Piazza Palatucci — my column for the LA Jewish Journal

 

Piazza Palatucci

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, June 24, 2013

The town mayor, in sash; priests and other dignitaries enter the piazza for the dedication ceremony. Photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber

The town mayor, in sash; priests and other dignitaries enter the piazza for the dedication ceremony. Photos © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

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.

 

 

 

I’m on Italian TV (very, very briefly)

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

On Saturday, I attended a ceremony in the outrageously beautiful Umbrian hill town, Polino, where the local authorities named a newly built piazza in honor of Giovanni Palatucci, a World War II Italian fascist police official who is reputed to have saved thousands of Jews by giving them false documents.

Palatucci, who died in Dachau, is revered as a popular hero in Italy (he was also honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem and honored by the ADL, the Roman Catholic Church, the Italian Jewish community and others) — even though recent scholarship has cast serious doubts on the extent of his rescue efforts. He is known to have worked to save at least some Jews, but the generally quoted figure of 5,000 seems inflated….

Anyway, it was a lovely ceremony that mixed hagiography with true sincerety.

A representative of the Jewish community in Rome was invited — but declined because it took place on Shabbat.

I myself attended mainly because my friend, Mario Carletti, sculpted the memorial that marks the new piazza. It shows a bust of Palatucci, with barbed wire gates and the “arbeit macht frei” slogan.

Still, listening to the priest, the mayor, the police band, the prefect, I felt that there needed to be a Jewish voice — so I more or less invited myself to say a few words, stressing the need to honor those who did what the majority of people did not, and reminding of the teaching that whoever saves one life saves the world.

Local Italian TV ran a spot — it starts at minute 8:00, and I can be seen (in a white linen suit) walking in the procession at 8:52 . CLICK HERE FOR THE LINK

 

I Speak about Jewish Heritage Europe in a Spectacular Venue in Florence

 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

(This post also appears on my En Route blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal)

I had the pleasure and privilege Sunday of giving a presentation about the Jewish Heritage Europe web site project in Florence, in one of the city’s most prestigious and spectacular venues — the Salone dei Cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, the city hall of Florence, a massive building with a distinctive tower that was originally built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries.

With Pope Leo X…Photo: Angelo Pontecorboli

I was part of a five-person panel speaking on various aspects of “Developing Jewish Cultural Heritage in Europe.” Our round-table was part of a huge, weeklong biennale on Cultural and “Landscape” Heritage sponsored by the Fondazione Florens. Other people on the panel included Giuseppe Burschtein, an IT specialist and Jewish heritage activist in Florence; Renzo Funaro, an architect who heads the “Opera del Tempio” project of restoration and promotion of Jewish heritage in Florence and elsewhere in Tuscany; Dora Liscia Bemporad, the director of the Jewish Museum in Florence; and Annie Sacerdoti, a pioneer of Jewish heritage documentation and activism in Italy and one of the spearheads of the European Day of Jewish Culture.

The moderator of our panel was the journalist Wlodek Goldkorn — who pointed out at the start of the event that this session was probably the first time that a Jewish program (other than a commemorative event) had taken place in the magnificent hall, a grandly huge space dating from 1494, richly decorated with a gorgeous painted ceiling, sculptures and paintings from the 16th century.

View from the Podium

We had a pretty good crowd — and nobody left in the middle! Given the mix of people on our panel, presentations included both local and Europe-wide issues — and none of us had more than 10 minutes or so to speak.

For my talk, I had an internet connection projected on two immense screens. I presented Jewish Heritage Europe as a tool that is already functional, attracting 4,000-5,000 people a month. I took the audience on a tour of the site, describing both the static content for 48 countries — and also the dynamic content — the newsfeed, calendar, and the In Focus section.

I had wanted to highlight some other web sites that bring Jewish heritage online — such as Judaica Europeana and Virtual Shtetl. But, alas, there wasn’t time.

You will just have to go to all those web sites and explore!