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Book Review: Elizabeth Bettina and It Happened in Italy

It Happened in Italy:  Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust by Elizabeth BettinaBuy on Amazon

Readers of this blog know that I have an interest in the Holocaust and its causes and ramifications.  For example, I have already reviewed Joe Keysor’s Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Bible.  I consider myself a student of 20th century history with all of its death and destruction and ideological battles.  Mrs. Bettina’s book was a breath of fresh air for me as it accomplished several things at once:

  • It showed me a dimension of the Holocaust story I was previously unaware of (it seems everyone was unaware of it, including the Italians!)
  • It revealed that not every Christian, and certainly not every Catholic, turned a blind eye to the plight of the Jews during Hitler’s reign.
  • It corroborated my belief that world views and consequences are intricately linked.

As it happens, even before Italy capitulated to the Allies in World War 2, the Jews in Italy were fiercely protected and guarded by Italians.  They did not go along with Hitler’s ‘final solution.’  Italy was a country that allowed Jews to freely come and go unlike other countries at the time that often made entry difficult.  When Jews began noting the writing on the wall in Germany, they began fleeing to neighboring countries, with Italy being the easiest.  Jews that then left Italy to France or Denmark, etc, thinking they would be safe… died.  Jews that remained in Italy, on the whole, survived.

The most dangerous time for Jews in Italy, as it turns out, was after it joined the Allies against Germany.  Throughout the book, this date is highlighted as the turning point.  Prior to this point, Jews were subject to restrictions but by and large shielded from the calamities being inflicted upon them elsewhere.  But since there were many German soldiers in Italy when this happened, after Italy became Germany’s enemy, Hitler attempted to carry out his program on his own.  This date was September 8th, 1943.

Bettina’s book extensively documents the very good treatment given to the Jews in Italy both before and after this date.  The poor treatment they received after that date was perpetuated mainly by the Germans, not the Italians.

Bettina’s book is largely a personal account, born of her discovery that her own family’s hometown in Italy (Campagna) had protected not handfuls of Jews, but thousands.  Her family and the citizens of Campagna hardly ever talked about it.  Italy’s role in rescuing tens of thousands  of Jews possibly would have passed unnoticed if she hadn’t noticed in a picture of her grandparent’s wedding a rabbi- quite out of place in thoroughly devout Catholic Italy.

She traces her journey as she learns more and more and gains the ear of more and more prominent officials, including the current Pope.  Some readers may grow weary of the somewhat redundant statements of astonishment that Mrs. Bettina expresses at the ‘coincidences’ that line up as she tells her story but the historical value of her personal account is, in my estimation, profound.  And as a Christian, I am not put off with a ‘divine’ interpretation of these events.

I submitted some questions to Mrs. Bettina that I hope at some point she can reply to.  One concerns a quote which I think is pertinent even today.

She says, on page 326, “Finally, as many of the survivors have remarked, the most educated group of people in the world at the time created the Holocaust and the ‘Final Solution.’ Yet in many cases, it was the simple people, the ‘uneducated’ people who saved the Jews.”

The Catholic Church, and the Christian community in general, can be faulted in many ways for what transpired against the Jews during Hitler’s rise and fall, but Bettina’s book shows that one can’t paint to wide a brush.  Whatever blame rests on the Catholic Church’s organization through the 1930s as it tackled the Hitler ‘problem’, the untold story of how ordinary Catholics in Italy defied the Germans is an important counter-balance to the allegations that have been lodged.  The simple Catholics, the ‘uneducated’ Italian of the time, saved innumerable lives.

The professor, the academic, the scholar, the theologian, the doctor, the philosopher… created and perpetuated the conditions in which innumerable lives were slain.  More than that, they often went beyond laying down the intellectual foundation for Hitler’s ‘Final Solution,’ they helped carry it out.

The much maligned Catholics, as it turns out, are not- on the whole- guilty of the charges levied against them.

For a homespun story of great historical value, I submit Mrs. Bettina’s It Happened in Italy.   Given current trends in America, Europe, and the world at large, I greatly fear that a hundred year’s hence there will be need for books documenting humanity’s bravery in the face of unadulterated murderous evil.  I suspect that here too the story will be the same:  the most educated people on the planet created and carried out their calamities… and the ‘uneducated’ simple folks tried to stop them.


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