Palatucci and the Fiume Channel
A new biography about the young police inspector from Fiume
who was deported to Dachau
It was to a culturally and economically active city, one however that had been touched, as are all border cities, by political and social problems which remain unresolved by international powers and agreements, that Giovanni Palatucci arrived on November 15th, 1937. Palatucci was a young police inspector who had been transferred from Genoa, and the transfer had been a punishment: he had released an interview to a local Ligurian paper in which he criticized extensively the excessive bureaucracy of the Police force.
To Fiume, in such a different situation than existed in Genoa, Palatucci would be assigned to the immigrant office of the Police headquarters (to become its regent in later months), could get hands-on experience and appreciate the climate of civilian cohabitation among the various ethnic and religious groups in the city, beginning with the over 1.500 Jews, well-integrated in the city’s economic and social fabric. The racial laws, which would be put into place less than a year later, seemed then to be distant, mentally if not in time, and, moreover, in that November of 1937, the winds of war didn't seem to touch Fiume that instead, only a few years later, would become object of the Slavic and German aims.
The human story of Palatucci, tragically ending for him in February 1945 in Dachau, his heroic and disinterested work for the Jewish community of Fiume and those who, through the privileged “Fiume Channel”, before September 8th, 1943, tried to escape the persecution in the territories occupied by the Nazis, are reconstructed above all in the most careful of details and with the aid of witnesses who knew him, directly or indirectly, in the book by Angelo Picariello, journalist of the"Avvenire" newspaper, entitled “Capuozzo, accontenta questo ragazzo (Capuozzo, make this boy happy. The life of Giovanni Palatucci (publisher St. Paul, Milan 2007). The title sentence was chosen from Palatucci’s words to one of his closest collaborators, the police sergeant Pietro Capuozzo, spoken from the train that was taking him to Dachau along with the boy of the title, asking Capuozzo to inform the boy’s mother of her son’s deportation to Germany. .
It is important to specify, as does the author in more than one instance, that, especially before September 8th 1943, Palatucci’s tireless work for the Jews, Fiumani and non, while heroic, would not have been certain enough to achieve such remarkable results without the "complicity" of other officials of the Police headquarters that were close to him and, in a more general sense, without the indirect support coming from various sectors of the Armed forces and the State Department, that for a long period of time opposed the persecutions. In fact, in almost all the zones occupied by Italian soldiers measures were adopted for protecting the Jews; in this specific case, it was the Second Army, stationed at Susak, that saved such a large number of Jews through the "channel" of Fiume, where the work would then be continued by Palatucci.
After September 8th, obviously, the situation changed, particularly in a territory such as the Adriatisches Küstenland, which by name and, more significantly, in fact, had been subtracted from Italian sovereignty.
It was after this date, in fact, that Palatucci’s work became even more risky and arduous. His ties with institutions, especially the Prefecture, hadn’t been easy before, but after September 8th he would have the Germans to deal with, and, under them, the organizations of the RSI (the “Italian Social Republic” post-September 8th government). It was to the Germans that Palatucci would go, in reserved but official terms, to denounce the behavior of their “Ustasha” allies, and to discuss the humiliating paradox that the Fiume police had been disarmed by the Germans themselves, a denouncement that would not bear fruit, much as it didn’t when he referred to his superiors in the Fascist republican government. Perhaps it was this lack of positive response that pushed Palatucci, more and more isolated as time went on, to make contact with the Catholic partisan forces and with the autonomous Fiume forces. It is not an accident that it was because of these contacts, and not of his work in aiding the Jews, that the Germans tried to justify his arrest to the RSI government. His arrest, according to reliable fonts, cited in the book, may have hidden a plot aimed at destroying Fiume autonomy, first with Palatucci’s arrest by the Nazis,, then the elimination of leaders such as Mario Blasich and Giuseppe Sincich by Tito’s forces.
It is very important to note the insistence, in nearly every page of this book, but also in other books about Palatucci, on the strong religious faith that motivated the young police officer’s actions. It is mot my intention to enter into a deep analysis of something so personal as a man’s own religious faith, but it is certain that, behind Palatucci’s work in saving the Jews, as was the case with other military and civilian workers, there was a sense of humanity and civilization that cannot be contained within one specific religious creed. There were those who, in the last months of his stay in Fiume, urged him to abandon the city and save himself: to these people, Palatucci replied, “as long as Fiume flies the Italian flag, I will remain here.” These are the words of an official who places, above his own safety, his sense of duty, and patriotism that doesn’t recognize any other flag but the Italian one: it would be a distortion to take this patriotism and try to make it what it is not for personal purposes, as was done in other eras with the heroic life and sacrifice of Salvo D’Acquisto, among others. All this is taking place while the faithful await Palatucci’s canonization process, opened in October 2002 and momentarily slowed while the Vatican investigates certain details of his life, female friendships in Genoa and his reported engagement to a Jewish lady in Fiume. His eventual canonization, of course, would not add anything to his already heroic status, for which, in 1990, the State of Israel conferred him with the title of “Righteous among the Nations”, the highest recognition in the Jewish world.