From tragedy to deliverance

Jewish holocaust survivors found welcome refuge in post-war Italy.

Jewish transit camp 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Yad Vashem)
Jewish transit camp 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Yad Vashem)
The pictures tell it all.
Victorious troops, flowers and joyous smiles. That is how a long and cruel war in Europe finally ended with Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945. For many this was a time of celebration and indeed we have come to think of it as such. It is as if at the war’s end, immediate rebuilding started and a new chapter was opened.
As a consequence, we may not remember that for the Jews of Europe, the Allied triumph presented an unknown future and unexpected tragedies.
Weeks and then months were spent looking for lost family members, hoping for miracles.
Many had simply nowhere to go and were languishing in camps.
For them, the joy of liberation was not a joy of freedom.
For the Allies, there was an immediate challenge due to the unfolding humanitarian tragedy of literally millions of displaced persons, including several hundred thousand Jewish survivors of the Nazi genocide campaign. When Allied soldiers first arrived at the German concentration camps, they were not prepared for what awaited them. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, the British arrived at Belsen on April 13, 1945, and the Americans at Dachau on April 29, 1945.
The former concentration camp inmates, altogether about 90,000 freed by the Allies, were only a part of the total number of the displaced Jews. Forced laborers, prisoners of war, partisans and former Nazi collaborators were all looking for opportunities of repatriation, or for many a new homeland.
Yehuda Bauer, in his research work Out of the Ashes, called the displaced persons a “collection of people, persecuted and persecutors, thrown together by the Nazi regime.” By September 25, 1945, the majority of them had been quickly repatriated, thus reducing the figure to approximately 1.5 million displaced persons in Germany, Austria and Italy.
Despite the UN General Assembly’s recognition of the displaced persons situation as the most urgent of postwar problems, delays in aid were long, following the camp liberations. The organizational chain of the Allies was complicated and even the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency was unprepared for the scope of the displacement problem.
Early on there also developed a continuous movement of refugees from Eastern Europe to the American zone of occupation and this issue became a major source of friction between the Allied authorities and the displaced persons, most of whom were Jewish survivors.
The traffic was so noticeable that many observers mentioned it as the most visible issue about the displaced persons present in Germany.
Even with the passing of months, the number of the Jewish refugees did not decline to any considerable extent. The Jewish flight westward was a result of persistent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland, where Nazism had been defeated but anti-Semitism seemed to be even stronger than before the war.
Originally, many of the refugees went back to their former homes in Poland. But they soon returned, bringing with them terrible stories of violent anti-Semitism and even pogroms, one of them in Kielce, Poland in 1946. Although the military authorities tried to play down the pogrom, the “exodus” from the East did not stop and, in fact, may have occurred with the tacit approval of some sections of the American authorities and UNRRA.
Many Jewish displaced persons among the former partisans and concentration camp inmates started arriving in Italy in small numbers in summer 1945. They originally came from the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary and other parts of Eastern Europe.
From various sources, it can be concluded that in the year 1945 alone about 15,000 Holocaust survivors arrived in Italy. About 15,000 to 18,000 Jewish refugees resided in Italy at any given time between late summer of 1945 and 1948, and during that period a total of about 50,000 refugees passed through the country. By the summer of 1950, there were only 2,000 Jewish war refugees left in Italy.
Italy in the summer of 1945 was a state in chaos. Thousands of refugees started crossing its border from the mountainous Austrian side, often with the tacit approval of Italian border guards. This migration went on for months without any wider notice, as displaced persons arrived together with returning deportees and Italian forced laborers.
Once it became apparent that the refugees were part of a pattern and the migration was somewhat organized, Italian authorities started paying attention. Due to the volume of the traffic the Italians believed themselves to be in real difficulty in stopping it, and partly because of this belief, virtually nothing was done to stop the border crossings.
The British authorities occupying Italy as well as those ruling in the Palestine Mandate were alert to the migration, however, and realized that a potential problem was at hand. If the refugees arrived in Italy, it would be only a question of time before they would try to leave for Palestine.
The British then started a campaign of political pressure against the migration, blaming the Italian governments for causing an international crisis. Lack of Italian reaction was presented as a probable cause for political unrest in the mandate. In a half-hearted gesture of cooperation, Italian police conducted showy but ineffective operations against the traffic.
These operations were not in Italy’s best interest. The post-war governments of Italy had an unexpected chance to distance the country from the mistakes of World War II. Their primary goal was to see Italy entering the international scene. Allowing the entrance of the Jewish refugees to Italy was part of this endeavor.
The humanitarian aspect was also very important, as evidenced in internal correspondence by branches of these post-war governments, which needed to rid the nation of its Fascist past. Italian leaders sensed a duty to let the Jewish refugees use the country’s long coastlines to depart for the land of Israel.
Naturally, there is another aspect, as the post-war economy could not support the presence of thousands of refugees on Italian soil. So it was in Italy’s interests to let the refugees peacefully transit the country on their journey onward. Testimonies from the period recount the assistance to Mossad agents given by Italian officials as well as border guards as the waves of Jewish refugees were taken out of Italy.
It was clear to the refugees that Italy was to be a final way station on their journey to the Land of Israel.
Countless testimonies, interviews and contemporary evidence support this conclusion. The Jews of Europe, displaced and homeless, felt a longing for their ancient homeland and they arrived in Italy ready for hardships in order to reach their destiny. Zionism in the camps was evident and every activity was geared towards that one goal.
Poverty, lack of opportunities and poor nutritional and sanitary conditions were part of their daily existence. But their dream of reaching Israel proved, for the most part, to be stronger than these challenges.
Despite the hardships, most Jewish refugees restored their human dignity while in Italy. Contemporary testimonies as well as interviews given years later, support the refugee view that Italy was a different place than other parts of Europe, and they felt accepted. For Jews fleeing from Eastern Europe, they were more likely to receive help from an Italian border guard than almost anyone else on the continent.
Thus the story of the Jewish refugees’ brief stay in Italy was a positive and even glorious one: They had a goal and in the end most of them would attain it, arriving safely on the shores of the Land of Israel.