Donato De Simone has made a mission of educating others about how Italians helped Jews during World War II.
When four “splendid” blonde girls with “stringy, yellow hair” were ushered into his home in Fossacesia, an Italian town on the Adriatic coast, by his mother during World War II, Donato De Simone didn’t ask any questions.
Now, more than 70 years later, he is convinced that the refugees his family hid during World War II were Jewish, though he never spoke to them during the several months they lived with his family and will never have any hard evidence to prove it.
“I don’t know where they came from and I don’t know where they went after the Italian underground picked them up with a car seven months later,” said the 84-year-old at his home in Norristown, where he has lived since moving to the United States after the war. “I never knew their names, I never heard them speak.”
The introduction of these mysterious refugees into his home came on the heels of a clandestine meeting his mother attended in the summer of 1942, which was organized by the town’s priest, Monsignor Tommasco Tozzi.
At the meeting, Tozzi instructed members of the town to hide away some 200 refugees, De Simone explained. He learned this information while researching his town’s — and his family’s — role in World War II, which he documented in a self-published memoir titled Suffer the Children: Growing Up in Italy During World War II.
In person, the retired high school and college English teacher slips seamlessly between childhood anecdotes and Italian history, drawing diagrams and consulting maps from a slew of books strewn across his dining room table and punctuating the air with enthusiastic gestures as he tells his life story.
De Simone, a Catholic, said he has made it a personal mission to explain Italy’s role in the war and to bring to the forefront the lengths to which Italians went to help the Jewish people.
“The Italians saved thousands of Jews and nobody knows about it,” he said, adding that after the girls left his house, another family stayed with them for a few
months before likewise moving on through the Italian underground. “We didn’t know those people were Jews, nor did we know that the Jews were being killed in Poland and in Germany and in other places.”
Out of the 40,000 Jews living in Italy before the Holocaust, an estimated 32,000 survived due to Italians’ efforts to resist Nazi Germany, allowing the Jewish population in Italy to have one of the highest survival rates in Europe, according to information compiled by the Jewish Virtual Library.
By contrast, Germany, where the Nazi Party originated, began its massive Jewish extermination campaign with a 1938 pogrom in which 91 Jews were killed and thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses were destroyed or damaged. This Nov. 9 marks the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.
Meanwhile, the Jews of Italy faced mostly unenforced anti-Semitic legislation, but little physical persecution. Italy remained relatively safe for Jews until Germany occupied the country in 1943 after the Italians surrendered to the allies.
By then, most of the Italian Jews had fled to the United States, said Steve Luckert, curator of the permanent exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“You didn’t have the same intensity, you didn’t have the violent actions against Jews” in Italy while Kristallnacht was occurring in Germany, Luckert said. “There were publications and laws that affected Jewish life there, but it’s not comparable to what was happening in Nazi Germany.”
It’s even possible, he said, that Jews fleeing Germany in 1938 passed through Italy. Italy served as a sort of byway for an estimated 16,300 to 18,500 Jewish refugees who came in three waves: the first from Germany in 1933, the second from Austria in 1938 and the last from Yugoslavia, Greece and France in the early 1940s, Luckert continued.
According to that timeline, the refugees that De Simone’s family saved could have come from a Yugoslavian republic such as Croatia, Slovenia or Serbia. As far as Luckert is concerned, the story is plausible.
“You have some very interesting cases of people that go out of their way to aid people that they empathize with them, that they show a great deal of sympathy for them and they take them in,” said Luckert. “It really shows the righteousness of these individuals to take in a total stranger.”