Memorials to lost Jews

February 24, 2006

After decades of silence Italy's universities are starting to acknowledge their part in the persecution of Jewish academics and students under Mussolini.

In 1938, legislation introduced by the Fascist regime "for the defence of the race" led to the expulsion of more than 300 academics and up to 1,000 students.

Not a voice was raised among other academics, while Aryan lecturers eagerly competed to occupy the vacated posts.

Although about 0.1 per cent of Italians were Jewish, Jews held 7 per cent of the nation's university posts. Their sackings benefited many non-Jewish academics.

Several scholars are finally scraping away the postwar whitewash that implied negligible guilt in the anti-Jewish persecutions of the 1930s and 1940s.

The universities of Bologna and Trieste have set up plaques in memory of those who were expelled, later went into exile or hiding, and in some cases died in Nazi camps.

But some academics said there was still resistance to the recognition of direct responsibility by much of the higher education establishment, as if those events were now best forgotten.

Roberto Finzi, a Bologna University historian, first shed light on the issue with his 1997 publication L'Universita' Italiana e le Leggi Anti-Ebraiche ("Italian universities and the anti-Jewish laws"). A second expanded edition was released in 2005.

His text was followed, in 1998, by Rome mathematician Giorgio Israel's Scienza e Razza nell'Italia Fascista ("Science and race in Fascist Italy"), and by several other publications.

Professor Finzi told The Times Higher : "Up to the early 1990s, the belief that fascism was not anti-Semitic was widespread. This has changed, and the more publications there are on the subject the better. After the war there was a wish, among non-Jews and Jews, to rebuild national unity. Still today, there are people in universities who think it is better not to re-open old wounds."

Professor Israel was more pessimistic. He said: "After the war, lecturers who had been sacked were not given their jobs back. And medical barons such as Luigi Pende and Sabato Visco, who in 1938 signed a pseudo-scientific white paper, The Race Manifesto , demonstrating 'scientifically' the purity of the Italian Aryan race and the inferiority of the alien Jewish race, continued their brilliant careers.

"There are still their pupils who have become barons, and there are still lecture halls named after academics who worked enthusiastically for the Fascist regime."

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