Despite a strong Catholic tradition which was not benevolent towards “the deicides”, before the enactment by the fascist Government of the 1938 Antisemitic Laws Italy was not a hostile country for Jews. They were relatively few, but very well integrated.
The Laws themselves, enacted after Hitler’s official visit and strong pressures by Germany, were lenient compared to the Nazi ones, but most of all they were disapproved by the general public and laxly enforced.
Even more importantly, during the first phase of the war Italy was known for shielding Jews, so much that Italian occupation zones were considered safe havens.
Unfortunately, due to military unpreparedness the Italian position in the Axis became weaker and weaker, until in 1943 Germany took control of two-thirds of the Peninsula and installed the puppet Government of the Italian Social Republic. Such Government was staffed but the last fascists left – the most fanatical and extremist. They were desperately looking for some scapegoat, and full of admiration for Germany, which was standing firm and perhaps could still win the war.
A “Race Inspector General’s Office” was established, and the fascist Authorities cooperated in rounding up the Italian Jews, who were sent to the lagers in Germany and Eastern Europe. Some of them were even killed in the only German extermination camp in Italy, in the German-friendly area of Trieste (the city had been under Austrian sovereignty until 1918). That’s when the 1938 racist laws, though lax, proved their usefulness by providing detailed lists of the resident Jews.
Mr Primo Levi, a survivor of the Aushwitz lager, wrote the novel “Se questo è un uomo” (“Is this a man”), one of the best works crudely depicting life in the German labor camps.