It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust, by Elizabeth Bettina (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2009)
Imagine: You are suddenly torn away from your home and possessions and are removed with others of your kind to a place where you must check in daily with the police and obey a strict curfew. You can't leave, practice your profession, carry anything that might be used as a weapon, visit a bar, or attend any meeting or any form of entertainment. You are imprisoned there for years, and yet for the rest of your life you will be passionately grateful to your captors and will remember your incarceration as pleasant. You are a Jew during World War II, sent to a concentration camp—in Italy.
Elizabeth Bettina, a third-generation Italian Catholic from New York City couldn't get over the picture: Taken in the 1940's of a gathering on the steps of the church where her grandparents were married, in the tiny, Catholic town of Campagna, the snapshot clearly included a priest, a police officer, and a rabbi. A rabbi? Bettina's research into the unmentioned history of her grandmother's hometown reveals a surprising tale of ordinary goodness in a time of extraordinary evil.
The writing and style of It Happened in Italy are only mediocre, but the story itself is compelling and well worth reading. Italy was Hitler's ally in World War II, and Mussolini enacted laws against Jews that would have been terrible in a better time and place. Yet Bettina uncovers a bright candle in the darkness of the Holocaust, told mostly through stories of people who survived only because they lived in Italy, protected by exceptional heroes like Giovanni Patalucci ("The Italian Schindler," a police official who saved thousands of Jewish lives before being discovered and sent to Dachau, where he died); by ordinary townsfolk who endangered themselves and their families with their stubborn resistance to the idea that Jews were anything other than "people like us"; and yes, even by the maddeningly inefficient Italian approach to life and government, which enabled official orders concerning the Jews to be tossed in a drawer and "lost."
Bettina also deserves credit for her tireless efforts to find these survivors, document their stories, and in many cases facilitate highly emotional and deeply meaningful reunions. The story of her quest is interesting in itself, although it dominates the book more than I would like, often overshadowing the greater story.
You can preview It Happened in Italy, or purchase it from Thomas Nelson. (I get no kickbacks; I'm including the link because they provided my review copy of the book. You can, of course, buy it from other stores.)