How Italy Became a Stop for Holocaust Survivors on the Way to Palestine

June 5, 2018 | Rosie Whitehouse
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In the aftermath of World War II, some 70,000 Jewish refugees streamed into Italy; most wished not to settle there but to journey onward to the Land of Israel. The British government there, however, barred Jewish immigration, leading the Haganah to arrange a variety of efforts to smuggle people into the country. Rosie Whitehouse describes what happened to one group of survivors:

[A] children’s home in Selvino in the mountains above the city of Bergamo [in Lombardy]—a former holiday camp that had been built for the children of Italy’s fascist elite—was run by Jewish soldiers from Palestine who had fought in the British army. After the liberation of Milan, the members of the Jewish Brigade and the engineering unit Solel Boneh, who had fought in Italy as part of the Allied forces, devoted their energies to helping the survivors rebuild their lives and start a new life in Palestine.

The hub of the operation was a few minutes’ walk from Milan’s magnificent cathedral at via dell’Unione 5. The grand 16th-century Palazzo Erba Odescalchi, a former billet for fascist militias, was turned into a reception center to help the local Jewish community put their lives back together. It would soon become the pulsating heart of [efforts to smuggle Jews into Palestine] . . . Over 35,000 survivors passed through its doors. . . . Their hopes rested on Yehudah Arazi, a Haganah secret agent who had been sent by the Jewish Agency to help bring the survivors to Palestine. His headquarters was a secret camp outside the city of Magenta, west of Milan. . . . Today, even though the house [that served as Arazi’s headquarters] is still known as the La Casetta di Ebrei, the little Jewish house, most of the locals have no idea why. . ..

The story of how thousands of Holocaust survivors were both cared for and then spirited out of Italy on illegal immigrant ships was largely forgotten when it became inconvenient for the pro-Palestinian left in Italy to remember the help that they had given [to Zionist efforts] to ship people and arms to Palestine. The story of the weapons that were hidden in the fields around the villa is not something the left is yet ready to discuss, but the story of the Jewish refugees and the help they were given is suddenly politically useful. It is a stick with which the Italian left can beat the Italian right, which campaigns against the illegal migrants who have flooded into the country in recent years.

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