Synagogue in Jewish quarter of Venice, Italy
Synagogue in Jewish quarter of Venice, ItalyiStock

Poland’s “dignity” is offended by the truth—but only when that truth exposes a Polish official or citizen for having aided and abetted the Nazis and for having persecuted Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation. The Polish government has never tried any Polish historian or journalist for having described Polish individuals and clergy who fed, hid, and saved Polish Jews.

The honor of Poland is at stake and the Poles are deeply invested in presenting themselves as “victims”—of the Russians and of the Nazis, never also as the perpetrators of Jew-hatred and pogroms long before the Nazi armies came to town, and after they were driven out (Jewabne, Kielce).

Down the decades, I have learned bitter but complex truths about the French, Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Hungarian, Greek, Croatian, Norwegian, and Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust. Somehow, because I loved Italy (the art, the opera, the landscape, the cinema), I never looked too closely at their role during World War Two. Once, when I hired a guide to take me on a tour of Jewish Italy, she gave me a book which contained a fairly gruesome history of 2,000 years of Italian Jewish sorrows. And once, when I was living in Venice, it hit me hard when I learned that Venice—Venice! had also turned over its Jews to Hitler, albeit, not until 1943.

When I looked into the matter further, I understood that Italy had begun to disenfranchise its Jews in 1938, before Kristallnacht took place in Germany. Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend private schools, Jewish professors were exiled from all universities, from government and military service, as well as from banking and insurance industries. In 1939 and 1940, Jewish peddlers and shopkeepers’ licenses were revoked and all Jews who held stocks and bonds were required to turn them over to “Aryans.” If possible, matters worsened once Germany occupied Italy in 1943. According to Ms. Ilaria Pavan, a former Italian official investigating the “looting of property of Jewish Italian citizens,” as of 2010, such looting “totaled almost 1 billion in today’s values.”

As with Poland, all the European histories describe governments and individuals who were eager to expropriate Jewish property (real estate, homes, factories, art work, chinaware, clothing, bank accounts, furniture); eager to hand over the former Jewish owners to Hitler’s gas chambers. There are also accurate accounts of non-Jewish European who saved Jews and who fought Hitler’s armies as partisans.

There were heroes and villains, resisters and cowards, in every country.

What got me thinking about this all over again was my accidental discovery of a very moving eight-part miniseries, The War is Over, which is just now being live-streamed on MHZ in Italian with English subtitles. This RAI film is based on the book by Aharon Megged about the orphaned “children of Selvino,” and relates the true story of the 800 traumatized Jewish children who were rescued from concentration camps and ghettos all across Europe, who had no parents, no families, and who were physically, psychologically, spiritually, and sexually wounded, as well as educationally deprived.

From 1945-1948, the Milanese Jewish community, the municipality of Milan, soldiers of the Jewish Brigade (Moshe Ze-eri and Teddy Be’eri), the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, Youth Aliyah, and former anti-fascist partisan fighters, and Jewish and non-Jewish youth workers all took care of these children in an abandoned estate in northern Italy. They tried to heal them well enough so that they could make the journey to Palestine on those heroically “illegal” immigrant ships that the British stopped, fired upon, and forced to land in Cyprus. Eventually, some of these children joined Kibbutz Tze’elim in the Negev.

In 2019, after a seven year campaign, a museum opened in Selvino to commemorate this heroic rescue operation.

The miniseries is beautifully and soulfully acted (Michele Riondino, Isabella Ragonese, Valerio Binasco), but the children will steal your heart. Please watch it. Experience the past present.

Prof. Phyllis Chesler is a Ginsburg-Ingerman Fellow at the Middle East Forum, received the 2013 National Jewish Book Award,.authored 20 books, including Women and Madness and The New Anti-Semitism, and 4 studies about honor killing, Her latest books are An American Bride in Kabul, A Family Conspiracy: Honor Killing and A Politically Incorrect Feminist.