Giovanni Palatucci, a long celebrated savior of Jews during the Holocaust, was a phony. And a big one. Palatucci was credited with helping save 5,000 Jews, a number far greater than Oskar Schindler, who helped 1,200 people avoid the death camps.
Palatucci was the police chief for the town of Fiume (which is now part of Croatia), a port city that was considered the first symbol of Italy's Fascist Empire. When the Nazis occupied the city in 1943, Palatucci was said to have destroyed records to prevent the Germans from sending Fiume's Jews to concentration camps. His own death at the age of 35 in 1945 in a camp at Dachau brought credibility to the claim of his heroism.
For the past 70 years Palatucci has been celebrated all over the world. Squares and promenades were named in his honor. He was the subject of articles, books and a television movie and declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II. In 1990 he received the title of 'Righteous Among the Nations,' an honor also bestowed upon Schindler and in 2005 he received the 'Courage to Care Award' from the Anti-Defamation League.
But his story was all (allegedly) a BIG. FAT. LIE. Palatucci's reputation was based completely on word of mouth. In a recent investigation to understand the city of Fiume and how it was a breeding ground for fascism, scholars gained access to over 700 new documents that concluded Palatucci helped Germans identify Jews to deport to Auschwitz. Palatucci wasn't the town's police chief, but an adjunct deputy commissary responsible for enforcing Fascist Italy's racial laws.
It was also discovered that the town of Fiume only had 500 Jews by 1943, which would have made it unlikely that Palatucci saved 5,000 people. Of the 500 people, nearly 80 percent of them were sent to Auschwitz, a higher percentage than in any other Italian city. His deportation to a camp in Dachau was not because he saved Jews, but due to an accusation of embezzlement and treason for having plans for a postwar independence of Fiume.
The seventy years spent worshiping a Nazi collaborator as a hero began in 1952 as Palatucci's uncle fabricated the story to persuade the Italian government to provide a pension for Palatucci's parents. This scam orchestrated by friends and family quickly gained momentum because it not only bolstered the reputation of Pope Pius XII (who many believed was indifferent to genocide) but was an attempt to amend Italy's Fascist past.
Professor at Columbia University, Alexander Stille explains: “The Italian government was anxious to rehabilitate itself and show that they were better and more humane than their Nazi allies. The Catholic Church was eager to tell a positive story about the church’s role during the war, and the State of Israel was eager to promote the idea of righteous gentiles and tell stories of right-minded ordinary people who helped to save ordinary Jews.”
The exhibit, "Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust," at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. which features Palatucci is currently undergoing changes to remove his name.