Giovanni Palatucci was born in 1909 in Montella, province of Avellino in the Campania region, Italy.
He grew up in a family of Theologians. Two uncles, heads of Franciscan monasteries in Puglia and Naples, were important role models in his youth. But it was another uncle, Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, the Bishop of Campania, who would help Giovanni free Jews from northern Italy, occupied by the Nazis, sending them to the safe zones of the south.
Once Giovanni finished his basic studies and the military service, he went to the Turin University where he graduated in laws in 1932. In 1935 he became an attorney and shortly after he went to Rome where he took a course that would qualify him as inspector at the ministry of public administration. In 1937 he was sent to Fiume, a city in northern Italy, that nowadays is part of Croatia, where he was put in charge of the department of foreigners.
When Benito Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister in 1922, the Italian fascist party was not practicing anti-Semite policies. This changed in 1938, when the government of the “Duce” gave in to the Nazi pressure and decreed a series of anti-Semite laws that included the confinement of foreign Jewish refugees in reclusion camps.
“They want to make us believe that the heart is just a muscle, to prevent us from doing what our hearts and religion tell us to do”, said Palatucci referring to these laws.
One of the largest camps was located in Campania, where Giovanni’s uncle was the Bishop.
Palatucci´s work consisted in editing the necessary residence papers requested by law for the refugees. He silently started to falsify documents and visas. When Palatucci ”officially deported” Jews, he arranged that they were sent to Campania, by telling ”his” refugees to contact his uncle, who would offer them the greatest assistance possible.
By this time Giovanni sent a setter to his parents in which he said ”I have the possibility to do something good and people is really grateful for this. As a reward for my actions, I receive their sincere gratitude.”
After Mussolini’s imprisonment in 1943, the German forces occupied northern Italy, turning the situation in Fiume of growing danger for Palatucci and deadly for 3,500 Jews who were there.
In February 1943, Palatucci became the Fiume chief of police and thus he was able to continue his secret work. Instead of giving the Germans information about ”foreigners” to be deported, he destroyed the files. When he learnt about the Nazi plans, he warned people in time, most of the times providing them with false documents and money to run away.
In June 1943, High German officers inspected Giovanni’s department, looking for information about Jewish residents but the only list they could find belonged to people who had left Italy long ago. From that moment onwards, the relation between Palatucci and his superiors became very dangerous.
A close friend, the Swiss ambassador to Trieste, offered Palatucci a safe ticket to Switzerland. He accepted his friend’s generous offer but he sent his fiancée, a young Jewish lady, instead. There, she spent the war and nowadays she lives in Israel.
On September 13, 1944 Giovanni Palatucci was arrested by the Gestapo, accused with conspiracy and sent to the Trieste Prison, where he was condemned to death. However, his sentence was commuted and on October 22 he was transferred to the extermination camp of Dachau. His prisoner number was 117.826.
He died on February 10, 1945, weeks before it was released by the allies on April 29, 1945. Some say that he died of malnutrition and others declared that he was shot. He was only 36 years old.
On October 2002, the Pope’s vicar in Rome, Father Gianfranco Zuncheddu, opened the cause of Palatucci´s beatification. The process took place in Rome because most of the documents related to Palatucci are in the Ministry of Interior and many of the witnesses are Italians.
“He was interested in marginalized people, political refugees, Jews, everyone”, Father Zuncheddu explained, also police chaplain.
Giovanni Palatucci “went beyond command: he loved his neighbor more than himself”, survivor Roszi Neumann said before the commission that started the cause of beatification.
The police department has carried out most of the historical research for the cause of beatification. According to Father Albero Alberti, police chaplain and national coordinator for the spiritual care of the Italian police personnel, ”An association was formed around Palatucci´s by his friends and former policemen.”
When the RAI TV show “Senza confini” was presented, with some scenes filmed at the Rome Superior Institute of Police Department, important directors of the TV station, as well as the Chief Rabbi of Rome Elio Toaff and Amos Luzzatto, president of the Group of Italian Jewish Communities were present.
”There are two kind of heroism, the one that arises from a unexpected need or impulse, and Palatucci´s: an everyday heroism, that repeats and confirms itself to the certainty of danger to which it risks. The chief of police could not have ignored the risk and: he was too involved in the security mechanism not to realize. He acted knowing that he was heading to his own sacrifice; for him, it was a merit to give his life for just one man”, Luzzatto said.
In 1953, the city of Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, paid honor to Palatucci by giving his name to a street. During the occasion 36 trees were planted, one for each year of Giovanni’s life.
On April 17, 1955, the Group of Italian Jewish Communities posthumously awarded Palatucci with a gold medal.
His family worked through the years to keep his story alive.
Michele Bianco and Antonio De Simone Palatucci wrote the book “Giovanni Palatucci, Un olocausto nella Shoáh”.
In many Italian cities, among them Milan, Turin, Salerno, Trieste, Avellino and Rome, squares and public promenades carry the name of Giovanni Palatucci.
* Baruch Tenembaum is Founder of The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation