In 2005, the UN General Assembly designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Brief aside: when I was doing the research for this story, I was struck by how many Holocaust remembrance days there actually are. Some of them relate to national history, e.g. Poland’s falls on the day of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, France’s falls on the anniversary of the round-up of more than 13 000 Jews in Paris in 1942. In the US, it actually lasts over 8 days, starting on the Sunday before the Jewish observation day, known as Yom HaShoah. This is usually in April or May. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — located on the National Mall in Washington, DC (Go.) — organizes events and sends out informational materials to schools and such.
The International Day, which seems to be observed by most European countries, including Italy, falls on the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland by the Russian army. To remind you, around 1.1 million people died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including 960 000 Jews. Other victims included approximately 74 000 Poles, 21 000 Roma, 15 000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10 000 people of other nationalities. The Russian army found about 7 000 starving people in the camp, those who were to weak to walk; as Soviet troops approached Auschwitz in January 1945, the SS evacuated the camp, forcing about 60 000 prisoners to march 30 miles to board trains for other camps. But first they destroyed four crematoria, burned written records and demolished many buildings. About 15 000 people died on the death marches.
The UN urges member states to honor Nazi victims during the remembrance days and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides. To do my part (and only 6 days late), I thought I’d tell you about three brave Italians who risked their lives to save the lives of their neighbors.
The first is Padre Rufino Niccacci (1911-1977). Niccacci was a Father Guardian of the Franciscan Monastery of San Damiano in Assisi. The Internet does not reveal what exactly a Father Guardian is, but it must be pretty important because after the Germans invaded Rome in September 1943, the Padre protected 300 Jews taking refuge in Assisi, hiding them in 26 convents and monasteries that were under his direction. He dressed many of them as monks and nuns and taught them Catholic rituals. Others lived in parishioners’ homes and, with fake identity cards, found jobs and blended into the community. The town’s printing press, which during the day printed posters and greeting cards, printed false documents at night that were sent by courier to Jews all over Italy. Not a single refugee was captured in Assisi. No one involved in the rescue operation ever betrayed it. After the war, Niccacci established a small settlement for destitute Christian and Jewish families in Montenero, outside of Assisi, and served as a parish priest in his home town of Deruta. In April 1974, Yad Vashem — Israel’s official memorial for the victims of the Holocaust — named him as one of the Righteous among the Nations. The Righteous are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Giorgio Perlasca was a former fascist who fought for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. But he went very sour on Mussolini. He hated Italy’s cosy relationship with Nazi Germany and the Italian race laws of 1936. Many of his friends were Jewish. During WW2, Perlasca avoided military service by working as a livestock agent supplying meat to the Italian armed services. In 1940, he was sent to Zagreb and Belgrade and travelled widely in Eastern Europe. Here, he observed the massacres of Jews, Serbs and other minorities. He was sent to Budapest where — tall and handsome — he enjoyed a busy social life until the fall of the city to Hungarian Nazis in July 1943, when he was interned as an enemy alien (because Italy was at this point on the side of the Allies). Escaping, he went to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest where he assumed he would be given asylum, having fought for Franco. He was correct: within a day, he was given a Spanish passport with a new Spanish name — Jorge.
Perlasca learned that the Spanish Consul was issuing ‘letters of protection’ to Hungarian Jews to keep them from being deported to Auschwitz. The Consulate also employed Jews as clerks, and housed them in eight apartment blocks under its control. Perlasca volunteered to help. In November 1944, with the Russians approaching Budapest, the last remaining Spanish diplomat fled the capital. But the diplomat forgot to take the embassy seal with him and Perlasca got busy stamping documents that proved that the embassy was still open and that he was the charge d’affaires. He used the seal to issue thousands of letters of protection to Hungarian Jews and organized food, medical aid and protection for the Jews in the Consulate’s apartments, which had extraterrorial conventions that gave them sovereignty. An intelligence network tipped him off so that he could fend off Nazi searches. More than once he used his false identity to throw Nazi gangs out of the houses, when they threatened to murder or deport the Jewish residents. Perlasca saved at least 5 500 Jews from the gas chambers, constantly risking his life to do so. After the war, he returned to Italy. He did not talk about his actions in Hungary to anyone, including his family. In 1987, a group of Hungarian Jews related to people he had saved finally found him, after searching for years. In 1988, Yad Vashem recognized Giorgio Perlasca as Righteous Among the Nations.
Last but not least is the story of Andrea Albisetti, the station master in Tradate (a town between Varese and Milan). One of Albisetti’s tasks was to receive the mail that came in from Rome and Milan each day. During the war, this included arrest orders for dissidents and Jews. Albisetti routinely held the envelopes containing the arrest orders against a lightbulb so that he could read the names on them. He warned the potential arrestees before the envelopes were opened by the authorities, giving them time to escape. Albisetti’s story seemed doomed to disappear in the mists of time; like Perlasca, he never talked about what he had done and although there were stories out there about the station master, no one could remember his name. It was only recently that Federico Colombo, a young educator and the president of the Tradatese Historical Society, uncovered the truth while doing research for a Holocaust commemoration ceremony. Colombo had been told the story of the station master by an old man he interviewed for a high school project. He stumbled upon similar stories twenty years later while doing his research. He put two and two together and — finally — revealed Albisetti’s role in saving the dissidents and Jews of Tradate.