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Letter of the President of Jewish Community of Split to Colonel Vincenzo Cuiuli

Morpurgo, Vittorio Jewish community of Split letter 1943
Courtesy of The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Italian Republic, Rome
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tags: refugees & immigration

type: Letter

The Yugoslav Dalmatian port city of Split was occupied by Italy in 1941, along with the entire Yugoslav Dalmatian coast. Some parts of the coast were annexed by Italy, while others remained a zone of occupation. Since Yugoslavia had ceased to exist after the April 1941 invasion by Nazi Germany and its allies, the occupied and annexed parts came under the rule of the so-called Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi satellite state that Germany and Italy created in 1941 and heavily controlled throughout the war. The administrative difference between annexation and occupation perhaps did not have immediate consequences for the local population, which had to deal with Italian soldiers and administration in either case. It did, however, make a difference between life and death for the Jews. In Italy proper, including Split, the Jews were subject to Italian racial laws, which were discriminatory, but they were not concentrated in ghettos or otherwise segregated or incarcerated, except for those accused of communist and anti-fascist activity, along with other enemies of the regime. In the Italian zone of occupation Jews were in effect safe from the Croatian fascist state which wanted to "purge" the Croat nation of Serbs, Jews, and Roma, even though the Italian-controlled territory was still nominally part of the Independent State of Croatia. In 1942 and into 1943, when the Germans had already decided to murder as many European Jews as possible, the fate of Yugoslav Jews in the Italian occupation zone became increasingly precarious. Nazi Germany and its fascist-run Croatian satellite increased the pressure on Italy to "deliver" the Jews to be deported and murdered in the killing centers of occupied Poland. Although Jews in the Italian occupation zone were confined to camps as civilian internees and their freedom of movement was restricted, they were not mistreated, forced to work, or murdered.1

For a number of complex reasons, the Italian Fascist regime resisted this pressure, and refused to surrender the Jews to Nazi Germany or the Independent State of Croatia. In the spring of 1943, perhaps in order to put an end to the German and Croatian pressure, the Italians evacuated all Jews, more than 3,000 people, from the several camps in which they had been interned in the occupation zone. They transferred them to a camp on the Adriatic island of Rab (Arbe in Italian) that was part of Italy proper. As a result, the Germans and Croats could exert less pressure in demanding the deportations. There is some evidence to suggest that this might have been done out of some genuine concern for the Jews. However, concerns of geopolitics were far more important. In a situation in which Nazi Germany was clearly going to be defeated eventually and in which Italy harbored territorial pretensions over former Yugoslav territory in the Adriatic, "the Jewish question" increasingly served as a convenient testing ground for redefining relations among these nominal allies. Italy could suddenly say "no" to Nazi Germany and openly humiliate the Independent State of Croatia.

The overwhelming majority of Jews from the camp at Rab survived the Holocaust. In early September 1943 when Fascist Italy collapsed, the Rab camp was liberated by Yugoslav partisans, who transported the Jews to the liberated territory they controlled in Croatia. Most able-bodied Jews joined the partisans, while the children and the elderly were protected.2

In August, however, before the end of Fascist Italy, this was all in the future. The following letter was written by the president of the Split community to the Italian commander of the camp at Rab. The Split Jewish community was located in Italy proper, exempting its subjects from transfer to Rab. It is full of gratitude and recognition of Italy's benign role with respect to the persecution of Jews.

For the history of World War II in Yugoslavia (and best background on the Independent State of Croatia), see Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941-1945: Occupation and Collaboration (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001). For the Italian occupation zone in Yugoslavia, see Davide Rodogno, Fascism's European Empire: Italian Occupation during the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). On the Croatian fascist regime and its genocidal policies against the Serbs, Jews, and Roma, see Rory Yeomans, Visions of Annihilation: The Ustasha Regime and the Cultural Politics of Fascism, 1941–1945 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013); and Rory Yeomans, ed., The Utopia of Terror: Life and Death in Wartime Croatia (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2015).

For this little-known episode, see Emil Kerenji, "'Your Salvation is the Struggle Against Fascism': Yugoslav Communists and the Rescue of Jews, 1941–1945," Contemporary European History 25:1 (February 2016), 57-74.

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Spalato [Split], August 20, 1943

To: Colonel CC. RR. Cujuli
Commander of internment camp I.C. in Arbe [Rab]

Dear Colonel,

We consider it our duty to express our deepest gratitude for the warm reception given to our Dr. Giacomo Altaras by the command of the "Bergamo" Division, charged by us to transport and deliver the baggage of the San Martino [Sumartin] and Postire della Brazza [Postira] internees. He told us about the kind and thoughtful assistance offered by you and by the esteemed officers in carrying out his assignment, and also by your fatherly interest to improve the housing and food of these unhappy refugees, who have escaped a terrible fate in their country of origin thanks to the generous rescue by the generous Italian army. He told us in detail about the schemes you devised and put to work or will work out, for the supply of water, fresh milk for children and the sick, for sanitary institutions, etc. etc. in the camp.

While we are happy that our fellow Jews have found in you a benevolent and generous protector in their unhappy present circumstances, we must express our heartfelt thanks for all that you did and do to ease our conditions, and to entrust these people to your generous care also for the future.

You can be sure that the help we have received will never be forgotten and your name will be indelibly impressed in the hearts of the beneficiaries and in ours. You may not consider this important, but this is a saying of our ancient sages: "The reward for a good deed is the good deed itself." On our part we pray to the Almighty to reward you as you deserve for all the good that you do to help the wretched, innocent victims of a world upheaval which has carried away people and things, institutions and consciences.

With gratitude,
The Jewish Community of Spalato

[signed] Vittorio [Vid] Morpurgo

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Italian Republic, Rome
RG Number 40.014
Date Created
August 20, 1943
Author / Creator
The Jewish Community of Spalato
Split, Croatia
Split, Kingdom of Yugoslavia (historical)
Document Type Letter
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