Author Revisits Italian Heroes of the Holocaust
North Eastern Pennsylvania Times Leader; Janine Ungvarsky; July 11, 2010
She calls it a little known story of goodness, the story of what happens when people quietly choose to do the right thing because it’s the right thing. It’s the story of how the people of Italy " and in particular, the inhabitants of the small mountain town of Campagna " knowingly and willingly risked their lives to save hundreds of Jews from the worst horrors of the Holocaust. It’s a story that has been largely unknown for decades, and that’s something Elizabeth Bettina wants to change.
Elizabeth Bettina tells the story of how the people of Campagna, Italy knowingly and willingly risked their lives to save hundreds of Jews from the worst horrors of the Holocaust.
Bettina has written It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust.
On Tuesday, Bettina will speak as part of the Summer Experience at the Jewish Community Center of Wyoming Valley
. The two-day event also features an evening panel discussion with three local businessmen and World War II veterans. "Memories to Guide our Next Generation: Heroes We Know" will highlight the war-time experiences of Harold Rosenn, Arnold Rifkin and Alvin "Buddy" Rothstein moderated by WVIA President Bill Kelly.
JCC event Chair Connie Roth said her husband pointed out Bettina’s book to her in Barnes & Noble bookstore. "I was very taken by this story," Roth said. "We don’t always know about those who truly put their lives in jeopardy to save the lives of Jewish people. Elizabeth’s book is a wonderful tale of these humble, caring, loving people in Italy that sheltered the lives of other human beings at great risk to their own. We need to know more".
The story of the heroic efforts of the Italians is one that Bettina speaks about with great passion. But even though she visited her ancestral homeland frequently beginning in childhood, it’s one that she didn’t hear about until recently.
Her passion was sparked by a photo taken in the 1940s on the steps of a Campagna church that Bettina had attended many times. Staring out of the fading black and white image, some wearing a slight smile, were a priest, several police officials, a number of townspeople - and a rabbi.
“I saw this and I said, ‘What was a rabbi doing in my grandma’s village, in this sleepy little village that the world never heard of?’
I would never think of that and the answer that came was that the people helped a few Jews escape the Nazis," Bettina said.
Bettina soon learned that "a few" was actually more like hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Jews. She was surprised to discover that through the efforts of many Italians " including government officials" Italian Jews and Jews who fled to Italy from other parts of Europe were given new identities, helped to escape beyond the reach of the Germans, or housed in camps that were more like hotels than the death camps in other parts of Europe.
“I couldn’t believe it," Bettina said. "You can’t find this town today with a GPS or Mapquest. How did these people get down here from Munich and other parts of Europe to escape the Nazis? And Campagna has 10 or 15 churches and this church where they are standing in the photo isn’t just any church, it’s my grandma’s church, where I used to fill water bottles in the fountain in front of the church. I just couldn’t believe it.
“I never wrote a book. I never wanted to write a book. It was not on my to-do list but when I found this story, the book just happened," Bettina continued. "It was a story of goodness that just had to be told, and I told it like it was told to me."
And though she didn’t want to write a book, Bettina seemed to be uniquely qualified to write this
one. Besides her Italian background
and frequent visits to the very town
and church at the root of much of the story, she also grew up an Italian Catholic in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood
in New York. She writes of showing the photo of the rabbi to one of her Jewish childhood friends.
“We always knew you were an honorary Jew" the friend said. "Now we know the reason you grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. Who else could understand the story of Jews and Campagna?" Bettina wrote in her book.
“The story of the people of Italy is like the story of Oskar Schindler"
Bettina said, referencing the German factory owner immortalized in the book and movie "Schindler’s List" for saving hundreds of Jews, "Only this was a nation of Schindlers"
Her research revealed that while 80 percent of the Jewish people in Europe were killed by the Nazis, 80 percent of those in Italy survived.
Bettina began to seek out those who lived through this extraordinary time and gather their stories.
Her book takes readers through her discoveries and introduces them to some of the key players, like Giovanni Palatucci. Palatucci
was an Italian police official under the authority of Benito Mussolini who deliberately defied orders and prevented the deportation of thousands of Jewish people to Nazi concentration camps—and died in one himself for his efforts.
The book tells Palatucci’s tale and describes the circumstances of Bettina’s almost unprecedented visit with Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the man who made Palatucci a candidate for Roman Catholic sainthood.
The book contains pages of photos of people having picnics, children at school and even weddings, providing a glimpse into life in the Italian internment camps that is a far cry from the horrendous images of Nazi camps in other parts of Europe.
It backs up the stories of the survivors with copies of letters and official documents that show the risks the people of Italy took to protect Jewish people, most of whom were strangers to them.
But mostly, it tells the tale of those who lived through this time, often in their own words.
“They all have the same thing " gratitude," Bettina said. "They all speak fluent Italian, they feel like they are Italian, so much so that many of their children don’t realize they weren’t always Italian. And the Italians are so modest. They didn’t think they were heroic, they just saved human beings like them. That’s why you haven’t heard about this before"
— the Jews who were in Italy tell me they feel that they are so lucky compared to those who were other places that they don’t talk about their experience. They just went on with their lives. And the Italians just feel that they were doing what people should do, so they didn’t talk about it either."
But Bettina is determined to tell the story. She has spoken all over the country, invited by people intrigued by this little known tale. She’s heard from dozens of other Jewish survivors who were in Italy and their families and is currently working on a documentary telling the stories of the many survivors she’s found, including Ursula Korn Selig, who will accompany her to the JCC event.
“I want this story to be told," Bettina said. "Scholars have written about this but it hasn’t filtered down. It would be nice for people to wonder what else they don’t know. And I want people to start to listen to those who lived through things like this. Don’t filter what they say. Listen to them and they’ll be delighted to talk to you.
“And I would hope that people would learn from what the Italians did. You can make the world a better place and it can be something as simple as getting up on a bus and giving someone a seat on a bus. If you want things to be different, you can make them different. That’s what the Italians did. I hope people wonder what they would do if they had been there in Italy. What would you do if it was you?"