A man credited with saving more than 5,000 Jews during World War II now stands accused of having actually been an enthusiastic Nazi collaborator.
The New York Times reports a research team has determined that Giovanni Palatucci, a former Italian police officer, helped deport Jewish men and women to Auschwitz during the war.
It’s a stark reversal for a man previously declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II.
After the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington received word of the allegations from the Centro Primo Levi at the Center for Jewish Studies in New York, it removed his name from an exhibit honoring Palatucci and others for heroic actions during the war.
“If anything, Giovanni Palatucci represents the silence, self-righteousness and compliance of many young Italian officers who enthusiastically embraced Mussolini in his last disastrous steps,” Natalia Indrimi, executive director of the Centro Primo Levi, wrote to the Holocaust Museum.
From 1940 to 1944, Palatucci was the chief of police in the city of Fiume. He was previously said to have altered the documentation of Jewish residents during that period in order to help them avoid deportation to Auschwitz.
A quote credited to Palatucci on the Raoul Wellenberg Foundation website—which reads, “They want to make us believe that the heart is just a muscle, to prevent us from doing what our hearts and religion tell us to do”—was supposedly said in protest of Mussolini’s racial laws.
The scholars were reviewing documents from the city to better understand how imperial Fascism gained a foothold. They stumbled upon evidence suggesting that the man credited with saving thousands of lives might have instead been responsible for hundreds of deaths.
A team of scholars from Centro Primo Levi examined more than 700 documents, which they conclude show that Palatucci was “a willing executor of the racial legislation and—after taking the oath to Mussolini’s Social Republic—collaborated with the Nazis” over a six-year period.
Their research found that more than 80 percent of the city’s Jewish population, 412 of an estimated 500 residents, were eventually sent to Auschwitz.
In addition, Ann Pizzuti, editor of the database of foreign Jewish internees in Italy, told Italy's Corrier Della Sera newspaper that estimates of Palatucci’s alleged heroism did not hold up under simple mathematical scrutiny. While he is said to have saved the lives of 5,000 Jews, Pizzuti says there were only an estimated 2,500 Jews in all of Italy at the time.
Over the past 50 years, Palatucci has been given a number of posthumous awards, including recognition from the Anti-Defamation League. The Giovanni Palatucci Association recently submitted a claim that Palatucci had been responsible for a miracle, one of the prerequisite steps toward sainthood. The Vatican told the Times it is reviewing the allegations against Palatucci.
The scholars say they have yet to determine how Palatucci developed a hero’s reputation rather than that of a war criminal. But they expressed their belief that it might have been a matter of historical convenience, meant to shine a positive light on Italy after its role as a member of the Axis powers during the war.
“The Italian government was anxious to rehabilitate itself and show that they were better and more humane than their Nazi allies,” Columbia University journalism professor Alexander Stille told the Times. “The Catholic Church was eager to tell a positive story about the church’s role during the war, and the State of Israel was eager to promote the idea of righteous gentiles and tell stories of right-minded ordinary people who helped to save ordinary Jews.”
Interestingly, Patucci himself died in a German concentration camp after being sent to Dachau in 1944, when he was charged with embezzlement and treason.