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Dr. Mary Doria Russell



By Rhonda Spivak, January 26, 2011

[Editor’s note: This is an interview I conducted  a while ago when Dr. Mary Doria was in Winnipeg  and spoke at St. Paul’s College and the University of Manitoba.—It is a piece of history not well-known and worth  revisiting.]

“At the end of World War II, nearly 50,000 Italian and foreign Jews were hidden, cared for and protected by ordinary Italians.  When Germany finally surrendered 20 months later approximately 43,000 of those 50,000 Jews were still alive.”

Those are the words of novelist Dr. Mary Doria Russell, who spent seven years uncovering this largely unknown historical reality. 

‘Eighty five percent of Italian Jews were saved during the Holocaust, whereas in other European countries the exact opposite was true. In other countries, only 10-12% of Jews were saved…,” Russell said.

This is the  historical reality behind Russell’s Pullitzer Prize nominated novel A THREAD OF GRACE (2005) and about the extraordinary response of the Italian nation to the Holocaust. 

Born near Chicago, Russell,  received her M.A. in social anthropology and her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the field of paleoanthropology, the study of the origins and ancestors of human beings. After teaching gross anatomy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Russell left academia in the 1980’s in order to write novels.  In 1993, she converted to Judaism.

When asked why it is not generally known that the Italian people saved so many Jews,    Russell responded, “No one knows because Italians don’t  talk about it.…After Germany finally surrendered at the end of World War II, Italy had a civil war and 100,000 people in Northern Italy were killed. .. After a war like that, if you are going to go on having a civil society, you have to stop talking about the past…It’s like a curtain of silence was thrown over the whole era…”

“Also many Italians I interviewed don’t think they did anything so special in hiding Jews. They would say that it was nothing,” Russell explained.

She added, "When I visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, there were only  5 names of Italians on the wall of  Righteous Gentiles.  By my calculation, there should be at least 43,000 righteous Italians on that list.  I estimate that in reality the figures of righteous Italians must be much higher than 43,000.”

Russell began to explore the fate of Italian Jews in the Holocaust when she came across a book in a bookstore by Alexander Stille, entitled Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. 

“When I saw that book, I thought 'wow'.  I am Italian by heritage and I am a Jew by choice…   I knew that I wanted to learn more about this…….I knew that [if I did a novel about this] it would allow me to look at modern Italian history, read more deeply about the roll of the Catholic Church and see what kind of spiritual heritage Italian Jews had,”  Russell said. 

Russell’s research which took many years took her to Italy twice for long stretches where she interviewed Jewish survivors, Italian rescuers and veterans of Italy’s anti-fascist resistance. 

“In America, whenever I heard someone with an Italian accent [of the appropriate age], I started to ask about their background”, Russell noted.

During World War II, Italy under dictator Benito Mussolini was allied with Nazi Germany for three years.  On September 8, 1943 Italy decided to “switch sides” and make a separate peace with the Allies.  According to Russell, Germany knew that when Mussolini was deposed, Italy was going to switch sides.

“By the time  American President Roosevelt announced the armistice agreement with Italy,  German troops  had already amassed along the Italian border, and were ready to occupy Italy immediately,” she pointed out.

As Russell said, “For the three years that Italy was an ally of Germany, not one Jew was turned over to the Nazis…Not only were Italians devoid of antisemitism,  if you could get behind Italian lines, you were safe.. [For those three years] Jews didn’t have to wear a star in Italy.” Thus, Russell explained that Italians became known as inefficient, bad soldiers because in reality they were resisting Germany."

According to Russell, “The absolute lack of co-operation” [by Italy in not turning over the Jews] drove the Gestapo nuts.  The Italians became inefficient so as to avoid turning over the Jews…No one co-operated with surrender on demand orders...They would say that the order was misfiled and then the next day when the Germans came back, an entirely different person would be there, who would say he didn’t know anything about it, and then he’d go on a coffee break…and this would just go on and on.”

“While Italy was an ally of  Germany, Germany was using Italians to soak up Russian bullets…Italians didn’t want to die for Germans.  They did everything they could to undermine German authority,” said Russell.

When Italy surrendered to the Allies, “Germans had such pent-up fury with  Italy’s lack of co-operation that they swept in and overnight Italy became occupied  Nazi territory.  The Code phrase for German troops to take over Italy was boil the macaroni…,” Russell notes.

The Nazis struck first in Rome and rounded up Jews and sent them to Auschwitz.  “This was huge news across Italy and galvanized the nation against the Nazis…[During the Nazi occupation] the Germans were rounding up Italian males for slave labour…One half of Italy was hiding the other half. Everyone was hiding someone so to hide a Jew wasn’t that more risky… To hide people was a form of resistance.  If they caught you, they’d kill you.  People knew how dangerous it was, but they did it anyway,” said Russell.

Russell pointed to the story of Miriam Krause, who was the secretary of the main synagogue in Genoa as a typical example of how average Italians “spontaneously” helped Jews.

When Krause was a tiny girl her parents bought train tickets to Italy, got off and knocked on the door of a complete stranger who opened the door a bit and yelled at them.  While this was happening another women in the house gave them a piece of paper with an address.  They went to that address and the women who answered took them in and hid them.

 As Russell said, “Later that evening, the woman [from the first house] came with blankets and apologized to the Krause family for yelling at them.  She explained that she had a fascist neighbour across the street and so she had made a big opera for him.  For the rest of the war the woman [from the first house] took personal responsibility for protecting the Krause family. She moved them to her cousin's up north and other places to ensure their safety. The family was all saved and Miriam Krause doesn’t even know the woman’s name.” 

When Russell interviewed Italian people who hid Jews about their extra-ordinary response, they would answerd “that they did what anyone else would do if they were compassionate and that they can’t figure out why others [in Europe]  didn’t do it also."

Russell believed that there are a number of factors which explain why the fate of most Italian Jews was better than other European Jews during the

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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