He was supposed to deport every Jew in his Italian city, sending them to Nazi concentration camps where they would die by the thousands.
But the police chief in Fiume in northern Italy was doing something else. At the height of the Nazis’ power in World War II, he was forging papers to help at least 5,000 Jewish people flee the country or take refuge in southern Italy.
Giovanni Palatucci – ”Johnny,” as his Philadelphia nephew calls him – was an Italian Oskar Schindler who paid the ultimate price for using his job to save others.
Now – almost 60 years after Palatucci died in a concentration camp – Northeast Philadelphia car dealer Gene De Simone wants Americans to know about his uncle. He says he ”absolutely” believes that Palatucci is worthy of becoming a saint – a possible eventual outcome of a study started at the Vatican in October 2002.
Police and Roman Catholic clergy in Italy have led the push toward sainthood, which requires proof of miracles and can take decades to achieve.
But in America, Palatucci is virtually unknown, says the Italian-born De Simone, who visits his native country every year. Streets have been named for Palatucci in Italian cities, as has a park in Rome.
”This all got started in Italy years ago,” said De Simone, but in this country, ”it’s like a big secret.”
De Simone, 57, first learned about Palatucci four years ago, he said, when an uncle, Salvatore De Simone of Upper Darby, handed him a tape of a movie made in Italy about the World War II-era cop’s heroism.
”I said, ‘Why are we hiding this?’ ”
De Simone’s not hiding it any more. He and a friend, John Costa of Warminster, have put up a Web site with information in English about Palatucci.
Palatucci’s story is a gripping one, whether recounted by De Simone or by the Raoul Wallenburg Foundation, which has publicized his cause.
”He had his entire police department making fake passports,” said De Simone. Then Palatucci destroyed the records.
”He knew what he was doing,” the nephew said, and he knew how dangerous it was. He held top police jobs until months before his death in Dachau at age 36.
For years, he transferred Jewish ”foreigners” to a camp in southern Italy, where an uncle who was a bishop helped protect them. Palatucci also sent Jews safely on their way out of Italy as the Nazi noose tightened late in the war.
Among those he got out of the country to safety was Giovanni Palatucci’s own Jewish fiancee, according to De Simone and the Wallenburg Foundation.
Someone apparently betrayed Palatucci to the Nazis, who suddenly came looking for records of the ”foreigners” he was supposed to have deported. Finding nothing at police headquarters, they went to the home of his tailor uncle in Montella, in southern Italy, where both Palatucci and De Simone were born.
There, said De Simone, they found a letter from Palatucci’s fiancee praising his role in helping people to escape.
The Gestapo arrested him in September 1944, and soon sent him to Dachau.
The Nazis claimed that his death on Feb. 10, 1945, was from natural causes. Though some advocates have said he was shot to death, De Simone thinks it’s quite possible that his uncle died of the diseases that were decimating the camp in the last two months before its liberation.
Either way, Palatucci gave his life for the people he saved, say advocates of his sainthood.