But the New York Times reported Thursday that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has decided to remove Giovanni Palatucci's heroic tale from an exhibition after being informed that he was in fact an enthusiastic Nazi who collaborated with the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz.
According to the report, the Centro Primo Levi at the Center for Jewish Studies in New York sent a letter to the museum this month, stating that a research panel of more than a dozen scholars who reviewed nearly 700 documents had concluded that for six years, Palatucci was “a willing executor of the racial legislation and — after taking the oath to Mussolini’s Social Republic, collaborated with the Nazis.”
The letter added that Italian and German records provided no evidence that he had helped Jews during the war.
The researchers were originally studying a different issue – their goal was to understand the role of Fiume, the city where Palatucci worked, as a breeding ground for fascism. On the way, they exploded the hero myth.
Palatucci was police chief in Fiume, an Adriatic port city that is now called Rijeka and is part of Croatia. He has been credited with saving thousands of Jews between 1940 and 1944, for example by destroying records to prevent the Germans from sending Fiume’s Jews to concentration camps when the Nazis occupied the city in 1943.
His died at the age of 35 in a camp at Dachau.
'Enthusiastically embraced Mussolini'
According to the report, however, historians have been able to review these supposedly destroyed records in the Rijeka State Archives, which show that Fiume had only 500 Jews by 1943, and that most of them — 412 or 80% — ended up at Auschwitz, a higher percentage than in any other Italian city.
The research on Palatucci found that rather than being police chief, he was the adjunct deputy commissary responsible for enforcing Fascist Italy’s racial laws.
In addition, his deportation to Dachau in 1944 was not related to saving Jews but to German accusations of embezzlement and treason for passing plans for the postwar independence of Fiume to the British.
Dr. Natalia Indrimi, the executive director of the Centro Primo Levi, says “the myth” surrounding Palatucci started in 1952 when his uncle, Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, used the story to persuade the Italian government to provide a pension for Giovanni Palatucci’s parents.
"Palatucci represents the silence, self-righteousness and compliance of many young Italian officers who enthusiastically embraced Mussolini in his last disastrous steps,” Indrimi wrote in her letter to the museum.
In 1990, Palatucci was named as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Israel's Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. After receiving the historians’ report, the institution's foreign media liaison said it had “commenced the process of thoroughly examining the documents."
Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said that the Vatican was aware of the questions raised and had asked a historian to study the matter.