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Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Italy, 1945-1951

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, International Law, Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Despite the Racial Laws of fascist Italy implemented in 1938, thousands of foreign Jews were authorized to remain in the country. These Jewish prewar and wartime refugees, about 20 percent of all Jewish refugees in postwar Italy, were the so-called old refugees. By summer 1945 after the war’s end, refugee figures were already changing drastically. From June to mid-August 1945, 13,000-15,000 Jewish Displaced Persons, the so-called new refugees, of Baltic and Polish origin arrived in Italy. In that period the flight was individual in character; however, the Jewish Agency soon recommended the transfer to Italy of all the Jewish Displaced Persons in Europe insofar as possible. The British authorities that occupied Italy strongly opposed the refugees’ arrival because of concerns related to their Mandate in Palestine. But refugees kept coming, and Italy adopted humanitarian policies. The “blind eye” practice of the Italian border guards ensured that immigration-and, ultimately, illegal migration to Palestine-continued. Over time, Jews became predominant in Italy‘s DP community.

The “new refugees” who came to Italy after World War II were Displaced Persons mainly from Eastern Europe-in other words, Holocaust survivors from concentration camps and ghettoes.[1] In summer 1945, many Jews managed to leave Germany and arrive via Austria to Italy, where ships could depart from Palestine. This traffic had a spontaneous, mostly unorganized character.[2] Rumors had led the survivors to strive to reach Italy, and they initially came on their own account. Soon, however, emissaries from the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) came to Europe looking for survivors. At that point, Bricha (flight)-a movement for bringing Jews illegally from Eastern Europe to Palestine-became more organized.

Italy’s favorable geographical position was well understood by the organizers of refugee traffic. Already in summer 1945 the Jewish Agency[3] informed Umberto Nahon, its representative in Rome, that all Jewish refugees, even those without visas, should be guided to Italy since transportation prospects to Palestine were best from there.[4] With the emissaries’ help, arrivals to Italy increased.

Since the refugees never aimed to settle in Italy, their movement can be defined as transmigration. Despite a few marriages between Italians and refugees and the government’s offer of unlimited stay in Italy, the temporary nature of this Jewish immigration was its essential characteristic.

Several factors facilitated the Jewish refugees’ movement to Italy:

a. The existing Bricha traffic from Eastern Europe to one of the occupation zones in Germany and from there to Austria and Italy

b. Italy’s geographical position and topographical features, which were ideal for the illegal immigration into the country because of the many border-crossing possibilities the Alps offered, along with the country’s long coasts that enabled the illegal sailing of ships to Palestine[5]

c. The conditions in the German and Austrian DP camps and the local populations’ attitudes toward the refugees

d. The fact that the Jewish Brigade[6] stayed briefly in Italy helping Jewish refugees cross the borders until the Brigade was transferred from Italy

e. Italy’s record of treatment of Jewish refugees, which was more humane than that of Germany and Austria

Routes and Essential Statistics

As the Jewish Brigade was stationed in northern Italy in the first weeks of 1945, the Sillian and Innichen border crossing on the Austrian Alps was used with ease. Soon, however, the British implemented rigid controls in the area. The Brenner Pass (Passo Del Brennero), over which Bricha guides brought the refugees to the Italian border at night, and from which the Bricha trucks from Merano picked them up, was always the main route.[7] This was largely due to geographical factors: Brenner was the lowest pass over the main chain of Alps and remained open through all seasons of the year. Even large groups could be smuggled through the pass. According to a former Bricha operative, groups of some hundreds of refugees came to Italy via this route.[8] In December 1945, the British erected an outpost in Brenner that enabled stronger control of migration. Consequently the Reschen Pass (Rezia) route was used more.

Once in Italy the refugees could present themselves at three Field Intake and Eligibility Offices of UNRRA (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency), which had main responsibility for the Displaced Persons’ welfare. Refugees were interviewed, recorded, and accepted to receive UNRRA’s assistance. These offices were located in Milan (Scuola Cadorna camp), Rome (Cinecittà camp), and Bologna, and admitted refugees to the camps that functioned in Italy hosting altogether about twenty-five thousand refugees. Additional refugees lived in various towns and communities. Although refugees were concentrated in a few large camps, especially those in the Bari-Lecce areas in southern Italy, most Jewish communities of Italy hosted refugees during the initial stages in 1945 when the situation was chaotic. Almost every city had at least some refugees during the postwar years.

Although exact figures cannot be established, the various sources indicate that in 1945 alone about fifteen thousand Jewish refugees entered Italy and from September 1946 to June 1948 about thirty thousand Jewish refugees did so. Between the late summer of 1945 and 1948 a total of about fifty thousand refugees passed through the country. Although the figure of seventy thousand may be overestimated, as often it was in the interests of the refugee leaders and welfare organizations to inflate the numbers, fifty thousand is definitely not exaggerated and Italian sources add to its trustworthiness.[9] By summer 1950 there were only two thousand Jewish DPs left in Italy.

Italian Reactions

The Italian authorities were aware of the illegal human traffic almost as it started. However, immediately following the liberation, the general chaos of forced laborers, displaced Italians, and former deportees returning home functioned as a cover for the illegal refugee traffic and no specific Italian authority was concerned about it at that stage. However, by July-August observers reported that a noticeable influx of refugees was taking place[10] and the increasing intensity of the traffic soon caught British attention. They in turn demanded the Italians take action.[11]

The Italian authorities eventually had to react to the influx of foreigners, and they started making clear that they could not tolerate this illegal traffic. They believed it to be aided by the Joint Distribution Committee, an American Jewish welfare organization, and, as a police report said, “the worst elements of the local Jewish community.”[12] The Milan police, for instance, correctly claimed that the largest groups of refugees would come via the Brenner Pass and afterward were guided to the Joint’s sanatorium, in fact a reception center, in Merano.

By the end of 1946 and beginning of 1947 the groups came to the border at Brenner-Sussak. The British Secret Police confirmed “persistent reports” that the Jewish military personnel in Italy were engaged in aiding illegal activities.[13] This indeed was true. The Jewish personnel in the British army were essential in helping the refugees and the illegal traffic, as they were in possession of items such as fuel and vehicles. In addition, Yishuv intelligence had a bogus British army unit set up in Italy in 1946 to organize illegal immigration, and this may have prompted further rumors about Jewish military personnel.[14]

Why were the refugees not stopped when crossing the borders into Italy? The Italian border guards were most likely afraid of making trouble with the powerful foreign occupiers. Consequently, these guards seldom stopped the Allies’ or UNRRA’s trucks. The Joint enjoyed a semidiplomatic status as a welfare organization and its trucks were not checked either. Effective control would have required stopping every truck. According to a British-embassy memorandum, Italian border guards were corrupt and regularly accepted bribes such as food items, wine, and cigarettes from the Austrian guides and from the Joint.[15] The British ambassador wrote: “It will surely be easier…for the Italian authorities to prevent these people from entering the country than to prevent their subsequent embarkation, or the sailing of ships.”[16]

It is important to note, however, that the Jewish postwar accounts differ considerably from the British assessments. According to former refugees and emissaries alike, the Italian guards helped the DPs out of a sense of humanity and comradeship.[17] Testimonies by former refugees and emissaries report that Italian carabinieri and border guards sometimes closed their eyes to the traffic, and when this did not happen, they believed it to be due to British pressure.

It seems probable that the Italian police was affected by political developments at higher levels, and presumably border guards resisted controlling the refugees insofar as they felt this course of action was in line with the general Italian policy (or lack thereof). The head of the police force wrote regarding the refugees: “…on the other hand, foreign policy considerations could force us to tolerate, if not even to favor this state of affairs….”[18] The Foreign Ministry definitely opposed the British demands when discussing the questions internally. It seems that, as expressed by a Foreign Ministry official, there was a simple bottom line: “It is not possible for the Italian authorities to pursue an anti-Jewish policy.”[19] Thus the governmental attitude was reflected in the grassroots border guards’ practices.

Governmental Considerations

The factors that mostly influenced the governmental attitudes toward the refugees can be divided into two distinct groups: internal factors, which included various political, social, and economic issues within Italian society; and foreign policy considerations. For the first few postwar governments (at least during 1945-1947), foreign policy considerations far outweighed the internal factors. The latter, however, could not be completely ignored since the first governments had to stabilize the society both economically and politically. Because of the British occupation of Italy, which in fact entailed that foreign policy remained under the occupiers’ control, foreign policy was intimately connected to the internal issues and in the words of Carlo Sforza, a postwar Italian foreign minister, internal politics became “another face of foreign policy.”[20]

Following the liberation in April 1945, Italian Jews, having once again received their full civil rights, started to return from exile, mainly from Switzerland. No administrative bodies were specifically assigned to deal with the Jewish returnees or the refugees among them.[21] This apathy toward them is indicative, first, of their small numbers and second, of the general social conditions. References to Jewish issues were also scarce in immediate postwar publications. When references do exist, they treat the persecution of Jews as a product of the alliance with Germany, thus initiating the myth of the “good fascists” and “good Italians.”[22]

The Italians were not the only ones constructing this myth; Jewish leaders and organizations nearly always commented favorably on Italy when the country was mentioned. For instance, the official observer Zorach Warhaftig, writing in 1946 to the American Jewish Congress and to the World Jewish Congress, commented on the sympathetic population and government of Italy, despite the country’s grave economic problems.[23] The positive conduct of Italy’s military and civil authorities toward the Jewish refugees during the war became an acknowledged fact serving to help construct a new image of Italy removed from fascism.[24]

In summer 1944, Prime Minister Ivanoe Bonomi announced that Italy would become a democracy with equal rights for everyone.[25] “All discrimination against the Jews had to be removed in the liberated territory.”[26] In April 1945, following a meeting with Bonomi, the Jewish Agency representative quoted him as saying: “anti-Semitism is alien to the Italian outlook…a sad consequence of alliance with Germany…the government will always give facilities to Jewish emigration….”[27] This was the first instance where the issue of Jewish refugees became connected to the campaign to clear Italy’s name, and for this reason the government would grant the refugees license to travel through Italy.

The government remained officially neutral while its officials in fact favored emigration to Palestine. To a large degree, humanitarian concerns seem to have dominated the Italian attitudes, a fact that partly explains why Italy became an open country for refugees. The humanitarian concerns may also explain the illegal immigration from Italy to Palestine, known by the Hebrew term Aliyah Bet, and perhaps also why the refugees tend to remember Italy in such a favorable light.

Although Italy was in reality controlled by the Allied Commission, the British were so dominant that they could exert considerable pressure on the Italian authorities. Italians were warned of criminals among the refugees. Yet, despite the lip service paid to the importance of maintaining public order in Italy, all the British pressure was ultimately connected to the illegal immigration from Italy to Palestine. The Italian government was urged to aid the British in preventing the traffic since “His Majesty’s Government is…determined to prevent this illegal traffic by using every means, direct and indirect, at their disposal.”[28]

The British sympathized with “the natural desire” of the Italians to see the refugees depart but “the early disposal of these refugees elsewhere presents very grave political and economic difficulties.”[29] In other words, the Italian government was requested to prevent the ships from leaving and keep the refugees on its soil for a time period that could be indefinite. In the same vein, Italy was pressed to pass legislation enabling the prosecution of Italian nationals who helped illegal immigrants and vessels depart from Italy. Preventive measures at the ports of embarkation were believed to be the only way to control the illegal traffic.[30]

The Italian attitude was expressed by Gido Devito, a high Interior Ministry official, in an interview in August 1946: “If the British wish to patrol the sea coast, they will have to do it themselves.”[31] On the connection between the difficulties in the British Mandate and the Jewish refugees, he added: “We would be pleased to see them go.”[32]

In January 1947, the Italian Foreign Ministry considered a response to the British demands with three bottom lines: “It is not possible to keep the refugee camps under surveillance,”[33] “It is not possible to install a real border,”[34] and “It is not possible for the Italian authorities to pursue an anti-Jewish policy.”[35] Since according to the British correspondence, the Italian police knew of problems in the camps but did not receive authorization from Rome to take action,[36] it seems that despite the heavy British demands, other considerations carried greater weight for the Italian Foreign Ministry including the question of foreign aid and American Jewish organizations. There was a strong and widespread, if unfounded, belief that aid to Jewish refugees would lead to American Jewry acting on Italy’s behalf. Partly for this reason, then, Jewish DPs continued entering the country and more refugee ships left from postwar Italy to Palestine than from any other European country.

Police Attitudes

A report from the Interior Ministry to the Command of the carabinieri, written in April 1947, gives a glimpse into the police force, which was concerned about large groups arriving in Italy and the public-order disturbances that might result. The police believed especially in 1947 that with the many foreign refugees already in the country, the situation was complex enough without new arrivals.[37] The sudden arrival of hundreds of refugees, already in Italy without authorization, could lead to “unforeseeable problems and incidents.”[38]

Although the report does not specify what sort of incidents, there are several realistic possibilities it could refer to. First, there could have been diplomatic frictions with the British authorities, though it is unlikely the police would have referred to this possibility since diplomacy was not part of their domain. Second, the report could refer to black marketeering and other public-order disturbances, which is a more likely possibility, as is the third possibility of referring to incidents between Jewish and non-Jewish refugees in the camps. The report was written in 1947, which was the peak year of illegal infiltration to Italy, and the Joint’s then director for Italy, Jacob L. Trobe, warned of a hardening of attitudes toward all refugees. In any case, the police force fundamentally opposed the practically free entry of refugees into Italy without documents, and to the authorities the country seemed full of undesirable aliens.[39]

By 1947, social problems and fights inside the camps contributed to a growing sense that the refugee camps were out of control, the setting for all sorts of irregularities. Indeed there were problems with the black market, occasional serious harassment by non-Jewish DPs, and general disorder caused by the frustration felt by refugees without immigration possibilities. In addition, the Irgun[40] made a bombing attempt against the British embassy in October 1946. The Italian press now brought to wider public attention the major difficulties that refugees posed to Italy, mainly social, economic, and sanitary.[41] The British press launched a campaign highlighting Italy and the refugee camps: “Jews in Camps Getting out of Control, Camp Authorities Powerless.”[42]

It was, however, the bombing attempt outside the British embassy in Rome on 31 October 1946 that proved pivotal for the refugees in Italy. It marked the first Irgun action against the British in Europe. Whatever the motivation for choosing Italy, a relatively refugee-friendly country was now turned into a stage for terror, and all the Jewish refugees became suspects. Hence the British gained moral authority, at least temporarily, that they had not had previously with the Italian authorities. The Italian press reacted strongly, making a connection between Aliyah Bet and the Irgun.

Immediately following the explosion the police arrested several suspects, and though most of them were soon released, the British claimed that important suspects lived in hachsharot (Zionist training farms). In a memorandum sent to the Foreign Office in London from the embassy in Rome, the writer admits that no direct evidence connected any of the camps to the explosion.[43] Nevertheless, the British recommended that refugees suspected of Irgun membership be arrested.[44]

The bombing precipitated a war of nerves. A letter, supposedly from the Irgun, was delivered to the Italian prime minister demanding that Italy pressure the British authorities to adopt “a more humane policy” or further sensitive sites would be hit. Warnings of bombings were issued and the government became concerned.[45] Although the main suspects were released for lack of evidence,[46] a shadow of doubt hung over the Jewish refugees in Italy. The bombing and the further threats made the Italian authorities chary of the refugees and created sudden visa difficulties for them.

The refugee leadership condemned the bombing in a communiqué issued shortly afterward by Carlo Alberto (Zionist Federation), Rafael Cantoni (Italian Jewish community), and Leo Garfunkel (refugee leader). They expressed their shock and told the Italian public that the refugees had no connection to the bombing and regretted that it had occurred in such a refugee-friendly country. In an editorial in Baderech, the refugee newspaper, the writer lamented that all the Jews in Italy might be endangered and Italy compromised as a refugee haven because of the Irgun’s actions.[47]

Following the bomb attempt and the subsequent arrests, the Italian government decided that all aliens in Italy had to be registered by 31 March 1947. Relief agencies did not know the government’s intentions, and there was fear that refugees might have to leave. Trobe wrote to the Joint office in Paris: “Goodwill of Italian people will not suffice to protect the refugees.”[48]

Thus, for most of the refugees the bombing attempt was a negative incident that seemed to change Italian attitudes for the worse. This would have been a much more serious situation had the refugees considered Italy a permanent place of refuge. But they were there temporarily, waiting to leave, as is evidenced by how they organized themselves.


The first conference of Jewish Displaced Persons in Italy took place in Rome already in November 1945 following elections that had been held in every part of Italy where Jewish refugees resided. A total of 140 delegates were elected. The practical aim of the conference was to establish a democratically elected committee in Rome with subcommittees in Milan, Florence, Rome, and Bari. This committee would be in constant contact with relief agencies and had already started publishing the Yiddish weekly Baderech.

The conference decided to survey the present situation of the approximately fifteen thousand Jewish DPs in Italy with the aim of speeding up the rehabilitation and emigration processes. Since refugee leaders sought to promote rehabilitation before emigration to Palestine, emphasis was placed on reeducation, training, and cultural activities.[49] Although the refugee organization tried to ease the refugees’ existence in Italy, the main emphasis was placed on aliyah (a Hebrew term for Jewish emigration to Israel).

Leo Garfunkel, in his position as chairman of the refugee organization, gave the opening speech of the conference. It began with a historical account regretting the recent events, then clarified the aspirations of the Jewish refugees. The refugees were in Italy because they could not be repatriated. “We cannot return and rebuild our old homes…our old houses have turned into a cemetery to us.”[50] “As a consequence of the extermination by the Nazis we lost all possibilities of success and reconstruction of life as a national minority.”[51]

Since the DPs were in camps, the organization had to do its utmost to “consider ways of ameliorating the DPs’ very hard lives in Italy,”[52] such as supporting education and culture and by countering the harmful effects of the recent past. Garfunkel’s speech, however, made clear that Italy was not the Jewish DPs’ real destination. “Eretz Israel, the land where Jewish history was once made, is the only historically, culturally, and politically viable solution to the problem of the Jewish people.”[53] The main theme of the refugee leadership was always that the “overwhelming majority of the Jewish refugees in Italy considers Palestine as the only acceptable and only effective goal.”[54]

Survey among Refugees

The leadership of the Jewish DPs in Europe, which actively expressed its views in the immediate postwar period, is well known for its Zionist commitment and serves as an indicator of the prevalent Zionist thinking among the refugees. Generally lacking, however, are the common refugees’ own views at the time. The testimonies they gave following their settlement in Eretz Israel may not truthfully reflect the actual situation in the DP camps in the postwar period. In the case of Italy, however, the refugees’ views are known because of a survey conducted in the latter half of 1945 and first published in February 1946. The commissioning of the survey by the refugee leadership demonstrates keen political and historical insight into the specific situation of the Jewish DPs. Clearly, the leaders understood that the survivors formed a very specific group of Jews at a turning point in history and wanted to create a record for the future.

The survey was answered by 9,174 persons and offers an authentic picture. Although about fifty thousand Jewish refugees passed through Italy in the postwar years, the number of respondents, about 20 percent of this total, is a highly representative sample and can therefore be applied to all Jewish refugees in postwar Italy. The respondents included concentration-camp survivors, fighters, partisans, and those who had survived in Aryan disguise. In other words, they were a representative group of European Jewry in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Some refugees’ views undoubtedly changed as their stay in Italy grew longer, but that may only testify to the dreadful conditions in the DP camps. The questions were designed to establish where the refugees came from, where they wanted to go, and why they were against returning to their former homes, if that was the case.

Most of the refugees in Italy came from Poland, Romania, other East European and Baltic countries, and the main reason cited for not wanting to return to these places was the local population’s attitude toward the Jews during the German occupation. Refugees of Polish origin gave this answer most often. Although many refugees cited stories of helpful people, the prevalent feeling was one of betrayal stemming from the locals’ participation in the mass murder.[55] Fear of pogroms and attacks in the present also played a part and was accentuated by the pogroms in Kielce in 1946 and Krakow in 1947. Polish and Lithuanian Jews referred to the prevalent hatred of Jews, and refugees in general felt that their country provided no possibility for national life as Jews. Refugees from Poland and Czechoslovakia reported the need,[56] and refugees from Yugoslavia cited current political struggles as a reason for not returning.

Refugees, then, did not want to return to their former homes because of the past and fear of the present. This does not necessarily explain, however, the perceived Zionism of the Jewish survivors. Arrival to Western Europe as such did not indicate Zionism. Yet most refugees came to Italy because of aliyah possibilities. One said he came “because from Italy we knew the Aliyah goes to Palestine.”[57]

The last question of the survey, which offers the most relevant information to this study, was designed to find out about the refugees’ hopes for the future. Where did they want to go and why? Only 2 percent of the respondents wanted to go to countries other than Palestine. These respondents always gave the same reasons: family members were awaiting them and preparing everything in the new country (Canada, the United States, Latin American countries). Note, however, that about 14 percent of the refugees had relatives in other countries. In other words, while everyone who wanted to go outside Palestine had relatives in their target country, relatives in other countries did not deter the vast majority from wanting to leave for Palestine.

Indeed, 98 percent of the refugees who answered the questionnaire responded that they wished to emigrate to Palestine. Different reasons were given, with 33 percent defining themselves as committed Zionists and Palestine as the only place that could solve the Jewish question.[58] The 16 percent of the refugees who did not perceive themselves as Zionists frankly admitted this. Yet in their answers they stated that the war with its horrible events had opened their eyes. They knew they could not live in their former countries and realized that there would have to be a place for the Jewish people, and this place was in Palestine. Another 20 percent responded that they wished to emigrate to Palestine because of fear of current hostile surroundings whereas in Palestine they could be in their own environment. Another 22 percent wanted to participate in creating Jewish national and cultural life.[59]

Despite lacking a Zionist past, all these refugees now believed that Palestine was the place where their aspirations could be fulfilled for secure life and Jewish national culture. Those were the most important reasons for wanting to emigrate to Palestine. Only 8 percent of the respondents mentioned relatives in Palestine as a reason to go there, although many more had relatives there. It seems, then, that Zionism was embraced even by those who had not been Zionists before the Holocaust.

In light of the trauma and disillusionment the Holocaust had caused, the survivors believed that the Jewish nation as such could only survive in its own country. Some tried to go back to their Gentile neighbors, but existing anti-Semitism and the betrayal they had experienced during the war had made them wary. Life with Gentiles anywhere in the world was perceived as full of fear and uncertainty at least until the establishment of the state of Israel.[60] The recent past and the behavior of the Gentile neighbors had conditioned these survivors’ attitudes. Views on Europe especially, and Diaspora life more generally, were extremely negative and, admittedly, in some cases Zionism may primarily have expressed hatred and rejection of everything European.[61]

A large group of refugees, who lacked previous political and Zionist experience, may have been rather unaware of the content of the Zionist ideology but felt instinctively that post-Holocaust Europe had nothing to offer them.[62] In this, Italy was not an exception; it can be argued that Jewish refugees in Germany and Austria wanted to leave Europe as well. It appears, however, that the refugees who arrived in Italy did so primarily because of the illegal-immigration possibilities. They knew that ships were leaving from Italy to Eretz Israel, and the mere choice of struggling to reach Italy was a concrete Zionist choice.

Post-Zionist scholars have claimed that the refugees’ questionnaire responses may partly have resulted from Zionist propaganda in the camps. Nevertheless, these responses relate to Jewish national and cultural life in an implicitly Zionist manner. Israel Gutman has referred to the Zionist instinct of the Jewish survivors, who shared “a few simple elementary truths to which they clung.”[63] Survivors had to make a decision that history would judge, and this was clearly understood by their leaders. Although the masses probably did not share the historical awareness of the leadership, in rejecting Europe they automatically embraced the idea of a Jewish homeland.[64]

The Bricha movement originated with the survivors struggling toward the countries from which they could reach the coasts of Palestine.[65] Italy was the last station, and the survey arguably revealed that the Jewish refugees in Italy were the Zionist vanguard.

Zionism Practiced

An apparent difference in Zionism existed between hachsharoth/kibbutzim and the standard UNRRA camps. In the latter, which often were mixed camps, the Jewish refugees suffered from living together with former collaborators. These camps were demoralizing and work opportunities were rarely available. Families, for practical reasons, were sent to the DP camps, as were older refugees.

Contrary to the camps, the hachsharoth often existed as autonomous units outside the camps training refugees for life in Palestine but also serving as collection points for the illegal aliyah. Hachsharoth were for those who were definitely going to Palestine and defined themselves as “hama’apil hachalutzi halochem (pioneering, fighting illegal immigrants).”[66] Upon arriving in Italy members of youth movements knew they wanted to go to a hachshara and emigrate, legally or illegally, to Palestine. Some youth groups came together in organized fashion; others were not members of a movement but wanted to learn in a collective and then leave for Palestine. Although hachsharoth in Italy were overcrowded, the vast majority of Jewish DPs wanted to go to one since: “We want better living conditions in Eretz, in our country.”[67] In other words, they gladly embraced the hardships of hachshara life since this was the path to Eretz Israel. One refugee recalls that they were just waiting for the moment when they could leave for Eretz Israel.[68]

Jewish DPs expressed their Zionist attitudes with regard to the British policies in Palestine. When refugee ships were held at the port of La Spezia, as the British did not allow them to embark, refugees in other camps in Italy joined their hunger strike. Protests were made to the British camp commandants.[69] The refugee leadership was aware of the significance of the refugees’ actions, which were undertaken solely to compel the British authorities to open the gates of Palestine. In December 1947, following the UN partition resolution, the refugee leadership issued the statement that: “The Jewish refugees are convinced that in the discussions on Palestine, they played a decisive part…the story of the Jewish refugees in Italy is one of heroic struggle to reach the shores of Palestine.”[70]

Immigration figures yield an objective estimate of Zionist commitment among the Jewish DPs. General figures indicate that two-thirds of the DPs in Germany, Austria, and Italy emigrated to Eretz Israel. According to Leo Garfunkel, about 70 percent of the Jewish refugees in Italy left for there.[71] According to Arie Kochavi, out of the fifty thousand Jewish refugees in Italy, twenty-one thousand emigrated to Palestine from 1945 to Israel’s establishment.[72]

Visitors and relief agencies noted the Zionist attitudes in the camps. As time passed and demoralization set in, people in the camps began to look for whatever emigration possibilities they could find. Since the Palestine option was illegal, it was easier to leave for other countries, especially if families were there.[73] This does not negate the refugees’ Zionism but indicates the difficult conditions they had to tolerate for many long years.

*     *     *


[1] Since this is the case in contemporary source material, this article uses the terms refugee and Displaced Person interchangeably despite their slightly different meanings in international law.

[2] Yehuda Bauer, Flight and Rescue (New York: Random House, 1970), 97.

[3] The Jewish Agency was then the legal and de facto government of the Jews in Palestine and was established as such by the League of Nations as part of the British Mandate.

[4] From Jewish Agency Jerusalem to Dr. S. U. Nahon, Allied Commission HQ, 4 July 1945, L16 330II Central Zionist Archives (CZA) Jerusalem.

[5] For a longer discussion of the topography, see Eva Pfanzelter, “Between Brenner and Bari: Jewish Refugees in Italy, 1945-1948,” in Tomas Albrich and Ronald W. Zweig, eds., Escape through Austria: The Jewish Refugees and the Austrian Route to Palestine (London: Frank Cass, 2002), 83.

[6] The Jewish Brigade was part of the British Eighth Army and consisted of five thousand Jewish men who lived in the British Mandate of Palestine. It was formed on 26 September 1944.

[7] Efraim Dekel, Bri’ha: Flight to the Homeland (New York: Herzl Press, 1972),  278; see also Pfanzelter, “Between Brenner and Bari,” 92-93.

[8] Testimony of Itzhak Levi, 16 February 1950, 48.00044 Haganah Archives (HA) Tel Aviv. [Hebrew]

[9] Figures come from various sources and are confirmed by research. See: List of arrivals to Italy, September 1946 to June 1948, 114/106/3 HA Tel Aviv. For Italian figures, see: Prospetto mensile agli ebrei fermata ai valichi di frontiera, A16 PS MI Archivio Centrale dello Stato (ACS) Rome [Italian]. See also Arie Kochavi, Post-Holocaust Politics: Britain, the United States and Jewish Refugees, 1945-1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[10] Benjamin N. Brook, Joint Lisbon, 25 July 1945, Archives of the Holocaust Part 2 of Volume 10, Givat Ram Library, Jerusalem.

[11] To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from British Embassy, Rome, 22 January 1947, F.O. 371/ 67796, Italy 189, Public Record Office (PRO) London. There are numerous references to this effect in both Italian and British files.

[12] “con la complicità dei peggiori elementi della comunità israelita locale,” Questura di Milano, Milano, 21 gennaio 1947, Al Capo della Polizia Roma, A16 PS MI ACS Rome. [Italian]

[13] CID HQ Jerusalem, 10 January 1946, 114/29/32 HA Tel Aviv.

[14] This unit, led by Yehuda Arazi, organized illegal ships’ purchasing and departures from Italy; however, the Aliyah Bet is not the focus of this article.

[15] Memorandum, British Embassy to the Foreign Ministry of Italy, Rome; Traffico illegale alla frontiera austro-italiana, 113308, A16 PS MI ACS Rome. [Italian]

[16] From the British Embassy Rome to Don Renato Prunas, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Rome, 19 August 1946, 123/7 HA Tel Aviv.

[17] See, e.g., Dekel, Bri’ha.

[18] “…D’altra parte considerazioni di politica estera potrebbero indurre e tollerare se non addirittura favorire tale stato di cose…,” Dal Capo della Polizia Alla Presidenze del Consiglio dei Ministri ed Al Gabinetto del Sig, Ministero, Roma, 17 aprile 1946, 123/Foreign Ministry/2 HA Tel Aviv. [Italian]

[19] “Non è possibile per le autorità italiane fare una politica antiebraica,” Ministero degli Affari Esteri Appunto per il Ministro Zoppi, Roma, 31 January 1947, A16 PS MI ACS Rome. [Italian]

[20] Mario Ferrara, La Politica estera dell’ Italia libera (Milano: Pan editrice, 1972), 10. [Italian]

[21] Testimony of Rafael Cantoni, 13 January 1966, 197.2 HA Tel Aviv. [Italian]

[22] “buon Fascista” e ” italiani brava gente,” Adriana Goldstaub, Appunti per lo studio dei pregiudizi antiebraici nei primi anni del dopoguerra (1945-1955) in Il Ritorno alla Vita (1998), 140-41. [Italian]

[23] Zorach Warhaftig, The Uprooted Jewish Refugees and Displaced Persons after Liberation: From War to Peace, Vol. 5 (New York: Institute of Jewish Affairs of the American Jewish Congress and World Jewish Congress, 1946), 151. Italy compared favorably to other European countries in treatment of Jewish refugees. Warhaftig, then an observer, later became an important politician and cabinet minister in Israel.

[24] Franz Hajek, Appunti sugli Ebrei Stranieri in Italia durante la Guerra in Quaderni del centro di documentazione ebraica contemporanea italiana. Gli ebrei in Italia durante il Fascismo (Torino: Centro di documentazione ebraica contemporanea italiana, 1963), 155. [Italian]

[25] Jewish Review New York, 15 June 1944, Wiener Library (WL) Tel Aviv.

[26] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 18 October 1944, WL Tel Aviv.

[27] From Dr. S. U. Nahon, HQ Allied Commission, to Jewish Agency for Palestine, 5 April 1945, L16 329 CZA Jerusalem.

[28] From British Embassy Rome to Don Renato, secretary-general, Ministry of Foreign Affairs Rome, 19 August 1946, 123/7 HA Tel Aviv.

[29] Ibid.

[30] From Jerusalem to Colonial Office, No. 1628, ADM 121/103, PRO London.

[31] St. John‘s Evening Telegram (Newfoundland), by Claire Neikind, 16 August 1946, WL Tel Aviv.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Non e possibile assumere nei campi profughi sorveglianza,” Ministero degli Affari Esteri Appunto per il Ministro Zoppi, Roma, 31 January 1947, A16 PS MI ACS Rome. [Italian]

[34] “Non e possibile istituire una vera linea di frontiera,” ibid.

[35] “Non e possibile per le authorita italiane fare una politica anti-ebraica,” ibid.

[36] From British Embassy Rome to Ernest Bevin, M.P. F.O., 14 January 1947, FO 371/ 67796 PRO London.

[37] Da Ministero dell’Interno A Comanda generale dei Carabinieri Roma, 2 April 1947, A16 PS MI ACS Rome. [Italian]

[38] “ad inconvenienti e ad incidenti di non prevedibile entita,” Al Appunto per il Gabinetto di S.E. Il Ministro dell’ Interno, Da Il Direttore Generale A.P.B. 22 agosto 1947, A16 PS MI ACS Rome. [Italian]

[39] From Jacob L. Trobe to AJDC Paris, 18 November 1947, Geneve I 9a/2 C-54.053 Joint Distribution Committee Archives (JDC) Jerusalem. See also Mario Toscano, La Porta di Sion. L’ Italia e l’ Immigrazione clandestina ebraica in Palestina (1945-1948) (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1990), 75. [Italian]

[40] The Irgun Tzvai Leumi was a Jewish underground group from Palestine that took military action to get the British to leave the Mandate.

[41] Toscano, La Porta, 136.

[42] Rome, 8 November 1946, Daily Mirror, WL Tel Aviv. See also Toscano, ibid., 160.

[43] To Ernest Bevin, M.P., Foreign Office from Embassy Rome, 14 January 1947, FO 371/67796 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            371/67796     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, PRO London.

[44] From British Embassy Rome to Eastern Dep. FO, 22 October 1946, FO 371/67796 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            371/67796     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, PRO London.

[45] From Rome to Foreign Office, 14 January 1947, FO 371/67796 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            371/67796     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, PRO London.

[46] From British Embassy Rome to Eastern Dep. Foreign Office, 22 October 1947, FO 371/67796 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            371/67796     end_of_the_skype_highlighting, PRO London.

[47] Baderech, 46, November 1946, PFI90/5 Yad Vashem (YV) Jerusalem. [Yiddish]

[48] From Jacob L. Trobe to AJDC Paris, confidential, 18 February 1947, C.54-040 9a/1, Geneve I JDC Jerusalem.

[49] Conference of Jewish Displaced Persons in Italy, 26-28 November 1945, 123/Italy/2, HA Tel Aviv.

[50] “Non possiamo ritornare e ricostruirci…le nostre vecchie case sono per noi soltanto dei cimiteri,” Discorso d’apertura di L. Garfunkel, Roma 26 novembre 1945, 123/Italy/2, HA Tel Aviv. [Italian]

[51] “In conseguenza della nostra sterminazione da parte dei Nazisti siamo giunti ad essere una minoranza alla quale ogni possibilita di successo come nazione riconstituita sarabbe da escludere,” ibid.

[52] “Lo scopo della nostra conferenza e quello di considerare il modo di migliorare la durissima vita dei profughi ebrei in Italia,” ibid.

[53] “Eretz Israel, quel paese che una volta fu la culla della nostra storia e della nostra cultura, quel paese che storicamente, politicamente e culturalmente e il solo che puo dare una soluzione al problema del popolo ebraico,” ibid.

[54] OJRI Memorandum to the UN Special Commission, L16/100, CZA Jerusalem.

[55] Survey among the Jewish refugees in Italy, OJRI, YV Jerusalem, 12-13.

[56] Ibid., 20-21, 26-27.

[57] Interview with George Kaldore, Castle Tradade, 31 August 1946, in David Boder, Topical Autobiographies of Displaced Persons (Chicago: Microcard Edition, 1950).

[58] Survey among the Jewish refugees in Italy, 29.

[59] Ibid., 30.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Zeev Mankowitz, “Zionism and She’erit Hapletah,” in Israel Gutman and Avital Saf, eds., Sheerit Hapletah (1944-1948) (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1990), 220.

[62] Testimony of Irit Amiel, orally to the author, Ramat Chen, 5 January 2002.

[63] Israel Gutman, “She’erit Hapletah: The Problems, Some Elucidations,” in Gutman and Saf, She’erit Hapletah, 529.

[64] Mankowitz, “Zionism and She’erit Hapletah,” 224.

[65] See also Yehuda Bauer, “The Bricha,” in Gutman and Saf, Sheerit Hapletah, 54.

[66] Testimony of Abraham Keren-Pas, orally to the author, Givatayim, 2 August 2002.

[67] Boder, interview with George Kaldore. See also: To Mercaz HeChalutz from Southern Region Hachsharoth Dept. Rome, 27 February 1947, L16/464 CZA Jerusalem. [Hebrew]

[68] Testimony of Irit Amiel.

[69] Resolution by the Jewish refugees of Santa Cesarea Camp, 11 April 1946, JM 10.520 YV Jerusalem. See also: Camp Manager, Santa Maria di Bagni, 11April 1946, JM 10.520 YV Jerusalem.

[70] OJRI statement, 1 December 1947, JM 10.522 YV Jerusalem.

[71] Testimony of Leib Garfunkel, 13 February 1968 18(43), Oral Archives Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

[72] Kochavi, Post-Holocaust Politics, 202. Mass immigration to Israel began in September 1948 and by the end of 1949 about thirty-eight thousand Jewish refugees had arrived from Italy. Most of these only used Italy as a transit country and never stayed in refugee camps there.

[73] Testimony of Abraham Lanzman, orally to the author, Tel Aviv, 22 May 2002.

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DR. SUSANNA KOKKONEN received her PhD in contemporary Jewish history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She has been cultural attaché at the Finnish embassy in Tel Aviv. She currently works as a political director for the pro-Israeli lobby European Coalition for Israel in Brussels.