Rome, the spring of 1944, and the SS and Gestapo’s persecution of Italy’s Jews was at its height. Doctors at a hospital on the River Tiber decided to risk their lives by hiding members of the local Jewish community, so they disguised them as patients, hid them in closed wards, and invented an imaginary infectious disease. The Germans were told they had been struck by a highly contagious illness, known only as ‘Syndrome K.’ The Gestapo fell for it, and the Jews escaped deportation. It was just one of hundreds of ways that Italians fought a concerted, covert battle to resist the Holocaust.
When Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in July 1943, there were some 50,000 Jews in Italy: by May 1945, 8,000 had been deported to concentration camps. Yet an astonishing 40,000, 80% of the national Jewish population, escaped this fate, the highest survival rate of Jews in any country occupied by the Third Reich. The Germans predominantly failed to make the Final Solution work in Italy. Why? And how did the Italians win the enormous, often invisible fight to resist the Holocaust? What part did the Allies, the Vatican, partisans and the Italian Fascists all play?
‘Syndrome K’ is the first book in English that tells how the Holocaust unfolded in Italy, and the battle fought against it by thousands of Italians. The book focuses on twelve central characters of six nationalities. A young boy, Piero Piperno, is among dozens of Italian Jews saved by a British nun who hides them in her Rome convent. An Italian police chief in Siena risks his life transporting Jews to safety, while a teenage Jewish girl hides out with a partisan group fighting near the French border. An Italian army officer serving in Yugoslavia protects the Jews in his area of operations, which becomes known as ‘the Promised Land.’ A British SOE and American OSS officer bring Jews to the safety of Allied lines.
While Pope Pius XII failed to speak out directly against the Holocaust, the bravery and ingenuity of thousands of his faithful showed that the stance of most Catholics in wartime Italy was not the same as that of the Vatican. High-profile individuals such as Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the Irish priest known as ‘The Vatican Pimpernel,’ went head-to-head with the Gestapo in Rome, escaped assassination by the SS, and saved some 4,000 Jews.
The Italian population often outfoxed the SS, Gestapo and Italian Fascists. They were helped by the incompetence and corruption of German officials, told through the eyes of two of the characters. SS-Hauptmann Theodor Dannecker had already been sacked from the Jewish Affairs office in Paris, and then incurred Berlin’s displeasure for failing to make the Final Solution work in Bulgaria. In Italy he failed a third time: the majority of Rome’s Jews escaped his razzia, or roundup operations. Meanwhile in Genoa, SS-Lieutenant Guido Zimmer let Jews escape in return for bribes of gold or property. Unbeknown to his SS superiors, he was also working as an agent of the American OSS.
Christian Jennings is a British writer and freelance foreign correspondent, and the author of eight works of non-fiction. Since 1994, across twenty-three countries, he has been writing books and journalism on international current affairs, history, science and subjects such as war crimes investigations, for publications and news organisations ranging from The Economist and Reuters to Wired, The Daily Telegraph, and The Scotsman. He has been based variously in Sarajevo, Pristina, Belgrade, Kigali, Bujumbura, Skopje, Nairobi and Geneva. He now lives...
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