Holocaust Survivors' Network


Yad Vashem to honor Giovanni Palatucci, unlikely Italian hero


By Sam Ser,
Feb. 9, 2005


Giovanni Palatucci is making a comeback.

GiovanniOvershadowed by Oskar Schindler and generally unknown like most other Righteous Among the Nations, Palatucci's courage has been recalled with increasing frequency of late.

A drive to declare Palatucci a saint is underway, and his actions may indirectly exonerate Pope Pius XII. But on Thursday -- the 40th anniversary of Palatucci's death at Dachau -- the unlikely hero is to be commemorated by senior Italian and Israeli officials in a special ceremony at Yad Vashem for having saved as many as 5,000 Jews from the Nazi genocide.

Palatucci was a young Italian policeman in charge of the occupied Adriatic seaport of Fiume &endash; now called Rijeka, in what would become Croatia &endash; when Benito Mussolini's anti-Jewish "racial laws" took effect in 1938. He used his authority to falsify travel documents which allowed hundreds of Jews to flee persecution in Eastern Europe and settle in Fiume.

He also helped hundreds of refugees dodge Germans and Nazi sympathizers in their precarious attempts to sail to Palestine. Some he hid or provided with money.

When ordered to arrest and deport the area's Jews, Palatucci made sure that they were sent to the large internment camp in Campania, southern Italy. His uncle, Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, had managed to turn the camp into a sort of refuge from fascist and Nazi rule, and hid the "illegal foreigners" that the younger Palatucci sent to him.

This risky endeavor became far more dangerous for Palatucci in 1943, when Mussolini's government fell and the German occupation swallowed the Fiume area.

Thousands of Jews from the rest of Croatia were then being deported to Auschwitz.

The Nazis wanted Palatucci to provide them with lists of Jews and "foreigners" to round up for a similar fate. He refused, however, tipping off the local Jews and destroying records to frustrate the Nazis' plans.

The Gestapo came for Palatucci in September of 1944, when he was tried for treason and sentenced to death.

A month later he was sent to Dachau, where he died shortly before his 36th birthday.

Before his arrest, Palatucci was offered refuge in Switzerland by his friend, the Swiss ambassador to Trieste. He refused, but sent his Jewish fiancee instead. After the war, she moved to Israel; she recently passed away.

After 1953, when the city of Ramat Gan planted 36 trees in Palatucci's name on Rehov Hapodim, his heroism went largely unnoticed until he was named a Righteous Among the Nations in 1990. But his efforts are also related to the controversial debate between (mostly Jewish) critics and (mostly Catholic) defenders of Pius XII over his actions during the Holocaust.

In 2003, Vatican journalist Antonio Gaspari revealed "newly discovered" letters to Bishop Palatucci in which the pope explicitly offered monetary help for the care of Jews and others interned at Campania.

Italian police have pushed to have Palatucci declared a saint, raising awareness of his courageous sacrifice in a 2000 television movie.

Amos Luzzatto, head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, was quoted then as saying of Palatucci: "There are two forms of heroism, the one stemming from an unexpected need or impulse, and Palatucci's: a daily heroism, which is repeated and confirmed in face of the certainty of danger being risked. ...He acted knowing that he was moving toward his own sacrifice; for him, it was worthwhile to give his life for just one man."

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the pope's vicar for Rome, opened Palatucci's cause of beatification in October 2002.

It was completed and presented to the Vatican last year.


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