Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team
[The Occupied Nations]
The destruction of the Jews of Italy
The Italian Government surrendered its forces to the Allies on 8 September 1943, and on the following day General Mark Clark launched Operation Avalanche, the landing of Allied troops on the coast of Italy, near Salerno.
By the end of September 1943 it was known to the German Embassies in Rome and the Vatican City that Himmler intended to send these Jews to the Auschwitz – Birkenau death camp. On the 30 September Bishop Hudal, rector of the German church in Rome warned General Stahel, the Town Commandant, that the Pope might take a position against the deportations.
The always compliant Baron Ernst von Weizsacker was now very much on the spot as Ambassador to the Holy See. Much was made at Weizsacker trial of the warnings which he gave both to the Vatican and the Jewish community leaders of the impending action.
According to Gerhard Gumpert, Weizsacker’s First Secretary, Kappler was persuaded that Hudal’s warning to Stahel had been inspired by the Pope. Kappler was now too frightened to continue the actions.
This version of events does not ring true firstly because Kappler did inh fact continue the round-ups, and secondly because the action of 18 October had taken place without the least protest from the Vatican.
The best witness is Weizsacker himself, writing to Dr Karl Ritter, Minister for Special Purposes at the Foreign Office in Berlin:
Pope Pius Xll negative attitude towards the Jews, he never renounced the 1933 concordant with Hitler and who only denounced the National Socialist regime, only after the German surrender in spring 1945.
However, there can be no doubt regarding the sympathy and practical assistance of the clergy in Rome, monasteries and convents sheltered a very large portion of the Jews who were warned in time and who went into hiding.
Nevertheless, on the night of 18 October 1943 1,270 Jews were arrested of whom 235 had to be released. On 23 October 1,035 Jewish men, women and children arrived at Auschwitz- Birkenau, and 839 people were murdered in the gas chambers.
Only 102 Jews of the 2091 deportees survived the war, another 75 victims were murdered on 24 March 1944 in the Adreatina Tunnel, for which SS – Hauptstumfuhrer Erich Preibke who had fled to Argentina after the war had ended, but was extradited to Italy to stand trial. He was at first tried and released. Then on a re-trial, he was found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to serve fifteen years in prison on 14 April 1997.
On 23 March a bomb was thrown at a company of German Security Police marching along the Via Rasella. On learning that 32 of them had died, Hitler ordered the death of ten Italians for each German.
The order was conveyed through Field-Marshall Kesselring, General von Mackensen of the 14th Army, and General Malzer, Town Commandant of Rome. Finally, it was passed to the executioner, the same Obersturmbannfuhrer Kappler, who was responsible for the mass round-up of Jews in October 1943.
As soon as the armistice was announced in September 1943 a police commando of the SS left Novara for Lake Maggiore, arresting numerous Jews in Licino, Stresa, Baveno, and Pallanza. These Jews disappeared completely, but a number of bodies were said to be recovered by fishermen from the lake.
Incidents like this were common but, after a few weeks, casual murder was replaced by methodical destruction, early in October 1943, Martin Sandberger, a former Einsatzgruppen commander in Russia, took over the Gestapo in Mussolini’s capital Verona, while Theo Dannecker, who had been Eichmann’s representative in Paris and Sofia, became Jewish Commissary for Italy.
Under the Fascist Republic, the SD filled these camps with the Italian opposition, the Yugoslav partisans and any Jews they could find, all being destined for deportation to the Reich.
About a fifth of the Jews living in Italy, partly refugees from abroad and partly the remains of the native community who had not gone underground or emigrated, were rounded up during the twenty months of the Fascist Republic.
Although it was handed over to the SD after the Badoglio armistice, the administration stayed in Italian hands and was relatively mild. According to Primo Levi, who survived Auschwitz, it was even possible to get drunk.
There were twelve goods wagons for six hundred and fifty men – in mine we were only forty-five, but it was a small wagon. Here then, before our very eyes, under our very feet, was one of those notorious transport trains, those which never return, and of which, shuddering and a little incredulous, we had so often heard speak.
The doors had been closed at once, but the train did not move until evening. We had learnt of our destination with relief, Auschwitz- a name without significance for us at the time, but it at least implied some place on this earth.
We suffered from thirst and cold – at every stop we clamored for water, or even a handful of snow, but we were rarely heard – the soldiers of the escort drove off everybody who tried to approach the convoy. Two young mothers, nursing their children, groaned night and day, begging for water. Our state of nervous tension made the hunger, exhaustion and lack of sleep less of a torment. But the hours of darkness were nightmares without end.
Our restless sleep was often interrupted by noisy and futile disputes, by curses, by kicks and blows blindly delivered to ward off some encroachment and inevitable contact. Then someone would light a candle, and its mournful flicker would reveal an obscure agitation, a human mass, extended across the floor, confused and continuous, sluggish and aching, rising here and there in sudden convulsions and immediately collapsing again in exhaustion.
Through the slit, known and unknown names of Austrian cities, Salzburg, Vienna, then Czech, finally Polish names. On the evening of the fourth day the cold became intense – the train ran through interminable black pine forests, climbing perceptibly. The snow was high.
The transport from Fossoli di Carpi which conveyed 300 Jews to Auschwitz –Birkenau was the final transport from that camp, as the Allied forces were approaching the Gothic Line, and the province of Modena had become a combat zone.
About 5000 Jews were shipped to Auschwitz and the Reich from other Italian towns and transit camps, a collective transport from Rome, Trieste and Fiume reached Auschwitz in December 1943, and 132 Jews were sent from Trieste. This particular transport arrived on the 4 April 1944, and 103 Jews were killed in the gas chambers.
The 70 inmates from the old-peoples home were kept for seven days in the rice warehouses at San Sabba before being shipped to Auschwitz, where they arrive in the camp on 2 February 1944.
The buildings of Riseria di San Sabba, in the outskirts of Trieste were constructed in 1913 and had been vacant for years, when the Germans took them over. The warehouses were first used as a prison -however, in October 1943 the complex was converted into a Polizeihaftlager – (police detention camp).
The tall old chimney, in combination with an enlarged old oven was used for cremating thousands of victims a small gas chamber was built in the courtyard. The installations were made ready under the supervision of Erwin Lambert, the “flying architect” of T4 and Aktion Reinhard, who supervised the improved gas chambers at Treblinka and Sobibor.
In late April 1945 as Yugoslav partisans prepared to liberate Trieste, on 29 April 1945 the Germans blew up the crematorium in order to destroy the evidence of their crimes.
Returning to the history of Trieste on the 25 January 1944 Globocnik dissolved the Community Council and closed the synagogue, and thereafter the Jews of Trieste led an underground life.
The Final Solution by G. Reitlinger – Vallentine Mitchell &Co Ltd 1953.
Auschwitz Chronicle – by Danuta Czech, published by Henry Holt and Company – New York, 1989.
Holocaust Journey – by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1997.
Belzec Death Camp – by Michael Tregenza – The Wiener Library Bulletin 1977.
Holocaust Historical Society.
The Jewish Museum of Deportation and Resistance
Copyright Chris Webb & Carmelo Lisciotto H.E.A.R.T 2008