Palatucci, the Pope, and the Battle over the “Brava Gente”

By Alexis Herr

 

Giovanni Palatucci has been celebrated for decades as the “Italian Schindler” and until recently was credited with saving thousands of Jews while serving as a police chief in Fiume, Italy. The Primo Levi Institute recently uncovered documents, however, that have cast doubt on Palatucci’s heroic legacy and show that he may have assisted in deporting the very Jews he was credited with saving. Journalist Patricia Cohen published an article in the New York Times that detailed Palatucci’s fall from grace and the efforts being made by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem to correct their rendering of Paltucci’s story (to read an op-ed I wrote on this, click here). Some scholars’ reluctance to believe the Primo Levi Institute’s research highlights a tension within Italian Holocaust memory commonly referred to as the “brava gente” myth, or myth of Italian benevolence during the Holocaust. With Italy being home to the Vatican, Italian altruism has often been attributed to Catholicism.  Thus, it may come as no surprise that Catholic scholars are now interpreting the Primo Levi Institute’s research as an attack on the Catholic Church.

Italians are frequently depicted as resistors to and victims of Nazi atrocity during the Holocaust. Stories of Italian collaboration and enthusiasm for the Judeocide are rarely discussed. Instead, the “brava gente” mantra dominates historical rendering of the Holocaust. The Vatican has a vested interest in supporting this narrative because it casts Pope Pius XII in a favorable light. Anna Foa, a historian at La Sapienza University, Rome contends that the Primo Levi Institute’s slandering of Palatucci is paramount to attacking Catholic benevolence. Instead, Foa argues that the unmasking of Palatucci—if and only if the research holds—has nothing to do with the church. She attests that the story of one man’s malevolence has no bearing on the Vatican.

To some extent, she may be right. Why should the story of Palatucci have any bearing on the Church? Perhaps, it is because Pope John Paul II declared Palatucci a martyr, a necessary step towards achieving sainthood. Some historians have argued Pope Pius XII failed to take significant action to safeguard Jews during the Holocaust. Thus, to discredit Palatucci and Pope John Paul II’s praise of the former police chief would bolster claims that the Vatican turned a blind eye to genocide and afterwards failed to scrutinize Italian participation in the annihilation of Italian Jewry. The Vatican’s longstanding decision to seal off wartime documents from 1939 through 1945 kept in their archives prevents greater clarity on this matter.

The well-worn debate over the Vatican’s place in the history of the Holocaust is a fiercely contested topic. And now, so too is the legacy of Giovanni Palatucci. I for one look forward to seeing the published documents uncovered by the Primo Levi Institute and to hear how Pope Pius XII supporters spin Palatucci’s expected fall from grace.

2 Comments on Palatucci, the Pope, and the Battle over the “Brava Gente”

  1. Your post suggests that Italy is still struggling with its WWII role as a Nazi ally, its participation in the Holocaust, and Italian antisemitism.

    What makes this especially disturbing is that unlike the former Soviet colonies of eastern Europe which were unable to research, document, and discuss complete and accurate WWII and Holocaust histories until 1989, Italy has been a democracy with academic freedom for about 70 years since the end of WWII.

    Brandeis University professor Joanna Beata Michlic who researches Polish WWII history warns about those with political agendas who misuse the stories of righteous Gentiles to avoid dealing with both WWII and current antisemitism.

    Ms. Michlic’s warning seems applicable not only to Eastern Europe but also to Italy.

    • What a fantastic response and I couldn’t agree more! Fortunately, a number of Italian scholars such as Lilian Fargion have produced fantastic scholarship that confronts the “brava gente” myth. While some scholars have taken on the “brava gente” facade, a general unwillingness to accept Italian autonomy in the genocide continues to linger within Italy and abroad.

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