A group of Italian researchers who have studied troves of World War II documents have found no evidence that Giovanni Palatucci, a police official long credited as the "Italian Schindler," saved the lives of 5,000 Jews.
The findings are demolishing the Italian national icon and angering supporters of the man who has been honored at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, and who has been put on the track to sainthood.
'Unfounded' Claims Of Heroism?
The Italian city of Trieste is home to the Risiera di San Sabba, a rice warehouse used during World War II as the only death camp on Italian soil.
Administered directly by the Third Reich, according to an audio guide, it was "the center and emblem of Nazi repression in the Adriatic coastal area, [and] transit station of political and racial prisoners to other camps of the Reich, generally Dachau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen for political prisoners, Auschwitz and later Bergen-Belsen for the Jews."
Jews who transited through Trieste came from many Fascist-occupied towns in what's now Croatia — including Fiume, today's Rijeka.
Three-quarters of the Jews living in Fiume never returned alive. Among Italian Jews, this community paid the highest price, in percentage terms, during the Holocaust.
Palatucci, a young Fascist police officer, was stationed in Fiume from 1937 to 1944, handling deportations of Jews and political prisoners.
Since his death, Palatucci has been honored as an example of heroism for having allegedly disobeyed orders and helping thousands of Jews escape.
He is celebrated throughout Italy, where streets, squares and schools are named after him. The Italian postal system issued a commemorative stamp in his honor. His Catholic supporters say miracles have been attributed to him.
But newly released research by Trieste historian and educator Marco Coslovich, among others, has led to second thoughts.
Coslovich has carefully studied the wartime police archives in Fiume, where there were only some 500 Jews at the start of the war.
"There is no concrete evidence whatsoever that Palatucci saved 5,000 Jews as many believe," says Coslovich. "Those are crazy numbers that do not correspond to the historical record; they're unfounded, not believable."
Coslovich has dedicated his entire adult life to studying the turbulent events that took place during World War II in the border region between Italy and Yugoslavia, where there was an intense partisan resistance and many Nazi and Fascist atrocities.
He has written extensively about deportations, Nazi death camps and Fascist persecution of Jews. And he says the Fiume documents he has studied actually tarnish Palatucci's reputation.
"They show that he extorted money from Jews and confiscated their goods. He carried out his job fully, as a willing enabler of the Fascist regime," the historian says. "The only time he used gentler treatment of some individual Jews was because his superiors had extorted payments from them for a safe passage."
Coslovich and other researchers presented their findings at Centro Primo Levi, at New York's Center for Jewish History, last year.
The repercussions have been swift.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington recently removed Palatucci from a summer exhibit. Officials from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, say they are reviewing the case. And the Anti-Defamation League announced that it will no longer present an award named for Palatucci.
But the Giovanni Palatucci Association in Italy is hitting back, saying it has dozens of letters from Jews claiming that Palatucci saved their relatives.
Rolando Balugani, the association's vice president, points out that the Nazis arrested Palatucci, who died at the Dachau camp. And he lashes out at those he calls "revisionist" historians.
"These people are doing an underhanded and very nasty operation against a man who at the age of 36 died trying to save the lives of Jews and to save the Italianness of the city of Fiume," Balugani says.
But Coslovich, the historian, says the Fiume documents show that Palatucci was sent to Dachau on charges of embezzlement and treason, not saving Jews.
It is widely acknowledged that many individual Italians and Catholic convents helped save Jews during the war. But out of a total estimated Italian Jewish population of 45,000 in 1938, nearly 8,000 were deported, and the great majority died in the death camps.
Since the Palatucci affair exploded, the question is how his reputation was created in the first place.
"One of the problems with the rescuers [is that] they are acknowledged as righteous before historians write their history," says Simon Levis Sullam, professor of modern European history at Venice University.
"What we know is that behind these major cases are important and very influential political, cultural and spiritual actors, which in the case of Palatucci are the Catholic Church and the Italian police," he says.
Levis Sullam says the Palatucci case reflects the Italian nation's wartime guilt.
"I think this search for the positive figures has been a cover-up for responsibility of Italians and of other people in Western Europe who killed the Jews," he says. "I have a fear, if we look at Italian cases, that there is a major effort by the Catholic Church and by the Catholic world in general to look at these rescuers and turn them into saints."
The new evidence debunking Palatucci has caused concern at the Vatican. The semi-official daily L'Osservatore Romano carried an article with headline "It's An Attack on the Church of Pius the XII."
But the Vatican has also indicated that it has asked a historian to look again into Palatucci's cause for sainthood.