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"There are days when it is right that the present and the past come together"

University of Pisa Rector's speech for the 20 September "Ceremony of memory and apology"

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There are days when it is right that the present and the past come together. We wanted this day to be one of these.

Right here, many years ago, something happened that should never have happened. We want to remember it. Starting from here, many lives were suspended, disrupted, destroyed. We will tell you about those lives and about what happened. Somewhere else as well, or to someone else, or before, or after. Hoping that this will never happen again.


In 1938, Fascism passed the Jews persecution laws, and the obedient state bureaucracy acted surprisingly efficient. With a detailed form - family tree, kinship, address, properties, and bank accounts – it proceeded to the "census" of the forty-seven thousand Italian Jews and more than ten thousand foreign Jews residing in Italy. The lists were then kept updated, so that five years later, in 1943, the Nazi occupiers with the zealous help of the officials of the Republic of Salò, could go out on point, deporting more than eight thousand Jews and killing seven thousand - one hundred and seventy-two of them.
Seven thousand- one hundred and seventy-two.



Eighty years ago, just a stone's throw from us, on San Rossore royal estate - the habitual summer residence of the House of Savoy – King Vittorio Emanuele III signed the first anti-Semitic measure ordered by the Fascist regime. It was the Royal Decree no 1390. Seven short articles only.

With the phrase "suspended from duty", Jewish professors, assistant teachers, lecturers, in short the entire Jewish teaching staff, were expelled from the universities along with students, deans, teachers in all the "schools of the kingdom". Moreover, Jewish students' enrolment in the new academic year was precluded, and so would be for the following six years.

The "Provisions for the defence of the race in the fascist school" hit those sectors that more than any other make a country free: training, education and research.
The anti-Jewish policy pursued by fascism in Italian schools and universities was even more drastic than the measures Hitler took in Germany and the Vichy government in France. All the Italian universities rectors applied that decree without any exception: they obeyed.

The result for the entire university system was that four hundred and forty-four Jewish teachers were removed from universities and seven hundred and twenty-seven scholars were expelled from academies, research institutes, and cultural institutions.

In the secondary education system, two hundred and seventy-nine deans and professors were affected, along with many primary school teachers, whose number remains unspecified to this day. One hundred and fourteen Jewish authors of textbooks were also banned. As far as we can assume, more than six- thousand Jewish children were excluded, from primary to high school.

800px ToaffThe share of Jewish Italian university students remains, however, still undetermined. Being the enrolment of approximately eight hundred/ one thousand Jewish students banned, the pursuance of the studies was tolerated only for those already attending the second year. Despite a troubled path, this allowed Elio Toaff (right in the picture) to graduate here in Pisa. Jewish students, however, were no more supported with scholarships, grants, or tuition exemption.

After their census in February 1938, foreign Jewish students were themselves subject to a dramatic crackdown that affected an essential component of the international dimension of Italian universities during the 1930s.

The University of Pisa was the busiest in Italy, right after the University of Bologna: almost two- thousand students were attending at that time; three hundred and ninety of each were foreigners including two hundred and ninety Jews. Despite the feeble possibility of completing their studies elsewhere, all the excluded students left Italy, along with the majority of foreign students.

Today's gathering intends to take on the significance of a moral compensation on behalf of those institutions that with their obedience shared the responsibility for discrimination.

This can be considered as the origin of fascist legislation; from November 1938 on, however, it went ahead also affecting real estate and business properties, central and peripheral administration of the State, parastatal, National Works, banks and insurance companies, professions, art and itinerant trade, entertainment industry. It ended discriminating in testamentary intentions, parental authority, and protection of minors: the most ordinary aspects of everyday life. The persecution was the result both of the regime totalitarian politics and the prevalent directions of some new scientific disciplines practised and taught in the Italian and European universities. The "newest" subjects were Colonial Law, Biology of Human Races, Comparative Demography of Races, thus providing the teachers with a pretext for their obedience and cynicism towards the expulsion of their Jewish colleagues.

The racial and anti-Jewish legislation in the colonies was, therefore, also an effect of a process that severely involved universities since 1931. With their "Oath of loyalty to fascism", they had proved to be, in large part, prone to the regime up to this last unfortunate choice: they obeyed.

Mussolini's political determination obtained a scientific legitimacy also thanks to the Academy's support. On July 1938, he laid down the "Manifesto of racist scientists". The purge involved a significant part of the teachers, with severe losses in the fields of medicine, mathematical, physical and chemical sciences, and significant losses in the humanistic ones.


Allow me now a word about the history of my university, which we could study in deep, only to make a better sense of it all.

EcalabresiOn September 24 1938, our rector Giovanni D’Achiardi obeyed and sent to the ministry the list of the teachers bound to suspension. Those in charge were five full professors, all belonging to scientific faculties: the physicians Enrico Emilio Franco, Attilio Gentili and Cesare Sacerdoti; the physicist Giulio Racah; the agronomist Ciro Ravenna. To these, eight adjunct teachers were added: the entomologist Enrica Calabresi (left in the picture); the physicist Leonardo Cassuto; the physicians Aldo Bolaffi, Salvatore De Benedetti, Roberto Funaro, Emanuele Hajon Mondolfo, Raffaello Menasci and Bruno Paggi. The assistants suspended were the physicians Giorgio Millul, Naftoli Emdin, Aldo Lopez, Renzo Toaff; the chemist Pietro De Cori; the jurist Renzo Bolaffi and the German-language lecturer Paul Oskar Kristeller. The total loss for our university staff was, therefore, twenty people; this did not raise in their colleagues any stance, any indignation, and least of all any public outcry. Obedience prevailed.
We can put a name on each one of the teachers expelled from the University of Pisa, but we cannot for the Jewish students who were banned from enrolment for seven years.

Instead, we know and can give a name and a face to all the Jewish refugee students who could not revalidate their enrolment, thus paying a high price because of their double condition. Their persecution began in April, before the start of anti-Semitic legislation. The documentation retained in the Historical Archive of our University, is fierce.

Their escape for hope, in search for a longer, ensured right to study, led a substantial part of Jewish European student emigration to our university.

The new rector Evaristo Breccia, in his inaugural address for the academic year 1939-1940, tackled the subject obediently resorting to the abused rhetoric of the regenerating recover of vacancies.
«The number of students enrolled in our faculties - stated Breccia – has considerably decreased in the last year, due to the departure, yet not deplorable, of a few hundred foreigners who were welcome guests, but who did not contribute in any way to increase the prestige of our school, nor to increase the level of teaching. I am pleased to announce that this void is rapidly filling with domestic elements."

After their expulsion from the University of Pisa, the fate of these hundreds of students, whose rights were all cut off, remained unknown.

On the contrary, it is well known, even if partially, the fate of the twenty expelled teachers. We know that after the persecutions and the war, only five of them could return: Bolaffi, Lopez, Mìllul, Paggi and Gentili, although with his own separate story.

The physicist Giulio Racah, the physicians Enrico Emilio Franco and Renzo Toaff voluntarily decided not to return to Italy. For others, the return was not possible.

The fascists arrested the entomologist Enrica Calabresi, in Florence in 1944. She was doomed to Auschwitz, but in the Santa Verdiana prison, on the 20th of January, she swallowed a vial of phosphorus zinc she had been carrying with her for a long time. It is strange to think that today in the animal world some creatures are bearing her name.

On October 16, 1943, the physician Raffaello Menasci was arrested in Rome during the raid in the Ghetto. Two days later, he was deported to Auschwitz.

ravenna ciroThe chemist Ciro Ravenna was arrested in his hometown, Ferrara, on November 15, 1943; after being detained in the concentration camp of Fossoli, he was deported to Auschwitz on 22 February where he was killed upon arrival.


Aiming to raise the remembrance in a remedial act, today 20 September 2018, the University of Pisa takes the words that Naftoli Vulfovic Emdin wrote after the expulsion in 1938, to his sons Ruben and Rafael, also expelled from high school:

«My dearest children, I write you because I understand how in your minds, still young and fresh, and not used to a broader and calmer vision of human issues, the events of these last days may have brought certain bewilderment (...). I do not wish (...) this anguish would leave in you that sense of inferiority (...) that could jeopardise the correctness and straightness of your journey on that path of life that has always been difficult for us (…).
It will, therefore, be useless to discuss the so-called theories we have read (...), useless to look for the proof that we are of the same race as our other neighbours (...); useless to glue our brains to see if we are Europeans like others or if others are more Asian than we are - everything that is written and written about it is not science, but a political guidance (...) ».
Only by raising in our hearts the flame of dignity, just by looking right into the eyes those who are trying to scorn us, we will be able to instil in others the respect for ourselves (...) ».
We had to use the word apology merely to make our intention clear; it is an eloquent word but, at the same time, inappropriate and inadequate.

In fact, what gives us, me, the right to pronounce today such clear and resolute words, as it would be necessary for the purpose of moral and civil reparation. Nothing does, nobody does. What I really think is that today we feel under the obligation to do it though not having the right. The very long time passed, gives us an advantage, not a right. Today we no longer take hold of the reasons of state, corporations, career, quiet living, or mutual indulgence; at the time of the Liberation from fascism, those reasons prevented to join the reintegration of teachers and scholars chased by Italian universities and the explicit acknowledgement of the mad iniquity that had offended them.
Too easy then to apologise. Nevertheless, today we must have the strength to never obey, to never obscure our mind to yield to new unfair reasons - of state, corporations, career, quiet living, or mutual indulgence.
From an apology then, we have to begin. For the communities, and even for the institutions, something can and should exist that has the same civil value as a plea for forgiveness addressed to individuals or to faith communities. It did not occur in those days. Actually, the complete opposite occurred: that those that suffered racist persecution were then reintegrated although postponed to other categories. It happened to distinguished teachers, to be resettled in the chairs from which they had been expelled, but only as assistants and subordinates of their "successors".

Besides, yes, there were personal expressions, even numerous, even public, heartfelt and moving. Nevertheless, it never took place a collective, institutional demonstration of consciousness of the shame. If so, it would not make sense the intent that is gathering us here today, finally looking into each other’s eyes.

costituzione italianaWe must say that there was an acknowledgement actually, the most solemn one, and it came from the Italian Constitution: here the word "race" was used for the last time. A merit of the Italian Charter. Just a quotation, from a language from now on unutterable: "All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions".

This year, the last 13th July, the French National Assembly unanimously suppressed the word "race", from the first Article of its Basic Law. A word which the most reliable and brilliant etymology was established by Gianfranco Contini, another great Italian, a teacher at our university, when he wrote that it had a "zoological, veterinary, equine origin."

In order to recall the story of the expelled Jews return, of the compromises, the cowardly, the come and go of purges and rehabilitation, it is worthwhile to quote a simple sentence where the philologist Cesare Segre describes the bitterness experienced by his great uncle, Santorre Debenedetti, from his "reconquered" chair in Turin :
"He could not get along with a world that came out of the shame without blushing.”

That is, Italy was trying to come out of the shame without blushing and tried harder right where sacred justice and freedom should have to be, the academic world.
Precisely, to take on our shoulders today the burden of that missing blushing cannot bet enough. It is only a part of the whole, the most blatant. I cannot escape the question that each one of us is wandering while tracing back the history of Italian Fascism. The question that, let me guess, is deep inside each and every one: "What would I have done then? Would I have obeyed?" A question left without an answer. A question, nevertheless, that is essential to prevent hypocrisy and coward prevarication. A question that is worthwhile to reintroduce nowadays, just changing the verbal tense: "What would I do in a similar circumstance? Would I obey?"


Last July I read a sentence that a Bosnian Serb blogger wrote for the Srebrenica massacre anniversary, another horrible example of hatred for those that some ways are different (because it is this what we are talking about, let's remember it).
He says, "Evil does not need evil people, it needs obedient people".

It immediately evoked another sentence written by a man to whom my personal training owes a lot, an Italian - born Jew, moreover - then priest and prior in Barbiana: "Obedience is no longer a virtue"; you do remember it, don’t you?

Should the morality of the students and teachers who then suffered injustice, guide us through the memory, the repair, the reconstruction of those civic virtues that today appear necessary to struggle against every kind of discrimination, including the present ones. We must never again obey blind intentions that trample our senses and nullify the dignity of man.

Was it therefore for us to compensate? I cannot say. There is only one thing I know, of which I have certainty: we are those who came here after those blinded ones that hurt your mothers and your fathers. This is why we have felt we owe you this acknowledgement.

Paolo Mancarella
Rector of the University of Pisa

  • 20 September 2018

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