An Italian banker is the unlikely hero of a World War II tale that unravels in Nice, seeing him save the lives of many Jews.
From the 3rd to the 5th of February, the city of Nice will commemorate the dark years of World War II (1940- 1944) with the opening of the incredible exhibit on Thursday 4th of no less than 300 pieces from Charlotte Salomon’s compelling artwork, Life? Or Theatre? An Operetta. The programme also includes many conferences, films, as well as a tribute to Angelo Donati, an Italian banker who saved many Jews from Nazi persecution in the South of France between 1942 and 1943.
Born in Modena and himself of Jewish religion, Donati was Consul General of the Republica of San Marino from 1925 and 1932 before becoming president of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Paris, a position he had to leave when the German troops entered the French capital.
Angelo Donati found refuge in Nice where he succeeded in transferring 2,500 Jews in the “forced residency” of Saint-Martin-Vésubie. He soon became a legend in Nice, which was then under Mussolini’s rule, but that was not enough for him and at the beginning of 1943, he prepared an ambitious plan to send thousands more Jews to Palestine. The passports were prepared being in Rome while the American and British ambassadors to the Vatican were working on the feasibility of the operation.
Unfortunately, on the 8th of September of that year, Italy surrendered and the Germans moved into Nice. Two days later, Nazi war criminal Alois Brunner, a top aide to Adolf Eichmann, strategically set up his headquarters at the Excelsior, and immediately started organizing some of the war’s most violent raids against the Jews. Teams of SS officers were routinely sent down the streets of the city to snatch off the sidewalks any persons that looked “Jewish”. The concepts of nationality or mixed marriages, the age of children, or the infirmity of some no longer meant anything, and the simple fact of being circumcised was enough to be arrested.
Donati was thus never able to carry on his plan and until his death, he refused to be called a hero. He nonetheless received many thank you letters from people he had saved and was nicknamed the Jewish Pope.
However, it is never to late to express one’s gratitude, and a ceremony in his honor will be held on the 3rd of February at 7pm at the Main Synagogue in Nice (7, rue Gustave Deloye), and on the following day a commemorative plaque will be unveiled on the Promenade des Anglais.
Lead image MSacerdoti – Own work, Public Domain; photo of plaque © Florence Dubosc
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