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Betrayed by Mussolini.

The first two sections of Alexander Stille's magnificent study, Benevolence and Betrayal." Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism, reveal two contrasting approaches that Italian Jews adopted towards Mussolini's regime. In the first section, Stille introduces us to the Ovazza family of Turin. This family had a high number of fascist supporters. This was not surprising since at the height of Mussolini's reign, in 1938, one in three adult Jews were members of the Fascist Party. This amounted to 10,000 Jews out of Italy's small Jewish population of 47,000.

In the second section of Benevolence and Betrayal, Stille brings to the stage the Foas of Turin, many of whom were active antifascists. They were part of the organization Giustizia e Liberta and worked courageously to spread dissident ideas of liberty and freedom of expression and association.

There appear to be two main reasons why Jewish families like the Ovazzas supported Mussolini. The first was that Jews in Italy were tolerated and indeed welcomed by the wider society to a degree unknown in any other European country.

The first Jews began settling in Rome in the second century B.C. and may have numbered in the tens of thousands by the time of Julius Caesar. After 70 A.D., the Jewish population increased greatly with the emperor Titus bringing thousands of Jewish slaves to Rome to march in his triumphal pageant following the sack of Jerusalem. Jewish life flourished in Sicily and southern Italy during the Middle Ages only to be eliminated after 1492 when the Spanish expelled all Jews from their lands including their territories in Italy.

As Jews left southern Italy and Spain, they were welcomed in the Renaissance city-states of northern Italy. The Ovazzas were included in this mass migration fleeing Spain during the Inquisition and then settling over the Italian border in what is now Piedmont. In the mid-19th century, the Piedmont monarchy became supporters of Jewish emancipation. King Carlo Alberto embraced the liberal revolution sweeping over parts of Europe. In 1848, he signed a decree for the emancipation of the Jews.

As Stille recounts, the star of the Ovazza family and that of the Italian nation rose together on a parallel course. With the commencement of the war for Italian unification, Ettore Ovazza's grandfather Vitta started his life as a free man. For him, as for all Jews, the processes of national unity and freedom went hand in hand: wherever the Piedmont armies conquered, they extended full equality to the Jews. Jews were thus extremely loyal to the Savoy monarchy. They supported the drive for unification both financially and militarily. In 1860, the Ovazza family helped raise money in the Jewish community of Turin for Giuseppe Garibaldi's expedition to invade Sicily and unite it with Italy. During the Fascist period, Ettore Ovazza was keen to point out that seven of the legendary thousand men who set sail with Garibaldi were Jews.

Even before the unification of Italy, laws discriminating against Jews were revoked. In Italy Jews were free to seek employment in all fields. They had the full protection of the law in their daily life.

The Ovazza family took advantage of their new freedom to jump right from the ghetto into the new burgeoning middle class. They established a bank in Turin and became successful bankers and business men. They were staunch patriots. They had reason to support political parties like the Fascist Party which appealed to nationalist feelings.

The second reason for the support given by many Jews to Mussolini is that the dictator did not start out as an anti-Semite. In fact, Mussolini welcomed Jews into the Party and he did not subscribe to racial theories that were a staple of the Nazi Party in Germany. Mussolini pronounced that "national pride has no need of the delirium of race." He was critical of the Nazis in this regard. The Nazis in turn criticized Mussolini for practicing "kosher fascism."

The key figure in the first section of Benevolence and Betrayal is the Renaissance banker and writer Ettore Ovazza. He participated in Mussolini's march on Rome in October 1922. A Fascist member, he totally supported Mussolini to the bitter end. When the first signs of anti-Semitism began to appear in Italy in 1934, Ovazza helped found a militant new Jewish fascist movement. He also started a newspaper which repeated the Fascist Party line. In the 1930s, he and others like him made increasingly extravagant public demonstrations of Fascist devotion--circulating petitions and loyalty oaths and sending telegrams to the government--all in the desperate attempt to avoid persecution.

In 1938, Mussolini's government passed a series of racial laws. Mussolini was undoubtedly influenced by Hitler, whom he had formed an alliance with. Jews in Italy were banned from public schools. They were unable to work at public service jobs as well as the army, navy, and air force. They were forbidden from owning large businesses and banks. In 1939, all Jews were banned from the skilled professions. Exemptions from the racial laws for those Jews who had served in World War I or otherwise made major contributions to the Italian state were stripped of all practical value.

Despite these laws, Ettore remained dedicated to the fascist state. He and his family survived the first years of World War II by drawing on savings and selling possessions. However, in 1943, while trying to escape to Switzerland, Ettore and his family were executed by Nazis.

The next section of Stille's book depicts the activities of the Foa family of Turin. Vittorio Foa joined the ranks of Giustizia e Liberta (GL) which was developing into Italy's principal non-Marxist antifascist organization. At the time, Vittorio had a promising career as a lawyer but was fully aware that joining the organization would probably lead to arrest and imprisonment. The group was aware that it couldn't overthrow the government; its purpose was to keep antifascist thinking alive until the time when fascism would weaken. Its primary tool was a clandestine newspaper. GL attracted a high number of Jews.

Vittorio and his brother Beppe were arrested after a spy named Pittigrilli reported on their activities. Pittigrilli was the half-Jewish cousin of a friend of Vittorio's. He had achieved instant fame and scandal at a young age with his first book of stories, Luxurious Beasts. This and later books became best-sellers and were translated into more than a dozen languages. Despite his great value to the Fascists as a spy, Pittigrilli would later fall victim of the racial laws of 1938. He was forbidden to publish and couldn't work in films either.

Vittorio was put on trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison for sedition. After the fall of fascism in 1943, Vittorio and his prison mates were released.

I have great admiration for the Foa family. Against great odds, they courageously worked to keep liberal democratic ideas alive in Fascist Italy. They never compromised with the regime. While Ettore Ovazza is not an admirable character, his demise is, nonetheless, a sad tale of betrayal.

Robert Normey is a lawyer with the Constitutional and Aboriginal Law Branch of Alberta Justice in Edmonton, Alberta.
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Title Annotation:Law and Literature; Benevolence and Betrayal
Author:Normey, Robert
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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