Search for the name Giovanni Palatucci on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and not much comes up—now. His grainy black and white photo and a laudatory profile were yanked late last week from an online exhibit, the most striking acknowledgment yet of a simmering controversy over the young Italian policeman who died in a concentration camp in 1945 at age 36. Since then, he has become the nation’s most important symbol of Italian officials who defied the Nazis. He’s on his way to sainthood in the Catholic church. Streets and piazzas in towns across Italy bear his name. He was the dashing subject of a 2008 Italian miniseries, Without Borders.
But historians say there is no basis in historical records to support a claim that he saved 5,000 Jews from the northern Italian town of Fiume, now called Rijeka. They call the story a myth, created by his death in Dachau for a vague conspiracy unrelated to helping Jews and fostered by relatives seeking post-war absolution, pressure from the Vatican and the police, and an Italian government eager to showcase officials who ended up on the right side of history.
Palatucci’s ultimate imprimatur came in 1990 when Yad Vashem designated him a “Righteous Among the Nations”—but for helping one woman, not saving 5,000. That title became the basis for his beatification by the Catholic Church and for receiving Italy’s Medaglia d’oro, presented by the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in 1995.
What is supported by copious documentation is that Palatucci was a loyal Fascist, active in collecting and registering names of Jews. Then, in 1943, the bloodiest time for Italian Jewry, he helped identify those who had fled Fiume and were hiding elsewhere under assumed names, and who were then arrested and deported.
“As new information has come to light re-examining the rescue efforts of Giovanni Palatucci, we have removed his case study from the Museum’s website,” communications director Andrew Hollinger said Friday. The case study was part of an exhibit called Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust, which examines decisions individuals from broad swaths of society made as the Nazis and their collaborators persecuted Jews and others.
Hollinger said material on Palatucci will also be removed from the physical exhibition.
Natalia Indrimi, executive director of New York-based Centro Primo Levi, said she and other groups studying Palatucci alerted the museum to his spotty credentials. “They said thanks, and we think we’ll take it off,” Indrimi said. “They acted in good faith.”
Italy has been slow to recognize the atrocities of Italian Fascists against Jews before and during World War II, preferring to attribute the worst offenses to the Germans and focus on stories of succor. The relatively few Italian Jews who survived the Holocaust and returned to their former lives opted to blend in, not speak out.
Thousands of documents were first made public in 1988 when state archives were opened on the 50th anniversary of Italy’s Racial Laws. They startled the nation—and created an even greater need for heroes like Palatucci.
“It’s a question of methodology,” said Mauro Canali, a professor of modern history at the University of Camerino who has been scouring police records in Rome and Fiume. There is some direct testimony from victims he helped or those who knew them but no supporting documentation.
Canali said the iconic force of Palatucci’s death in Dachau for “plotting with the enemy,” according to a memo from the Interior Ministry, was the genesis of his myth, lending credibility to all subsequent narratives.
The conspiracy isn’t clear, Canali said, but a document seems to connect Palatucci with treasonous discussion about the future of the northeastern shore of the Adriatic, including Fiume, after the war. It had nothing to do with his allegedly aiding thousands of Jews by sending them to an internment camp in Campagna, where his uncle Giuseppe Palatucci was the bishop and, the story went, could help them.
Historian Anna Pizzuti, who has created an extensive database of foreign Jews in Italy during World War II, said she found only about 40 Fiume Jews who were sent to Campagna, a camp for male detainees. And in thousands of letters from prisoners with various requests, there’s no record that those from Fiume received help from the bishop.
Fiume’s case was particularly dramatic for Jews. It was an important border town and most of its 1,500-person Jewish population came from outside Italy. Foreign Jews were forced to leave the country in 1938 and those who didn’t were ordered to internment camps after the war started.
The situation for Jews in Croatia across the Fiume border was worse, so horrific that many begged to be let into the city and sent through to Italian internment camps. Pizzuti said the Fiume authorities turned most of them away.
Pizzuti said she found records of 17 who were let in, and none were sent to Campagna.
Separately, Palatucci is credited with saving hundreds of Jewish refugees on a particular ship that he allowed to leave from Fiume’s port. It’s something that would have been part of his job as head of the town’s immigration office. From 1938 to 1940, all foreign Jews were required by law to leave Italy in forced repatriation.
If he helped out by letting one boat pass that perhaps shouldn’t have gone, because it didn’t conform to safety regulations or other reasons, there’s no evidence of it. There’s no mention of him in any of the diaries of the organizers of ships that sent Jews to safety, and there was an active network, Pizzuti said.
The sole individual from Fiume who earned Palatucci the title of “Righteous” testified that he allowed her to delay internment by three weeks because she had an infant daughter. After three weeks, she was indeed put in an internment camp. Later, she managed to flee to Switzerland and then the U.S.
Mordechai Paldiel, a former director of Yad Vashem’s Bureau of the Righteous, has urged Centro Primo Levi to collect the documentation, send it in and ask that the case be reconsidered.
“I’m not saying it justifies a change. (But) there have been half a dozen cases that like, where it turned out the original story was not the way it was and Yad Vashem removed that name.”
“It’s not our desire to destroy the myth of Palatucci,” Pizzuti said. “But this myth diminishes the many people who risked their lives to save people.”
“Only dictatorships have immutable heros. Democracies must be able to discuss them,” said Marco Coslovich, author of of a 2008 biography of Palatucci.
Jill Goldsmith is a writer in New York and the former New York bureau chief of Variety. She worked at Dow Jones in Milan, Italy and later as a freelancer there, contributing to The New York Times, Slate and Moked, the online publication of the Italian Jewish community.