Italy's war time hero 'was Nazi collaborator'

Photo from 10 February 2005 in which then Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu speaks at a Yad Vashem ceremony honouring Giovanni Palatucci
Image caption Giovanni Palatucci has been honoured by Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust

An Italian police official long credited with helping to save 5,000 Jews during WWII was actually a Nazi collaborator, researchers believe.

Evidence has emerged to show Giovanni Palatucci in fact helped deport Jews to Auschwitz, a New York-based centre for Italian Jewish culture said.

Palatucci had been dubbed Italy's Schindler, and has been honoured by the Vatican and Holocaust memorial groups.

The US Holocaust Memorial museum has now removed him from its exhibition.

He had been due to feature in the summer exhibition, Some were neighbours: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.

But the museum changed its mind after receiving a letter from Natalia Indrimi, the director of the Centro Primo Levi at the Center for Jewish History in New York, the New York Times reports.

Dr Indrimi said researchers had gained access to hundreds of unseen documents and found that, contrary to what had been believed, Palatucci was a "willing executor of the racial legislation" who "after taking the oath to Mussolini's Social Republic, collaborated with the Nazis".

The panel of scholars also found that, again contrary to popular belief, Palatucci had not been police chief of Fiume, an Adriatic port city that is now the Croatian city of Rijeka. He had been an official responsible for enforcing Fascist Italy's racial laws, it found.

The Giovanni Palatucci Association has rejected the claims.

Piazzas and promenades

The popular belief had been that, while police chief of Fiume, Giovanni Palatucci saved thousands of Jewish workers between 1940 and 1944 by destroying and falsifying their documents and sending many to Campania in southern Italy to seek help from his uncle, the Roman Catholic Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci.

Giovanni Palatucci's deportation to the concentration camp in Dachau and his death there in 1945 at the age of 36 helped to further this belief.

But it has been contradicted by the 700 documents found in Rijeka's state archives by Centro Primo Levi's researchers who were originally investigating why Fiume had been such a breeding ground for fascism.

In her letter to the museum, Dr Indrimi said there were only around 500 Jews in Fiume at the time, far fewer than the 5,000 previously thought. Some 80% of Fiume's Jews ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp - a higher percentage than any other Italian city.

She said Palatucci had never destroyed the record of the city's Jews as "they are all available at the Rijeka state archive".

And she said his deportation to Dachau had been because he was accused by the Germans of passing on plans for a post-war Fiume to the British.

Palatucci "continued to work under the Germans and to provide information on the few Jews who were still in the area," she wrote.

She said the story was started in 1952 by Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci who was seeking a state pension for Giovanni's parents and may have gained momentum because it seemed to bolster the reputation of the then Pope Pius XII, who has been accusing of being indifferent to genocide, the New York Times reports.

Such was the success of "the myth", piazzas and promenades all over Italy are named after Palatucci.

He was declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II, the first step in the process of beatifying him.

And he has been named by Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to the Holocaust, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations; joining a list that includes Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews.

Both Yad Vashem and the Vatican have said they are looking into the new allegations.

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