World War II weighs heavily on the minds of Neapolitans even today. Whether they remember hiding in the Naples underground caverns or relate stories of their parents and grandparents eating only potato peels due to extreme shortages, vestiges of this stark moment in Italian history remain. In Campagna, a small town in the Province of Salerno, inhabitants played a rebellious, yet compassionate role in Italian history.
Elizabetta Bettina, author of It Happened in Italy, is a native New Yorker, who spent many summers of her teenage years with her grandmother in Campagna. She had heard references to a few Jews hidden in the surrounding mountains and she began to piece together the part this town played in the story of Jews interned in Italy during WWII.
During the war, the old Convento di San Bartolomeo was overseen by Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci. His nephew, Giovanni Palatucci was working in northern Italy as an Italian police officer for the Mussolini government. His job was to process foreign residents in Italy. Taking advantage of his position in the government, he worked to enable people to leave Italy with false documents, or, if he couldn’t, arranged to send them to his uncle in Campagna. Many Jews survived thanks to the Convento di San Bartolomeo, located up a slope too steep for motorized vehicles and backing into a cliff. The ruggedness of the area made the site advantageous for hiding.
Subsequently, Campo di San Bartolomeo acted as a detainment camp for displaced persons, where Jews and other internees were allowed to organize a library, school, theater, synagogue, and their own newsletter. Time might have been spent playing cards or reading. A team also played local soccer. Families that had been separated were frequently reunited here. In some areas where camps did not exist, apartments were provided and Italian rations granted.
Campo di San Bartolomeo was an (internment that was free). Because of the convent’s confined space, internees were allowed to leave, but had to stay in town, signing in at the police office daily. Carabinieri permission was needed if one wanted to leave for the day.
After September 8, 1943 everything changed for the Jews in the camp. Italy stopped fighting on the side of the Germans and joined the Allies. The Germans remained in Italy and began to hunt for the Jews that the Italians would not deport.Entering Campagna that September, officers intended to move the Jews to extermination camps in Germany. They informed those in charge that they intended to come the next day for the Jews. The internees, however, exited a window that night and fled into the local mountains. They disappeared only to the Germans; the Italians continued to care for those in hiding. The Campo di San Bartolomeo remained in operation until September of 1944.
After the war, former internees contributed to the restoration of the convent. The Itinerario della Memoria e della Pace (or “Route of Memory and Peace”), in honor of the goodness of Giovanni Palatucci, was recently dedicated at the restored convent. “There was no difference between us and the Italians,” the survivor Walter Wolff said in It Happened in Italy.
After being arrested in September of 1944, the Germans sent Giovanni Palatucci to Dachau where he died on February 10th, two months before liberation. He has been called the Italian Schindler.
Getting There: Follow the autostrada A3 east, go about thirty-five kilometers past Salerno and take the exit. Follow local signs to the town. After entering Campagna, follow the signs to the parking area. Walk back to the main piazza, and across the street from the war memorial where a sign says. You will follow the main street uphill, stopping at other informational signs along the way. The route will end at the Chiesa di San Bartolomeo, where the visitor will find the final sign at the entrance to the convent and museum.
Before you visit, call Carmine Granito at 339.280.9483. He will open the museum for you. He loves to help visitors and groups understand the museum, but a knowledge of Italian will help, as he speaks little English. Most information in the museum is in English, however.