Text by Marta Baiardi from the insert “The Holocaust Remembrance Day 2002-2009” edited by the Regione Toscana in the special 25 April 2009 issue of the Florentine daily «La Nazione»
When the Italian armistice with the Allies was announced on 8 September 1943, the event marked the beginning of the war’s most dramatic and harrowing phase for the civil population. For Jews it was even worse. Under the Germans and the RSI [Italian Social Republic] they experienced the most brutal and merciless period of their ancient history in the country: the “persecution against lives”, i.e. the systematic rounding up of each and every one for deportation and extermination, women, old people and children included. At first it was the Germans who assailed Jews with slaughters, raids and deportations. The most massive of these operations was carried out in Rome, in the early hours of a rainy, gloomy day, on 16 October 1943, when over a thousand Roman Jews were captured and sent to Auschwitz: only about fifteen of them would return. The German mobile unit that had operated in Rome then swooped on Tuscany on 5 and 6 November 1943, hitting Florence, Siena and Montecatini at the same time, arresting and deporting hundreds of victims. After that, convents were raided in Florence. Many of those persecuted had found refuge there with the help of a Jewish-Christian rescue committee. The most horrible of these episodes took place at Santa Maria del Carmine, the Carmelite convent that sheltered many Jewish women with small children. In the night of 26 November Nazi-Fascists burst into the convent and for four long days the imprisoned women, before being deported to Auschwitz (where all of them died), were subjected to all sorts of abuse by the Fascist militia who were guarding them, having rushed to assist the Germans.
By mid-November 1943, however, the collaborationist regime of the RSI was ready to launch its own persecution of Jews, who were promptly declared “enemy aliens” to be arrested and deported. “Entire families” were to be taken into custody, as the Questore [police commissioner] of Florence specified in a circular sent to police forces in December 1943. From that moment on in Tuscany, as well as elsewhere, the hunting of Jews was led by Prefetti [the authority representing the central government at provincial level] and Questori. Germans retained the task of transporting the victims to the concentration camps. This meant that there were two parallel police forces working side-by-side against the defenceless Jews, who after having been deprived of all their rights were now reduced to the status of prey.
All recent in-depth studies prove beyond doubt that exterminationist anti-Semitism was one of the pillars of the RSI, not a secondary aspect, however much republican Fascists tried after the war to conceal this fact, all too readily absolving themselves and blaming the Italian Shoah entirely on the Nazis. The truth is that men and authorities of the RSI very often carried out the persecution with great determination and just as great efficiency. Anti-Semitism by RSI institutions was particularly vicious in Tuscany and was not limited to Florence and the Jewish Affairs Office of the local Prefettura [the Prefetto’s office]. In Grosseto, for instance, the Prefetto zealously anticipated at a local level – on his own initiative – the persecutory policy of the central government.
Persecution in Tuscany had two epicentres: Florence, where a high number of Jews, both local people and refugees, had gathered, and the provinces of Lucca and Pistoia. In the latter there were many Jews who had been evacuated from the coastal area, but also many foreign Jews, who since 1940 had been interned in the “campi del duce”, i.e. the internment camps set up by the Fascist regime when Italy joined the war. Here arrests were mostly carried out by local Carabinieri.
The hunt for Jews in Tuscany resulted in the deportation of hundreds of men women and children. A crucial role in achieving this result was played by the many who informed on Jews and actively collaborated in the hunt. And yet, the majority of Jews were saved. A few managed to reach the South already liberated by the Allies. Others fled to Switzerland. But most of them stayed and lived in hiding, resorting to all kinds of survival strategies. If the proportion of those saved was high, in Tuscany as in the rest of Italy, this was no doubt due to the short duration of persecution, to the scarcity of troops deployed by the Germans, sometimes to mere chance. Even more often, however, it was the result of the efforts of men and women, whether in groups or as individuals, all greatly different from each other but united in the firm belief that the murderous design of Nazi-Fascists should be resisted.
Jews Deported from Tuscany (divided by Province)