Nice, France: A Great Escape, then and now
By JOSEPH LIEBERMAN, Contributing Editor
article created on: 2011-08-01T00:00:00
Sunny skies, balmy weather and sparkling Mediterranean beaches make Nice a great escape for tourists visiting the south of France. It was escape of another kind, however, that was desperately needed by the Jews of Nice when Nazi forces took over the town in 1943.
The saga of that only partially successful escape is one of the most highly dramatic, yet lesser known, footnotes to the Holocaust. The hero of this affair was a Jewish-Italian banker named Angelo Donati, whose roots in Modena stretched back to the 16th century. How he happened to be in Nice—just the right person at a crucial time—is as convoluted as the politics of Donati’s era.
First, consider that, come 2011, the unified nation of Italy will have been in existence for only 150 years. Prior to that, and since the collapse of the Roman Empire, it was a loose confederation of sometimes warring city-states and Papal territories, often dominated by, or in alliance with, foreign rulers. Giuseppe Garibaldi, called the “father” of modern Italian unification, was born in Nice in 1807, when the city still lay within the borders of Napoleon’s empire. Later, Nice became part of an Italian kingdom, but it kept bouncing back and forth, until it finally became permanently French in 1860.
The French are quite happy that it did. Nice is the second most visited city in their nation, after Paris. Long before France or Italy existed, however, there were other primitive settlements here, as far back as 400,000 years ago. With its busy harbor and access to Mediterranean trade routes, it’s not surprising that small Jewish communities began to crop up in this region starting in the Roman period.
Their fortunes ebbed and flowed in accordance with the standards of tolerance or discrimination inherent in each passing generation. When war in Europe broke out in September 1939, however, Nice became a city of refuge for many Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. There seemed to be less bigotry there, and it was a convenient port for those seeking further shelter in North Africa or the Americas.
A grim clock was ticking, however. From July 1940, the Vichy Regime began extending the tentacles of fascism and anti-Semitism throughout France. On Aug. 26, 1942, more than 600 Jews of foreign origin were rounded up in Nice, imprisoned in a barracks, and deported to an internment camp. Conditions were worsening. Enter Angelo Donati.
Donati had been living in Paris, first as the manager of various French and Italian companies, then as Consul General of the Republic of San Marino, and finally as president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce, a post he had to abandon when the Vichy government took over. Like many others seeking sanctuary, he too moved to Nice, where he became director of the Franco-Italian Bank.
The bank connection gave Donati a measure of protection, but after the round-up of 1942, he could see the writing on the wall. He was heartened when Italian troops rolled in on Nov. 18, 1942, occupying several regions of France, because he knew they were far less enthusiastic about deporting Jews to “work camps.” In fact, Italian authorities assisted Donati in frustrating Nazi and Vichy attempts to eradicate the Jewish presence in Nice. The thwarted Germans complained persistently to Mussolini about this, looking for some excuse to take over the region.
Donati knew he had to act quickly. He formed a plan early in 1943 in cooperation with Guido Lospinoso, the Italian police inspector in charge of Jewish affairs, and a Capuchin friar named Maria Benedetto, to transport 30,000 Jews from the Nice region into northern Italy. That plan became more urgent after Mussolini was forced out of power by his own Fascist government on July 25, 1943. Just nine days earlier, Father Benedetto had obtained tacit approval for the Donati plan from Pope Pius XII in Rome. (His predecessor, Pope Pius XI, had declared that Mussolini was “sent by Divine Providence.”)
After Mussolini fell from grace, Donati himself met with representatives of the Italian Foreign Ministry in the Vatican. The Ministry agreed to allocate four passenger ships to transport the 30,000 French Jews plus another 20,000 from Italy onward to North Africa and Palestine, but they needed British and American approval. That approval never came.
Instead, on Sept. 8, General Eisenhower prematurely disclosed his secret armistice agreement with the Italian government—news that wasn’t supposed to be publicly released for weeks. That announcement ruined any chance the Italians—or Jews—had to prepare their defenses against German reprisals. Donati himself couldn’t return to Nice (where the Gestapo awaited), so he fled to Switzerland to continue rescue operations.
Despite this huge setback, it’s estimated around 2,500 Jews managed to slip away from Nice into Italy with Donati’s help. Others were not so lucky. There’s a memorial in Nice dedicated to 3,612 Jews from this area who died in Auschwitz. In a lovely Jewish cemetery on a tree-covered hill called the Colline du Chateau, two large urns by the entrance contain ashes of concentration camp victims and soap made from human bodies.
There are other touching memorials there; a boy’s tomb from the 1920s with a toy car and airplane on top, carved in stone. Most graves have photos of the deceased, some have impressive statuary and others resemble classical Greek pavilions.
From the cemetery path, panoramic views extend over the azure Bay of Angels and the older quarter of Nice, a neighborhood of small squares, outdoor cafes, open markets and yellow-ochre buildings fronted by green shutters and iron balconies.
Nice today is a city of art and light, where Jews comprise about 25,000 of the 350,000 residents. There are at least 10 synagogues. Artists Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse both lived here. The Chagall Museum, filled with brightly colored Biblical paintings, sculptures, stained glass windows, mosaics, tapestries and lithographs, is intimate and inspiring.
Life is good, but cautions remain in other parts of eastern France. In January and July of this year, gravestones were desecrated by neo-Nazis at Jewish cemeteries near Strasbourg, close to the German border. The evil is diminished, but not extinguished.