Former Nazi ally Italy “was in the middle of the war [and] has a special responsibility” to commemorate the genocide of the Jews, Ambassador Francesco Maria Talo told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, as the world marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In 2000 Italy became one of the first countries to establish January 27, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army, as a national day of remembrance, a date that was designated as an international memorial by the United Nations General Assembly five years later.
On Tuesday afternoon Talo laid a wreath in Yad Vashem’s Hall of Remembrance in what has become an annual Italian custom and which is accompanied by similar activities across Italy, the ambassador said.
Stating that it is wonderful that US President Barack Obama was to participate in a ceremony honoring righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, Talo said that his country’s president participates in such activities every year, and that there are “ceremonies on all levels,” including in “each small town and school” and in embassies around the world.
“In Italy it’s an official mourning day, same as in Israel” on Holocaust Remembrance Day, he continued, explaining that Italians “simply felt it was our duty.”
A week ago Talo was in Italy planting a tree in honor of Jewish schoolchildren who were expelled from the same primary school that he later attended.
“The fact of remembering and hopefully doing something, this is part of our culture,” he continued, saying that it was a “risk” that people would remember only on official days and forget the rest of the year.
“We have to work every day” to remember, he asserted, adding that while some Italians worked to save Jews, others did not, and “it is especially important to remember what was done to participate in the persecution.... We have more responsibility and we need to do more.”
The contemporary situation in Europe, in which Jewish organizations complain that they are witnessing higher levels of anti-Semitism and violence against Jews than any seen since the end of the Holocaust, is “very concerning” to Italy, he said, linking such problems with several factors, including the “confrontation we have with a different culture arriving in Europe.”
Referring to the influx of Middle Eastern migrants currently making their way to European shores, Talo stated that “we need to do more and to educate the immigrants who are now attending our schools. It’s imperative to act.”
Aside from official commemorations in Italy on Wednesday, Il Foglio responded to the rise in anti-Semitism by distributing kippot in its daily edition as a rejoinder to a French Jewish leader who recently called on Jews to hide their identities to prevent physical attacks.
In an article explaining the move, the paper asserted that “the West should not obscure its roots and its religious symbols” and stated that remembrance is “only right but no longer sufficient” and that “this year we must do more.”
The kippot, it explained, are a “sign of solidarity” informing the Jews that they and the West must not hide.
Responding to the gesture, Talo stated that “what is important is to let those people, the anti-Semites, feel that they are not only against the Jews but [also against] a good part of the society, the majority.”
According to a spokesman for Yad Vashem, Italy has a “very active role” in terms of joint activities, sending some 50 teachers a year for Holocaust education at the Israeli memorial center, and that the two have a “good relationship.”
Despite being a German ally, Italy was not an enthusiastic collaborator in the Holocaust and, according to Yad Vashem, “in 1942, after Germany began deporting Jews to the east in earnest, the Italian military began a serious rescue operation throughout the territories it administered. In all, the Italian authorities saved some 40,000 non-Italian Jews.”
Last year the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research issued a report stating that most Italian Jews do not avoid going to Jewish events or sites, despite personal worries over anti-Semitism.
“About one-third of respondents thought that hostility towards Jews in public places had increased in the past five years, and a similar proportion thought that there had been an increase in desecration of Jewish cemeteries, vandalism of Jewish buildings and institutions and anti-Semitism in political life,” the report found.
Although one-third of the Italian Jews who responded had experienced anti-Semitic harassment within the year before they were polled, and one-fifth recalled suffering discrimination as Jews, 87 percent stated that they had never avoided Jewish events or sites out of fear for their safety.
However, 30 percent of respondents spoke of avoiding overt symbols of Jewish affiliation such as kippot, mezuzot and Stars of David.
In an interview last week, Ruth Dureghello, the head of Rome’s Jewish community, stated that Roman Jews are not fearful but that “there’s caution.”