Giovanni Palatucci

Giovanni Palatucci (May 31, 1909 – February 10, 1945) was an Italian police commissary who allegedly saved thousands of Jews from being deported to Nazi extermination camps. This claim has never been corroborated by any scholarly study or accepted by any historian. Nevertheless, over the course of 40 years, it has gained almost universal popular consensus.

Palatucci was born in Montella, Avellino, Italy. In 1928 he entered the National Fascist Party and in 1932 received a law degree from the University of Turin. In 1936 he entered the police in Genoa and the following year he was assigned to Fiume as adjunct deputy commissary.

In 1938 the promulgation of Racial Laws stripped Italian Jews of all their civil rights and ordered the expulsion of all Jews who had received Italian citizenship after 1919. The Jewish community of Fiume, which counted about 1,500 individuals, was stranded, as the city had been annexed to Italy only in 1924. Due to Prefect Testa's extreme interpretation of the law, virtually all its Jewish residents were subject to the expulsion decree. With the deadline of the expulsion decree approaching (March 12, 1939, later extended to July), Central European Jews fleeing Germany and Austria also tried to reach Fiume to board vessels to Palestine or the Americas. When in 1940 Italy entered World War II, with one of the most abusive provisions in the country, Palatucci's chief, Temistocle Testa ordered the immediate arrest of all Jewish men older than 18.

Adjunct Commissary Giovanni Palatucci was in charge of the Foreigners Office of the Questura of Fiume. He issued transit visas and residence papers to foreigners who qualified. He also oversaw the compilation of the census of the Jews which, since 1939, was used for the confiscation of assets, to conduct arrest for the internment order of July 1940 and subsequently, after September 1943, to conduct the round ups and deportation to Auschwitz. Palatucci worked under the strict supervision of his superiors with a small margin of autonomy.


The Armistice and the Creation of the Adriatic Litoral Operation Zone
In July 1943 King Vittorio Emanuele III deposed Mussolini and ordered his arrest. Freed by the Germans, Mussolini established the Italian Social Republic occupying the territory between Naples and the Alps. On September 8th, 1943, the Badoglio government signed the armistice with the Allies. Fiume became part of the Italian Social Republic in the area where the Germans established the Operationszone Adriatisches Küstenland (OZAK). This was one of the most violent areas in the ISR under Nazi rule. In Trieste, the largest and closest city near Fiume, was active the only extermination camp in the peninsula, the Risiera di San Sabba where many of the Jews of Fiume and Trieste perished. Prefect Temistocle Testa and Head of Police Vincenzo Genovese fled to Rome where Testa acted as governor during the infamous round up of October 16th, 1943. Palatucci remained at his posts and took the oath to the Italian Social Republic. For this reason his name will appear among those of the Italian officers who were tried after the war for collaboration with the nazi-fascist regimes. The Questura di Fiume became "Questura Repubblicana di Fiume" under the control of ISR Chief of Police Tullio Tamburini, who too was known for his antisemitism and ruthless violence.



Regent of the Questura
In April 1944, with the departure of the last substitute prefect and chief of police, Palatucci was appointed as "regent" of the police administration without powers, weapons or funds. He maintained close contact with Tullio Tamburini, and went on at least two documented trips to Maderno, seat of the Ministry of the Interior of the Italian Social Republic. Palatucci's personal file in the Italian State Archives provides some details about his life during the last year. He wrote several memos to Tamburini lamenting the abuses of the German police and the progressive loss of prestige and dignity of the Italian Questura. He reported one episode in which the German police searched his office and questioned him on funds of the Questura and on a radio which had been confiscated to a Jewish woman, Ms. Weisz, and was fund in Palatucci's possession.

Palatucci filed formal complaints about the complete loss of authority of the Italian officers. On May 9th, 1944 he wrote: "The arrival of the German troops and the sad behavior of the Chief of Police practically brought this Questura to an end. What followed is the humiliating surrender of all weapons . The German authorities on the Adriatic Litoral continue to behave as if they had sovereignty. Under these conditions our personnel is unwilling to remain. We feel abandoned the Prefect has not even visited the Police Headquarters." and few days later "Our headquarters have lost means, power and prestige including in the eyes of the public. Only here of all the regions of the Italian Social Republic our policemen are unarmed."


Contacts with the Movimento Autonomista Liburnico
Records point to the possibility that during this time, Palatucci came in contact with the Movimento Autonomista Liburnico, a small group of Fascist leaders, including Senator Riccardo Gigante, who tried to negotiate with the Allies the postwar independence of Fiume under their rule. The plan of the group was detailed in a document called "Memorandum Rubini" from the name of one of the members.


The Arrest
On September 13th, 1944 the Germans arrested Palatucci as a police official of the Italian Social Republic. He shared the fate of thousands of Italian officers and soldiers including his direct superiors Tullio Tamburini and Carmine Senise.

A note by SS Commander Herbert Kappler to the Italian Ministry of the Interior indicates that Palatucci was accused of "intelligence with the enemy". According to police records he was found in possession of the English version of the Memorandum Rubini which had also been submitted to the Germans in order to keep open all options of post-war negotiations. Further research needs to be conducted on the circumstance of this arrest. The issue of the independence of Fiume was certainly important enough to the British to discuss another proposal, that of Mario Zanella which had inspired Rubini, at the first Council of the Ministers in 1945. At present, there are German and Italian documents attesting unequivocally the reason of the arrest and we do not know for sure whether there contacts between the Movement and British Intelligence had already materialized at the time of Palatucci's arrest.

Palatucci was detained for three weeks at the Coroneo jail in Trieste. He was deported to Dachau with a transport from Trieste of October 19th, 1944 and entered the camp on October 22nd as "protective custody prisoner" a class that included mostly political prisoners. He died on February 9th or 10th, 1945, during the tragic epidemic of typhus that spread in his section of the camp.


Claims concerning the rescue of the Jews
Palatucci's biographies lists various ways in which the young adjunct commissary allegedly helped the Jews. Testimonies point to the possibility that Palatucci was sympathetic to the difficulties of the Jewish population and on various occasions tried to offer relief. Nothing shows, on the other hand, that he set in motion the massive rescue operation attributed to him.

Palatucci had no autonomy and operated in a police headquarter where violence, corruption and abuse ruled.

The theory that he falsified documents and visas is not corroborated by evidence. The only case in which the daughter of a Yugoslavian refuge, who was 3 at the time, testified that Palatucci had given her family papers under an Italian name, is disproved by official records.

Occasionally Palatucci may have predated some permits, something other commissaries in Abbazia and Susak did, often for a fee. There is no base, however, to the idea that such operation was done on any significant scale. Most significantly, it does not appear that those who assisted Jewish refuges had any knowledge of such activity.

In fact, the head of DELASEM (Italian Jewish Relief Delegation for the Emigrants) in Trieste, Carlo Morpurgo, repeatedly stated in his memos to the Joint Distribution Committee and Hicem that Fiume was the most difficult outpost, because of the tragedy of the Yugoslavian refugees, the harshness of the border police and the complete lack of cooperation of the local police authorities. Similarly the records of Hicem and the Joint concerning Jewish Clandestine Emigration and the use of the port of Fiume indicate that the authorities of the city were the least cooperative.


Jewish Emigration and the Expedition of the Agia Zoni
Palatucci is also credited for supporting Jewish clandestine emigration. His biographers narrate that he organized the expedition of the Agia Zoni that left Fiume on March 17th, 1939 with 800 Jewish refugees. Palatucci allegedly saved them from Nazi conspirators and, with the help of the local Bishop, hid them in Abbazia.

The story is disproved by official records and personal testimonies. There were no Nazis in Fiume in 1939. Contrary to what stated in biographical sources, there are substantial records on the departure of the Agia Zoni in the Italian State Archives, the Yad Vashem Archives and the Museum of Clandestine Jewish Emigration. All documents clearly indicate that Palatucci had hardly any role in the operation.

The Agia Zoni set sail with 459 passengers after strenuous negotiations with the Italian authorities and a likely extortion on their part. It unfolded under the strictest surveillance of the local police which held the passengers captive first in Abbazia, and then in a port warehouse, until an agreement was reached over the conditions of their departure. In the process, about 600 refugees were rejected at he Italian border because of the intervention of the Questura of Fiume. The expedition was a major failure and put an end to the use of the port of Fiume as exit point for clandestine emigration to British mandate Palestine.



The Concentration Camp of Campagna
Another claim concerning Palatucci's activity is that he was responsible for interning Jews in the Italian concentration camp of Campagna. He allegedly directed them to his uncle, the Catholic Bishop of Campagna Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, who would offer them assistance. Campagna is a small town in the South of Italy, near Naples, where the Fascist regime established one of the 48 concentration camps that were used for political dissidents, war prisoners and, after 1940, for enemy aliens and "foreign Jews".

Official records contradict this claim. Palatucci never signed any internment orders. Only 42 of Fiume's Jews ended up in Campagna, 9 of whom were eventually deported to Auschwitz from other locations. A precise account of the internment process and numbers was only completed in 2010 by Anna Pizzuti and Francesca Cappelli. It is available for consultation on the website of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan. This study shows the total number of Jews from all over Italy who were interned in Campagna between July 1940 and September 1943 is of 574.

The connection between the commissary and his uncle is one of the most celebrated elements of Palatucci's biography and the source of many misunderstandings. Neither Palatucci nor his uncle ever "saved" any Jews through the internment in Campagna. Not only very few Jews from Fiume went to Campagna and not by order of the commissary, but in 1941 or 1942 no one could know that who went South had better chances of survival. The internees of Campagna (about 120 at the time of the liberation) were saved by the fate of the war.

The Bishop granted charity to the internees who were in dire need of everything. In two instances he received a note from his nephew asking to assist internees but none of these actions resulted in saving lives. On the contrary, in at least two cases, recommendations to be transferred to another internment location in the North, resulted in the deportation of the internees.

After the publication of the Database of Foreign Jews Interned in Italy, which has provided statistics on each camp, the theory of the "massive rescue deportation" is handled more cautiously, at least in Italy. In the US, however, it continues to capture the imagination of the public and community leaders. Both the National Italian American Foundation, which dedicated a section of its 2010 Gala Journal to "the Palatuccis" and the Anti Defamation League state in their material that Campagna was one of the "largest camps in Europe" and infer from this imaginary data that the internees were the "thousands" Palatucci had saved.



The destruction of the records of the Jews of Fiume
Palatucci's biographers also claim that he managed to destroy all records of the some 5,000 Jewish refugees living in the town, issuing them false papers and providing them with funds. If this was true, one would expect that the Jews of Fiume were largely spared deportation.

On the contrary, the Province of Carnaro, where Fiume is located, had one of the highest rates of deportation in Italy. About 400 Jews out of 570 recorded by the local police in Summer 1943 were killed locally or deported to Auschwitz. 240 alone from the city of Fiume. The testimony of Arminio Klein, president of the Jewish Community during the deportation, and recent studies on the census, indicate that the Germans conducted the round ups based on the records of the Italian police.

This claim is also challenged by the fact that almost 5,000 records including the Jews of Fiume, refugees in transit from Yugoslavia, Germany and Poland and Jews reported to the police of Fiume but rejected at the border, are wholly preserved in the State Archive of Rijeka (Croatia) and have finally been organized and studied. The date range of these files is 1930-1944.

Recent studies by Silva Bon, Federico Falk, and the Società di Studi Fiumani indicate that in 1938 the Jewish community of Fiume counted a little less than 1,500 individuals and that it was considerably depleted due to emigration and internment. In his seminal study on Jewish refugees in Italy, historian Klaus Voigt estimates that about 1,300 refugees managed to pass through the police control at Fiume, which was known for being one of the harshest in the country. This information has so far been corroborated by the comparative analysis of the archives of the Ministry of the Interior and the Questura of Fiume which is currently in progress as part of the database project.

What these number show is that there were never 5,000 Jews in Fiume, including refugees and residents, during Palatucci's mandate. A relatively small group of Jews including many elderly who had remained in town, could not rely on any significant protection.

Survivors of Fiume stated in their depositions that they had never heard of Palatucci before the 1950s. For further research, the database of the Jews deported from Italy is available online through website of CDEC.



Contacts with the Italian Resistance
There is also one account that Palatucci may have been in touch with the Italian resistance. This information was never the object of any serious study and could mean many different things. As Italy fell in shambles and it was clear that the Axis had lost the war, many Fascist leaders, including Palatucci's superiors, began to prepare their future by collaborating with partisan groups. A balanced evaluation of this reference should be the object of proper research.



Rescues after the Armistice
According to Palatucci's main biographer Goffredo Raimo, the commissary continued to clandestinely help Jews after 1943. It is not clear whom Palatucci might have helped. He cannot have sent anyone to Campagna after September 8th since the camp was liberated on September 19th, 1943 and transportation through military lines was virtually impossible.

A recent theory states that Palatucci sent refugees by sea to Puglia where his other uncle, Father Alfonso Palatucci protected them. The theory is not substantiated by any evidence and no witnesses are known who were saved this way. Father Alfonso was only posted in Puglia in 1952. It seems highly unlikely that the port of Fiume could be used by refugees eluding Fascist and Nazi military control.

Palatucci may have helped few individuals on their way to Switzerland. This claim too is not substantiated by testimonies and Swiss immigration records. However, the small number of Jews who had remained in the city and the disproportionate rate of deportation, implicitly contradict any claim of massive rescue.


Arrest and Deportation
The deportation to Dachau is generally presented in a way to assimilate the fate of Palatucci to that of the Jews he allegedly saved. However, the deportation to Dachau cannot be considered evidence of help to the Jews. In fact the documents of Palatucci's arrest make no mention of Jews and many of his colleagues, known for their vehement anti-semitism and who certainly did not save Jews, were deported with him. It would be difficult to explain why Herbert Kappler who was in charge of the "Jewish question" in Italy and was responsible for the deportation of large numbers of Italian Jews would distort the reason of Palatucci's arrest if there had been any suspicion that he hid or helped Jews.

Palatucci's arrest needs to be placed in the context of the conflict for supremacy between the ISR and the Germans. The Jews increasingly became a pawn of these tensions. In Fiume, the clash between the two authorities occurred over the list of the substantial Jewish assets which had been confiscated by the Italians since 1939. These were in trust of the Bank of Italy. As soon as they took control of the region, the Germans made a claim over those assets. The Questura of Fiume refused to surrender the lists and became the target of ongoing retaliations. Documents related to this conflict are probably the source of the idea that Palatucci did not deliver the list of the Jews to the Germans, something that had nothing to do with saving Jews, but with a general policy of the Italian authorities to protect assets under their control.

Palatucci entered Dachau as a "protective custody prisoner" and most likely died in the epidemics of typhus that spread in the section of political prisoners in January 1945. The claims that he was tortured and killed have no documentary base and seem to have been produced to sensationalize the circumstances of the deportation.


Immediate Post-War
Immediately after the end of World War II, Palatucci was considered missing. Information provided by the Ministry of the Interior indicate that he was believed to be in the hands of the Slavs in Montenegro. Only in 1948, a letter of the Red Cross to the Mayor of Avellino, confirms his death in Dachau.

The name of Palatucci appears in a 1946 court record for the so-called "processi di epurazione," trials against the Italian officers who had betrayed the Kingdom and sworn loyalty to Mussolini. His case was never pursued and was closed a year later because he could not be present.

His superiors, Temistocle Testa and Vincenzo Genovese, were both tried. The proceedings of their trial show that as early as 1948 the claim of having protected the Jews was already very important in the evaluation of alleged crimes committed by fascist officials. Testa and Genovese, known for their radical application of the racial laws, were acquitted in second degree and both of their defenses claim that they protected the Jews. The name of Palatucci was never made. Two witnesses deposition indicate that the Foreigners Office and the Political Police were instruments of Genovese's traffics.



The "Palatucci case" and the recognition as rescuers of the Jews
More than half of the content of Giovanni Palatucci’s personal file details the attempts of Palatucci’s father, Felice, and his uncle, Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, in their quest to obtain the rehabilitation of the young Commissary; a pension to which the Italian government claimed they had no right, and the involvement of the Italian government in the celebration of Giovanni Palatucci’s life as a savior of Jews.

These records show that the "Paltucci case" in relation to the rescue of the Jews was initiated by Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci who, in 1952, submitted a memo to the Ministry of the Interior asking to consider honoring the police commissary as a savior the Jews. The Ministry responded that in the file of Giovanni Palatucci there was no evidence that he may have lent any help to the Jews. However, continued the memo, if the request had come from the State of Israel, the Ministry would have opened an inquiry.

Few months later Bishop Palatucci, in response to a condolences letter, asked Niel Sachs de Gric, to sign an article he had written about his nephew Giovanni.

At the same time the Bishop exchanged a series of letters with Rodolfo Grani, a Jew from Fiume who had been briefly interned in Campagna and was indebted to the Bishop who had helped him in his request of transfer. He was now living in Israel. With Grani's help, on May 23, 1953, the Bishop organized the first recognition of Giovanni Palatucci in the suburb of Ramat Gan (Tel Aviv, Israel). The case was open.

It was only after the ceremony of Ramat Gan that the first testimony on Palatucci emerged. It is a letter by Roszi Neumann. In 1939, coming from Germany, she and her husband tried to enter Yugoslavia illegally through Italy. They were rejected and arrested in Fiume. Palatucci granted them temporary visas and invited her to dinner.

Following these events, in 1955 and 1956 the Jewish National Fund and the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities honored Palatucci on base of the Ramat Gan's recognition. In spite of the efforts of many institutions and individuals, it took 30 years before two more testimonies appeared.

Between 1988 and 1990 two more testimonies appeared. In 1988 Elena Berger Aschkenasy testified to Yad Vashem that Palatucci had delayed of a few weeks her husband's internment, provided her sister in law with visas and given her moral support. Ms. Berger's police records as well as her deposition raise questions as to what Palatucci may have done for her except for delaying her internment. A large part of her family, including her younger siblings, were deported to Auschwitz from Fiume. In 1988 Yad Vashem filed a request to verify the story with the Italian Ministry of the Interior. It is not known what information the ministry of the Interior provided.

A third testimony was given in 1998 by Olga Conforty to the Shoah Foundation. Ms. Conforty testified that she and her family had entered Italy under the protection of an Italian colonel, Antonio Bertone, who had befriended them and who protected them throughout the end of the war. Bertone asked Palatucci to provide a visa to the Conforty family thanks to which they lived in Fiume for a year. The personal file of Antonio Bertone shows in detail his dedication to the Conforty case. However, it appears that he negotiated their temporary residence papers with Prefect Testa and Chief of Police Genovese, detailing the valuables they had and stating his personal relation. In 1941 the Questura of Fiume was under military control and therefore Bertone also spoke to Testa from a privilege vantage point. Palatucci produced the actual papers and met with the Confortys. However their impression that he was responsible for the decision of giving them the papers is not supported by official records.

In 1990, on the base of Ashkenasy's sole testimony, Yad Vashem recognized Giovanni Palatucci as Righteous Among the Nations. In 2001 the Vatican began the beatification case process and in the same year the Anti Defamation League honored Palatucci posthumously and produced an extensive resource in English based on a variety of sources. The ADL added two significant variants: their biography states that Palatucci became Questore of Fiume in 1938 and that another uncle, Father Alfonso, helped him bring refugees to Puglia. The source of these claims is unknown. Palatucci never held the title of Questore. Until April 1944 he was an Adjunct Deputy Commissary, and on April 10th, 1944 he became "Regent" which meant "managing" or "acting" head of the Questura under direct order of RSI Chief of Police Tullio Tamburini. As for the claim of Father Alfonso Palatucci, he was posted in Puglia only in the 1950s and, in an 1953 interview given in Ramat Gan, he denied that he had taken part in any rescue operation of Jews during World War II.

In 1995 Palatucci received recognitions from the Italian Police and the Italian Government and is today considered the most famous "righteous" in Italy for having single-handedly saved more Jews than have ever been in Fiume.

Other U.S. organizations who have embraced the case of Giovanni Palatucci include the National Italian American Foundation, Pave the Way and the Italian American Commission on Holocaust Education.

Scholars including Michele Sarfatti, Marco Coslovich, Anna Pizzuti, Silva Bon and Carlo Spartaco Capogreco, have challenged in various ways the claims concerning Palatucci's mass rescues. The Commission of Yad Vashem has also dismissed those claims and recognized him based on one single testimony. In spite of that, none of the organizations supporting the Palatucci's cause has ever requested an independent historical evaluation of documents.


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