his arrest do not mention the rescue of Jews but only his activities on behalf “of the enemy”, that is, the fact that he had contacts with the Allies concerning a plan to make the Fiume area autonomous. Yet I would like to know whether in Italy at the time the saving of Jews was explicitly mentioned or whether it was implicitly understood as being among the activities on behalf of the enemy.
We are basically facing the problem of the lack of documentation. Yet we find the same lack of documentation in the mass rescues of Jews that that were carried out in the convents of Rome. Do we wish to deny these on the basis of the lack of written documents to prove them? Like all such activities, Palatucci's too could only have been carried out in secret. Might he have pursued them on his own initiative, independently of the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants? This is an answer we are waiting for from the documents, from the comparison with other situations, but not from interpretations.
One last issue: the so-called denunciation by Palatucci of a group of Jews from Fiume. The documentation that the dossier mentions proves nothing other than that Palatucci responded to a request for information made to him by the Police Headquarters in Ravenna (would it have been possible for him not to have replied?), providing the names of these Jews but saying that he did not know where they were to be found. In other words they were already as free as birds. It is obvious that this too should be assessed on the basis of individual events, but as we read it here it is proof of nothing. Michele Sarfatti, Director of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation and one of the historians said to have taken part in the research organized by the Centro Primo Levi, “I am perplexed about a sentence written by a New York Times journalist who claims that Palatucci ‘helped the Germans to identify Jews to be rounded up’. This sentence is attributed to ‘researchers’ without specifying who; but no proof of this exists”. What then explains the glaring headlines in the press about the policeman who persecuted Jews?
To conclude: the Primo Levi initiative affirms that its intention was to demolish the myth of the “good Italian”, of which the Palatucci case was an expression. But why so? If anything, the Palatucci case speaks of a “good Palatucci”, and not of “good Italians”. The myth of the good Italian had already been blown up, at least at the historiographical level, by many studies and first and foremost by Sarfatti's research. All this leaves no room for doubt that with the regulations introduced in November 1943 the Republic of Salò assumed the duty of tracking down Jews in the first person. The Nazis, after October that year, were unable to take on this task since they were occupied on the military front and in the war against the Resistance.
The impression is in fact that a different issue was involved: the Church of Pius XII; and that, in targeting Palatucci, the intention was essentially to hit a Catholic involved in rescuing Jews, a champion of the idea that the Church spared no effort to help the Jews – a well-known figure whose cause of beatification was under way. But this is ideology and not history.
It is true that first-hand historical research into the Palatucci case is scarce and that facts and figures have been subjected to hagiographic interpretations. It is moreover probable that subsequent to the research under way, the figures may change and certain events be reinterpreted. Yet at the moment, in the presence of such definitive unfounded condemnation, what is fundamental is to answer through the documentation these simple questions. Did or did not Palatucci save Jews? Did or did not Palatucci denounce Jews? We are waiting for the documents alone to provide an answer to these questions. Everything else is commentary.
23 June 2013