When Vince Marmorale, a son of Italian immigrants, was growing up in the 1950s in the East New York section of Brooklyn, he lived in what he described as an “Italian-Catholic-Jewish world.” And although his father told the family about the Holocaust, it wasn’t until he was a teenager that he realized that many of his neighbors were survivors.
“My father described it as ‘the worst thing that ever happened in the world,’” said Marmorale, in a talk, Italians and the Holocaust, that he gave April 12 at the Hillside Municipal Building. “When I started teaching over 40 years ago,” he said, “I felt a deep, moral imperative to share the story.” The result of his commitment and research: he produced Italy and the Holocaust, a documentary that relates the little-known account of rescuers saving Jews in Italy during World War II.
About 100 people attended the event sponsored by the Hillside chapter of UNICO National, the Italian-American service organization, and the Italian American Civic Association of Hillside, in commemoration of Yom Hashoa, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 11.
“I grew up in a mixed neighborhood, too, and, like Vince, I have a special feeling toward the Jewish people,” chapter president Angelo J. Bonanno said. “And, as an Italian-American, I’m proud of the heroism of many Italians during the war. It’s essential to get this information out.”
Hillside Township Councilman Patesh Freedman commended both organizations. “There’s an important lesson here, and it hasn’t been told in the Jewish community to any great extent. I am pleased that they are bringing it to light,” he said.
According to Marmorale, who was cited by the New York State Board of Regents for his Outstanding Contributions to Holocaust Studies, most schools did not include study of the Holocaust in their curriculums until the 1970s, and even then, it was limited to a few paragraphs in a textbook. “I wanted to put together a unit on ‘Resistance and Rescue,’” he said. “I wanted to let the young people know that in the worst of times, there is hope.” Marmorale discovered the story of Righteous Gentiles in Italy, which fascinated him because it took place in a country allied with Hitler.
Although Italy enacted racial laws in 1938, “they were not embraced because the culture was not fertile for anti-Semitism,” said Marmorale. As a result, roughly 80 percent of Italy’s Jews survived the Holocaust.
A prime example of the Italian mindset, said Marmorale, is that when the Germans ordered the Italians to turn over Jews in occupied areas, the Italians rarely complied.
Of course, he said, Jews could not live freely in Italy, but when the Italians were ordered to round up Jews, for example, instead of sending them to concentration camps, they put them in apartments, where all the Jews had to do was report to a police officer each day.
One of the most remarkable incidents, according to Marmorale, involved a convent in Campagna that provided refuge for over 1,000 Jews. Survivors described the humane treatment they received, including ample food and lively card games.
The real problems began, Marmorale said, when the Germans occupied Italy in 1943 and arrested Jews on their own.
Marmorale acknowledged that the history is complicated; not all Italians protected Jews. But, he said, many who did help were barely educated. “They were simple people with big hearts,” he said.
The evening concluded with a presentation from Polish Holocaust survivor Abraham Zuckerman of Hillside, who was born in Cracow. He was interned in seven different concentration camps until he was sent to work in one of Oskar Schindler’s factories.
Zuckerman, a successful real estate developer and the author of A Voice in the Chorus: Memories of a Teenager Saved by Schindler, has honored his rescuer by naming over 30 streets in New Jersey after him. However, when asked if he had been aware of what the Italian people did during the war, he said, no, not until recently. “It’s amazing,” he said.