Author Elizabeth Bettina Reveals Untold Stories of the Italian Holocaust

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Elizabeth Bettina

Author Elizabeth Bettina (right) with President Franco Pavoncello

“Why did you not return to Italy? Because nobody apologized” – Jewish survivor of World War II

On Tuesday, March 27th, author Elizabeth Bettina captured the attention of the John Cabot University community with her presentation, “It Happened in Italy”, based on the experiences of Italian Jews during World War II. She explored in depth the role played by Italy in the persecution of Italian Jews and the differences between Italy’s concentration camps and those of Germany. President Pavoncello gave an introduction, emphasizing the importance of understanding and confronting Italy’s darker past.

Ms. Bettina, an Italian-American from New York, described her upbringing in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She spent her summers in Italy, from ages 10 to 18, visiting her extended family living in Campagna. It was there that she began her research after discovering that a rabbi and a synagogue had existed in Campagna during the 1940s. She then learned of the role Campagna played during fascism. During that period, Campagna had two concentration camps, to which over 1,000 Jews were sent.

Ms. Bettina spoke eloquently about the 1938 racial laws, which stripped Italian Jews of the right to work, the right to receive an education, and the right to own business. These laws, however, did not involve forced interment in concentration camps. Foreign Jews, however, were sent to various camps around Italy, the largest being Ferramonti di Tarsia, in Calabria, which held approximately 4,000 Jewish internees. Ms. Bettina used this camp as an example of the difference between German and Italian camps. Unlike in German camps, internees were allowed to wear their own clothing, receive healthcare, hold their own government, hold family gatherings and even request reunification with other family members who were held in different camps. Ms. Bettina noted that over 21 children were born and that weddings were a regular occurrence at the Ferramonti camp.

It is possible that the presentation painted a more positive image of the experiences of Jews who were interned in Italian camps than one might have expected. However, focus was also given to the slaughter of almost 2,000 Italian Jews who, on October 16th, 1943, were rounded up and deported to their death.

Ms. Bettina carefully reminded the audience that her presentation was not intended to detract from the brutality experienced by millions of Jews, instead simply focusing on a lesser-known aspect of World War II; she brought with her Antonio Salvatore, the son of a concentration camp director, who spoke of his childhood playing and being friends with the interned Jewish children. As a part of her video presentation, she showed interviews with survivors, who were grateful for their experience of being treated with respect and dignity. She has also worked hard over the years to reunify survivors.

While perhaps Bettina only managed to shed a partial light on this dark part of Italy’s history, and failed to give more perspective on why some Italian Jews have chosen not to return to Italy after the war, it nonetheless provided for a thought-provoking presentation.

by Diedre Blake