When any discussion of World War II takes place, eventually talk turns to the fate of the Jews persecuted under the Nazi’s deadly policies, where millions were systematically arrested and exported to concentrations camps where they either were executed outright or left to die of starvation and neglect.
And while the Jews were the group most reviled by the Nazi propaganda machine, which advertised these concentration camps as the ‘Final Solution’ for the ‘Jewish problem’,more than 5 million people besides the Jews also suffered cruel fates at the hands of the Nazis. Members of the Roma (Gypsies), Homosexuals, those with conflicting political views to the Nazis,and people with mental or physical abnormalities were among the many groups besides the Jews that were victims of these pogroms.
In the last days of the war, many of these death camps were emptied and their occupants force to march across country in order to prevent their liberation by Allied troops which were pushing their way through Germany and other Axis controlled areas. Some of those who survived to tell the tale of their ordeals were among those whose death march was interrupted by Allied liberators. But though they survived long enough to find their freedom, the trail behind them was littered with the bodies of those who did not.
This victimization of non-combatants was not isolated to the German state. The program was carried out to one extent of another in any area under Nazi control. Thousands of citizens of Poland, The Netherlands, France, Greece and Hungary were among the millions interred in places like Auschwitz, Belzec and Dachau.
Despite the Nazi’s concerted effort to wipe out entire people groups and demographics, many millions survived. But without resources of their own to affect their escape or provide safety until the end of the war, these people had to rely on the charity of others who, at the risk of their own property, freedom and lives, found ways to protect them.
While many of these protectors were among the people in Nazi occupied areas such as France and the Netherlands, one of the greatest and least acknowledged allies to the oppressed Jews in World War II was itself an ally of Germany.
Mussolini had inextricably linked Italy with Germany to the point that when the Allies entered the Italian theater at Anzio, the Germans sent nearly half a million troops to push them back, and when the citizens of Italy finally deposed Mussolini and imprisoned him, the Germans intervened and returned Mussolini to power, though as a puppet ruler in name only.
Meanwhile, in Italy proper, where thousands of Jews lived during the 1930’s and 40’s, the cycle of betrayal was broken and many would be victims of the Third Reich were hidden and shielded by their Italian Neighbors.
This is not to say that there was no enmity between the Italians and the Jews, but when it came to deportation to death camps, the Italians as a rule said no.
In many villages, priests and other members of the church would educate members of the Jewish population on how to ‘pretend to be Catholic’ so as to be able to blend in with the rest of the town, even on Holy days and during large scale public ceremonies.
Some families hid Jews in their homes and on their properties, and others helped to smuggle Jewish families to safety beyond the reach of the Nazis.
Towards the end of the war, a large portion of the Italian soldiers were themselves imprisoned for failure to cooperate fully with Nazi dictates during. High on the lists of these failures concerned their treatment of the Jews, Gypsies and other persecuted groups.
Even those who were interred in Italian prisons and camps were kept under conditions far better than similar installations in other parts of the world.
Italy may have been part of the Axis, and fought on the side of Fascism in World War II, but for many of those who the Nazis would have seen extinct, the Italian people were also a chance for survival.