Simon Levis Sullam on The Italian Executioners

Levis Sullam Italian Executioners book coverMost historians have long described Italians as relatively protective of their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust. But Simon Levis Sullam’s gripping new history The Italian Executioners shows how ordinary Italians actually played a central role in the deportation and genocide of Italian Jews during the Second World War. Levis Sullam recounts in vivid detail the shocking events of this period, dismantling the seductive popular myth of italiani brava gente—the “good Italians” who sheltered their Jewish compatriots from harm. Here, Levis Sullam answers several questions about the Holocaust in Italy, the book, and the misconceptions it corrects.

How does your book supersede previous historiography on the fate of the Jews of Italy during the Holocaust?

Historians have long represented Italy during the Holocaust as a safe place for Jews, due to the many rescues of Jews by Italians, in particular by members of the Catholic clergy.  Some of the founders of Holocaust historiography, such as Léon Poliakov or Raul Hilberg, viewed the Italians’ benevolent national character as antithetical to violence and genocide. But following a new stream of research starting with the work of Michele Sarfatti and Liliana Picciotto, The Italian Executioners claims that Italians—including ordinary Italians—were accomplices in the genocide of the Jews. Over 8,000 Jews, about 20% of the Italian Jewish population, were arrested and deported from Italy. Nearly half of these arrests were carried out by Italians.

Why do you prefer the category of genocide to those of Holocaust or Shoah? How do you apply it?

In the book, I use “genocide” as it was coined by the Polish Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin during the Second World War, to indicate the attempt to eradicate a group, in whole or in part, based on ethnicity or race. I underline how genocide does not take place only in foreign or distant lands, but can happen during circumstances of distress in any society, when next-door neighbours are persecuted as internal enemies. On the footsteps especially of sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, I stress the role of the fragmentation of tasks and the bureaucratization of functions in the machinery of destruction, which required the large-scale involvement of ordinary citizens.

What was the role of antisemitism among Italian executioners?

Italy had a centuries-old tradition of particularly Catholic anti-Judaism and, since the nineteenth century, had also developed a racially based anti-Jewish hostility of the type that had already spread throughout Europe. In the twentieth century, antisemitism was not a founding principle of Italian Fascist ideology, although certain streams of the Fascist movement used anti-Jewish propaganda, especially in the 1930s. The racial question rose within Fascism first with the proclamation of an Italian empire in Ethiopia in 1936 and later, starting in the fall of 1938, with Mussolini’s enforcement of antisemitic laws.

But were ordinary Italians who participated in the Holocaust motivated by antisemitism?

Some of those who participated in the arrest of Jews were ideologically motivated. The Fascist Party, which was reborn during the German occupation of Italy in the fall of 1943, declared Jews to be “foreigners” and “enemies.” Ideologically committed members of the Fascist Party and the Fascist press adopted this line. However, the arrest of Jews was mostly conducted by policemen and by military police (“carabinieri”) who obeyed higher orders from the government and from the prefects and chiefs of police who represented the State locally. Many Italians, however, participated in the arrest of Jews and the confiscation of their property while performing bureaucratic functions, such as drafting lists of people to be arrested or registering confiscated property. Other Italians were motivated by greed.

Speaking of greed, can you tell us what happened to Jewish property?

Greed, revenge, and sometimes envy were important motivating factors in ordinary Italian citizens’ involvement in anti-Jewish activities during the Holocaust. Very often, arrests were the result of Italians informing about the whereabouts of Jewish next-door neighbors or former business partners. Informants aimed to take hold of Jewish property or move into vacated houses or apartments after the arrests. Fees were also promised for those who reported Jews.

After the war, what happened to those Italians who were responsible of the deportation of Jews?

There was never an Italian Nuremberg trial. Only a few postwar trials considered anti-Jewish persecution among the defendants’ responsibilities, and anti-Jewish action was never treated as a specific crime. In 1946, a general amnesty for Fascist crimes was enforced. Major war criminals served short sentences of only a few years. Most, if not all, of the police personnel who had been active during Fascism and the war remained in place. And there were paradoxical episodes such as that of a police officer who had been in charge of the confiscation of Jewish wealth, and who after the war was put in charge of the return of Jewish property. The role of Italians in the Holocaust was basically never examined by Italian justice.

What motivated you to write this book?

I was concerned about the relatively benevolent representation of Fascism by international historiography, which often still considers it a lesser evil compared to Nazism. The criminality and violence of Fascism began, at the latest, in the mid-1920s, when the movement started persecuting and even killing political opponents. In this case, I wanted to look at one of its most criminal phases: Fascism’s active participation in the Nazi project of extermination. On a more personal level, I was motivated also by my family’s history. Part of my family was rescued during the war, and that is how my parents survived and I could come to life. Another part of my family, including elders and months-old children, were arrested by Italians and killed by Germans in Auschwitz. I wanted to tell this story, the story of the Italian executioners in the Holocaust, which has been too often overlooked both by historians and in the public memory.

Simon Levis Sullam is associate professor of modern history at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. His previous books include Giuseppe Mazzini and the Origins of Fascism.

“Aftermath”, a Polish Film Based on Jan T. Gross’ “Neighbors” Is Released

aftermath_us_poster_1_lgAftermath, a Polish film based on the historical book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland by Jan T. Gross, was recently released in limited showing in the United States, including New York City and Los Angeles (with Boston, Chicago and more to come shortly).

The official website for the film can be found here on Menemsha Films’ website, which includes a short synopsis, a trailer, photos from the film, and reviews. It also has links to locations and showtimes for the film in the United States.

The film was reviewed by The New York Times, which can be found here.


k7018One summer day in 1941, half of the Polish town of Jedwabne murdered the other half, 1,600 men, women, and children, all but seven of the town’s Jews. Neighbors tells their story.

This is a shocking, brutal story that has never before been told. It is the most important study of Polish-Jewish relations to be published in decades and should become a classic of Holocaust literature.

Jan Gross pieces together eyewitness accounts and other evidence into an engulfing reconstruction of the horrific July day remembered well by locals but forgotten by history. His investigation reads like a detective story, and its unfolding yields wider truths about Jewish-Polish relations, the Holocaust, and human responses to occupation and totalitarianism. It is a story of surprises: The newly occupying German army did not compel the massacre, and Jedwabne’s Jews and Christians had previously enjoyed cordial relations. After the war, the nearby family who saved Jedwabne’s surviving Jews was derided and driven from the area. The single Jew offered mercy by the town declined it.

Most arresting is the sinking realization that Jedwabne’s Jews were clubbed, drowned, gutted, and burned not by faceless Nazis, but by people whose features and names they knew well: their former schoolmates and those who sold them food, bought their milk, and chatted with them in the street. As much as such a question can ever be answered, Neighbors tells us why.