Berlusconi stresses support for Israel, Jews in wake of Hitler comparison

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stressed his support for Israel and Jewish causes after sparking outrage by comparing his family to Jews under Hitler.

In an excerpt of a book to be released Friday, the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Berlusconi was quoted Wednesday as saying that because of the long series of court cases against him, “my children say they feel like Jewish families must have felt during the Hitler regime. Truly everyone is against us.”

Berlusconi, 77, was convicted of tax fraud earlier this year after a long series of other charges and legal woes.

Italian Jewish leaders reacted with shock and anger to the comparison. A photo montage made the rounds of Facebook showing a picture of his family alongside a picture of concentration camp inmates.

“The life of the Jews of Europe under Nazism was marked by a black vortex of violence, persecution and death,” Renzo Gattegna, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said in a statement. ”Any comparison with the situation of the Berlusconi family is thus not only inappropriate and unacceptable but is also an offense against the memory of those who were deprived of any rights and, after atrocious and unspeakable suffering, their very lives.”

Nichi Vendola, a leader of the left-center opposition, wrote on his Facebook page, “To trivialize a terrible tragedy like the Holocaust for everyday political polemics, as Berlusconi has, is chilling.”

Emanuele Fiano, a Jewish member of Parliament and a political opponent of Berlusconi, called the statement “an insult to history, to the six million Jews who were killed, and to those who try to impede history from being forgotten or manipulated.”

Berlusconi responded in a statement on the website of his Forza Italia party, calling the furor over his remarks “a controversy blatantly instrumental, based on a phrase extrapolated from a broader context.” He added,  “My history, my friendship toward Israel, my consistent government action at the international level in favor of the State of Israel, do not allow any doubt about my awareness of the tragedy of  the Holocaust and my respect for the Jewish people. ”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a Holocaust survivor, told Berlusconi in a personal letter on Wednesday that he failed to teach his children the “lessons of their history.”

“As badly as they feel you are being treated by the courts and by Italian society,  your problems cannot at all be compared to the tragedy that befell the Jews at the hands of the genocidal Nazis,” Foxman wrote.

“It is painful for me to discover that your children have never really learned the lesson of the Nazi genocide of the Jewish people, and I urge you, in friendship and out of deep respect, to begin to teach them,” the letter concluded.

Piazza Palatucci

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:

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.

Italian Holocaust victims remembered

The names of 8,000 Italian Jewish victims of the Holocaust were read aloud on Jan. 25 as part of four area events in honor of Italy’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The names were split among four venues in L.A. County: the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) in Pan Pacific Park, Milken Community High School in Bel Air, Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto High School in Harvard Heights and St. Bede the Venerable Catholic church in La Canada Flintridge.

“We vow never to forget the sanctity of their lives,” Rabbi Mark Diamond, director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Los Angeles chapter, said of the victims. He read names at LAMOTH, where he was joined by Giuseppe Perrone, consul general of Italy in Los Angeles; Perla Karney, vice president of LAMOTH’s board of directors; and the Rev. Alexei Smith, director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

In 2000, the Italian government declared Jan. 27 a day of remembrance, which honors the 8,000 Jewish Italians deported by the Germans to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps following the fall of Italy’s fascist government in 1943. In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated Jan. 27 — the date in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau — as International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the more than 8 million victims of the Holocaust.

This was the second year that AJC and the Italian Consulate General in Los Angeles co-sponsored a remembrance ceremony.

One of the 8,000 Italian Jews was Dario Gabbai, 90, a Holocaust survivor and former member of the Sonderkommando, a team of prisoners forced to move and cremate the bodies of those killed in the gas chambers. Gabbai visited Milken and the LAMOTH to read names aloud.

Reading in the morning from the list at Milken, Gabbai paused when he came upon one he recognized. 

“I knew him,” he told the crowd, explaining how this friend had died in Auschwitz.

Interested in forming Jewish partnerships worldwide, students at Milken, one of the largest Jewish day schools in the country, organized the Italian remembrance ceremony at their school. It was an unfamiliar, albeit rewarding, ceremony for Milken 11th-grader Jenna Goldstein, who co-chaired the event with fellow student Shauna Shafai.

“Most of my life, I’ve been honoring everyone as a whole, so it was a different experience to focus on Italian Jews,” Goldstein said.

St. Bede’s participation arose because the school’s leader, the Rev. Antonio Cacciapuoti, has a “close relationship with the [Italian] consulate,” said Gosia Szymanska Weiss, assistant director for international relations at AJC-Los Angeles.

As for Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto’s participation, it was born from past collaborations  between the AJC and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which oversees Catholic high schools, among other institutions. Representatives of the Italian Cultural Institute of Los Angeles and of AJC joined the school’s students in reading 2,000 names.

Two days later, the LAMOTH honored International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Tours included pieces on loan from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum of Poland, and survivors spoke in person.

Perrone, the consulate general, is one of dozens of diplomats who works with AJC on global Jewish advocacy. He said that the Holocaust is difficult to talk about, and so, in this case, “We decided to let the names do the talking.”

Italian Prime Minister says he will stand by country’s Jews

Italy’s prime minister promised Italian Jews he would stand beside them in the fight against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

“We know that anti-Semitism has not been eradicated in Europe,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said at a ceremony Tuesday night marking the 69th anniversary of the World War II round-up and deportation of 1,024 Roman Jews to Auschwitz. “We will not leave you alone.”

Monti, who was joined by Rome's mayor, several government ministers and other officials, spoke before several thousand people gathered outside Rome’s Great Synagogue to mark the anniversary. Earlier, many had taken part in a torchlight memorial march through the city.

Monti promised that the government would act against mounting racial prejudice and xenophobia in Europe.

Remembering racist persecution during World War II, he said, “means also assuming a responsibility: to combat every form of anti-Semitism and racism and to work so that minorities are protected and not discriminated against.”

Warning against the dangers of Holocaust denial and revisionism, Monti urged people to remember what Holocaust survivor Primo Levi once wrote: “Those who deny Auschwitz are ready to do it again.”

Italian Jewish community to raise money to cover earthquake damage

The Italian Jewish community launched a campaign to raise money for synagogues and other Jewish properties that were damaged in earthquakes that struck northern Italy last month.

“The Jewish communities in the towns, along with their members, were affected by the occurrences,” the Union of Italian Jewish Communities said in a statement. It said several major Jewish properties were “severely damaged” in the quakes.

“The community of Italy is trying to estimate the damages caused by the earthquake and to evaluate the cost,” the union said. “This estimation is difficult since new waves of earthquakes are happening and might be happening more in the future.”

Quakes on May 20 and May 30 killed at least 24 people, left thousands homeless and caused widespread damage to art and architectural heritage.

According to a report released by the union at the end of last week, synagogue buildings in the Italian cities of Ferrara, Modena, Mantova, Sabbioneta and Soragna suffered damage.

In Mantova, roof tiles were displaced, cracks appeared in some walls and plasterwork, and stucco decorations fell away. In Modena, the tympanum over the entrance to the synagogue was damaged as well as the railing in front of the bimah; the floor shifted and was cracked.

At the 18th century synagogue in Soragna, walls, the entrance to the women’s gallery, the ark and other features were damaged. The synagogue is now a Jewish museum.

“UCEI anticipates that the immediate and long-term needs will be profound and is coordinating with its in-country representatives to respond as well,” the community organization said.

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