On one of her annual trips as a young girl to visit her great-grandparents in their small, mostly Catholic village of Campagna Italy, Elizabeth Bettina saw a photograph, taken in 1940, of an Orthodox rabbi sitting on the steps of a church.
Curiosity about that photo — it seemed strange to her that an obviously Jewish man could be out in the open in Germany-allied Italy — was the first step in Bettina’s discovery that Campagna residents shielded hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust — and that thousands of Jews were protected all over the country during the war.
On Dec. 6 at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, at an event sponsored by Metuchen-Edison Hadassah, Bettina told the gathering of about 150 that “Jews were hidden all over Italy. Approximately 80 percent of Italy’s Jews survived. Twenty percent were deported, so obviously someone turned them in, but the book and the documentary focus on the goodness of the Italian people.”
“About 10,000 foreign Jews came to Italy in the ’30s and early ’40s,” said Bettina, many of them came to Italy, which did not require visas, from Nazi-occupied countries in Europe looking for a safe haven; others had been deported to the country.
The Jews who arrived from outside were set up in internment camps by the government of Benito Mussolini.
The San Bartolome camp in Campagna, an hour south of Naples, was established in 1940. Like other Italian camps, it bore little resemblance to the inhumane conditions of the camps in Eastern Europe, said Bettina, despite Mussolini’s alignment with Hitler. She showed photos of detainees taken in the men-only camp; they are pictured dressed in suits, playing in a band, holding a minyan in their synagogue, on visiting day with their families, and smiling in a group photo taken with Italian police.
Campagna’s residents protected Jews threatened with deportation, even after the German invasion following the 1943 armistice that resulted in Italy joining the Allies. In San Bartolome, Jews lived in an abandoned convent, weren’t harassed or beaten, kept their belongings, and freely interacted with the town’s 4,000 residents, although they had a loosely enforced curfew at night.
Bettina said when she visited her relatives in Italy when she was a little girl, she was aware that Jews had been hidden in Campagna. Her great-grandparents lived about 100 yards from San Bartolome, and, she said, “I always knew my great-grandfather had hidden some Jews, but in my 10-year-old head I thought they were a couple of Anne Frank-type families and always wondered how they got there. No one ever discussed it. No one ever said there were 250 at one time and 1,000 over three years.”
The Italians strove to keep families together, she said, and if relatives were split up, they could make “a demand for reunification” to officials and would be brought together.
Bettina showed photos from nearby Ferramonti, a family camp, provided to her by former camp residents. They included pictures of a bride wearing a traditional gown, a class photo with a teacher, and a gathering with wine and flowers set out on tables.
As she began her research, Bettina said she kept meeting survivors who had been saved by Italians living in big cities and small towns and from “every walk of life. There was no organization or group, just individuals who did the right thing.”
Even though “everyone knew” about the Jews — they were sheltered in city apartment buildings and small towns like Campagna — few “outed” them.
Although civil liberties were lost and conditions worsened after Germany seized control of the country in 1943, survivors told Bettina that Italy “was a better place to be” than most other places in Europe during the war.
Georgette Chinitz of Edison told the gathering her family survived “because of our stay in Italy.”
Born in the south of France, Chinitz said her family fled in 1943 through the mountains to Italy and were greeted by townspeople who willingly hid her family and other refugees.
“A number of people were saved by the Italian community and by Italian priests,” said Chinitz.
Bettina’s book was released in hardcover in 2009 and paperback in 2011. The 2014 film debuted at the Hamptons International Film Festival and was screened at the Rome International Film Festival .
Bettina always signs her books with the inscription: “If you are not indifferent, things can be different.”
With that concept in mind, she created an educational campaign, Be the Difference — Never Again, which focuses on educating Italian and American students about the sacrifices made by American soldiers who died during World War II or went missing in action. The campaign’s activities include trips to American cemeteries in Italy, where Jewish and Christian GIs are buried, and volunteer services for veterans.
Bettina has also taken four trips to Italy with survivors, which included meetings with popes Benedict and Francis, and brought 300 survivors to attend the 70th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz.
More than 600 Italians have been honored by Yad Vashem, and, Bettina said of the many survivors she has met, “I feel privileged and honored to tell their stories.”