At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, the Italian dictatorship had already stripped Jews of civil rights and had expelled Jews who did not have Italian citizenship.
When Italy entered the war in 1940, many Jews appealed to Mussolini and to the king, reiterating their loyalty to their country and requesting to be able to join the armed forces as volunteers. Anti-Semitic propaganda in the press intensified, insisting that “international Jewry” was responsible for the war. One of the Fascist government’s first measures was the imprisonment of all foreign Jews and those among the Italians who were considered a danger to national security.
Internment camps were opened in the central and southern regions, the largest one at Ferramonti of Tarsia, in Calabria. Other Italian and foreign Jews were sent off to forced residence in isolated locations. In the general atmosphere of violence that had been created by the war, there were many attacks on Jewish people, anti-Semitic writings, and destructions of synagogues. In May of 1942, a law of forced labor for Jewish adults, both men and women, was decreed, assigning them to manual labor of various kinds. On 25 July, Mussolini was removed from power by the king and Marshall Badoglio surrendered to the Allies.
On September 23, 1943, Mussolini, just liberated from prison by the Germans, formed the Italian Social Republic (RSI), which entered the war on the side of the Nazi Germany.
Anti-Jewish policy was one of the fundamental elements of the new manifesto of the Fascist Republican Party, known as the “Carta di Verona”: “Those belonging to the Jewish race are foreigners. During this war they belong to an enemy nationality.”
On November 30, 1943, the Minister of the Interior ordered the arrest of Jews, their confinement to camps, and the seizure of their assets. The measures were enforced immediately by prefects and police chiefs. Arrests and round-ups took place throughout the entire territory of the RSI. At the same time, the anti-Semitic propaganda intensified.
Between 1943 and 1944, sacred objects and valuable libraries were confiscated. The Ministry of the Interior of the RSI opened dozens of provincial concentration camps. From there, detainees were gradually transferred to the large national concentration camp in Fossoli, near Carpi, which had been planned as a transit area to Reich-controlled death camps. At the end of February of 1944, Fossoli passed partially under German control and became the main camp from which Jews were transferred to Auschwitz.
Those arrested in the “Operation Zone” Litorale Adriatico, were instead brought to the Risiera di San Sabba camp in Trieste to await deportation.
About 9,300 were Jews deported from Italy and the territories under Italian control. Among the deported, only 837 survived. For most the destination was Auschwitz, although some were sent to Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrück, Buchenwald, Flossenbürg.
Around 6,000 italian Jews undertook a dangerous journey to Switzerland; others were stopped at the border. Others fled to the southern regions of Italy that had already been liberated by the Anglo-American troops.
A thousand Jews participated in the war on the side of the Resistance. Many were killed on the battlefield and received national honors.
The main assistance network through which Jews survived in Italy was the Jewish relief organization, Delasem. They provided emergency funds, commodities, false documents, and hideouts. It availed itself of the help of clergy and civilians.