The Wartime Policeman Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Details Revealed About the Life of Giovanni Palatucci, Raoul Wallenberg

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BUENOS AIRES, JUNE 14, 2004 (Zenit.org).- An Italian policeman who gave his life to save some 5,000 Jews during World War II also helped to spare his fiancée.



Giovanni Palatucci's cause of beatification is already under way. Earlier this month, Baruch Tenembaum, founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, revealed details of Palatucci's life, at a conference on "Saviors of the Holocaust."

Tenembaum gave new information on the person of the former police officer of the city of Rijeka (today in Croatia), but in those years known as Fiume and under Italian jurisdiction.

Between 1937 and 1944, Palatucci obtained false documents and safe-conducts for individuals persecuted by Nazism.

Giovanni Palatucci, born in 1909 in Montella, carried out this endeavor with the help of his uncle, Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci of Campagna.

In 1938 Italian dictator Benito Mussolini promulgated anti-Jewish laws, which included the confinement of foreign Jews sheltered in camps for internees. One of the largest of these camps was located in Campagna.

"They want to make us believe that the heart is only a muscle, to hinder us from doing what our hearts and religion tell us," Palatucci said, referring to these laws, according to information discovered in Tenembaum's research.

"Palatucci's work consisted in editing the necessary residence papers required by the law for refugees," Tenembaum said.

"He began silently to falsify documents and visas. When Palatucci 'deported' Jews 'officially,' he handled it in such a way that they were sent to Campagna, instructing his refugees to contact his uncle, who would give them the most help possible," Tenembaum revealed.

After Mussolini's imprisonment in 1943, the German forces occupied the north of Italy, making the situation in Fiume increasingly dangerous for Palatucci and for the 3,500 Jews there.

"In February 1943, Palatucci became Fiume's chief of police, and was thus able to continue his secret work," Tenembaum recalled. "Instead of giving the Germans information on 'foreigners' to be deported, he destroyed the records. When he learned about the Nazis' plans, he alerted people in time, often providing them with false documents and money to escape."

"In June 1943, high German officials searched Palatucci's apartment," the speaker said. "Looking for information on resident Jews, the only lists they found corresponded to people who had left Italy long ago. From then on, Palatucci's relationship with his superiors became very dangerous."

"A close friend, the Swiss ambassador in Trieste, offered Palatucci safe passage to Switzerland. He accepted his friend's generous offer but, instead of using it himself, he sent his fiancée, a young Jewish woman. She spent the war there and today lives in Israel," Tenembaum said.

"On September 13, 1944, Giovanni Palatucci was arrested by the Gestapo, accused of conspiracy, and sent to prison in Trieste, where he was condemned to death. However, his sentenced was commuted and on October 22 he was taken to the Dachau extermination camp," Tenembaum added. "His prison number was 117826.

"He died on February 10, 1945, a few weeks before the camp was liberated by the Allies on April 29, 1945. Some say he died of undernourishment. Other witnesses said he was shot. He was only 36."

In October 2002, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the Pope's vicar for Rome, opened Palatucci's cause of beatification.

"In 1953, the city of Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, honored Palatucci, by naming a street after him. Thirty-six trees were planted on that occasion -- one for every year of Giovanni's life," Tenembaum recalled.

The Raoul Wallenberg International Foundation is named after the Swedish diplomat who disappeared in January 1945, after having saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews condemned to certain death by the Nazis.

The foundation honors the actions of "saviors" who risked their lives -- and sometimes died -- to save those who were persecuted during World War II. Among those honored are Wallenberg, apostolic nuncio Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII), Aristides de Sousa Mendes and Jan Karski.