Ettore Ovazza and Benito Mussolini
Ettore Ovazza was one of three brothers born into a wealthy and influential family in Turin. The Ovazza were one of Italy’s leading banking families with all the privilege and power that comes with it.
Ettore was born in 1892 and grew up with everything early 20th century Italy had to give. He wanted for nothing.
The Ovazza were Jewish. At the time Jews living in Italy were the most assimilated in Europe. Of course there were few of them – perhaps 0.01% of the population in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Italian Jews benefitted from the absence of legal and social disadvantages that existed elsewhere. They spoke Italian or the local dialect rather than the Yiddish or Ladino that many of their European coreligionists spoke. They were engaged in politics, served at high rates in the military, and found success in every skilled profession. However, this was a relatively new position for the Italian Jews. Italy was one of the last countries in Europe to eliminate the ghetto with the liberation of Rome in 1870 during the Italian unification movement. In many Italian cities, the ghetto had been restored even after Napoleon had knocked down its walls.
Cecil Roth, author of “History of the Jews of Italy,” also described the nation as very accepting. “After 1870, there was no land in either hemisphere where conditions were or could be better. It was not only that disabilities were removed, as happened elsewhere too during these momentous years, but that the Jews were accepted freely, naturally and spontaneously as members of the Italian people, on a perfect footing of equality with their neighbors.”
In 1910, Luigi Luzzatti, a Venetian Jew, became prime minister of Italy.
On the outbreak of the First World War the three Ovazza brothers and their father joined the Italian army and served in the Alps against Austria. They went through defeat at Caporetto and victory at Veneto. There were fifty Jewish generals in the Italian army in World War 1 and Jews served in numbers far outweighing their percentage in the population.
Italian Jews intermarried with non-Jews in far higher numbers than in other European countries – . According to the 1938 census, of married couples involving Jews, only 56.3 percent were both Jewish; the other 43.7 percent were mixed. In Germany, that number was 11%.
The fervent patriotism of Ettore Ovazza and his position in banking gave him great cause for concern in the early 1920s – the “Red Years”. Socialists, particularly in Turin were on strikes, occupation of factories, demonstrations. Land seizures by peasant cooperatives in the rural areas were driving the ownership classes into the cities for safety.
Ettore became a Fascist from day one – to save Italy from the scourge of Bolshevism. He supported Mussolini and the black shirt gangs with his checkbook. He adored Mussolini. He implored Italian Jews to continue their patriotism He founded the newspaper “La nostra bandiera” (Our Flag) reminding Italians of the Jewish sacrifice for Italy in the Great War and attacking the idea that all Jews were Zionists.
Ettore took part in the March on Rome in October 1922; in 1929 he was invited to meet Mussolini as a part of a delegation of Jewish war veterans. He later described the encounter: “On hearing my affirmation of the unshakeable loyalty of Italian Jews to the Fatherland, His Excellency Mussolini looks me straight in the eye and says with a voice that penetrates straight to my heart: ‘I have never doubted it’. When Il Duce bids us farewell with a Roman salute, I feel an urge to embrace him, as a fascist, as an Italian, but I can’t; and approaching him at his desk I say: ‘Excellency, I would like to shake your hand’. It is not a fascist gesture, but it is a cry from the heart… Such is The Man that Providence has given to Italy”.
As Hitler’s influence over Mussolini and Italy increased, Fascist attitudes towards Italy’s Jews began to change. In 1938 the Fascists passed the anti-semitic law which would now govern Italy’s Jews.
The Ovazza family were hit hard by the new law. Jews were no longer allowed to marry non-Jewish Italians, to send their children to state schools, to employ Italian servants or be in the army. Much more damaging were the rules that stated they could not employ over 100 people, or own valuable land or buildings. In 1939 Jews were banned from all skilled jobs; shops and cafés displayed signs saying that Jews were no longer welcome. Jewish organizations were disbanded and many Jews converted to Catholicism or emigrated abroad. This put an end to the Ovazza business and banking operations. Ettore Ovazza was expelled from the Fascist party and his brother from the military.
Ettore’s two brothers left Italy and advised him to do the same.
He was reluctant to leave the country, hoping that the Duce would alter his views. He wrote an anguished letter to Mussolini, expressing his pain: “Was it all a dream we nurtured? I can’t believe it. I cannot consider changing religion, because this would be a betrayal – and we are fascists. And so? I turn to You – DUCE – so that in this period, so important for our revolution, you do not exclude that healthy Italian part from the destiny of our Nation.”
Italy’s Jewish Fascists truly believed that their unwavering support of the regime, their patriotism, their love of country would determine Mussolini’s attitude and treatment of Italy’s Jews.
Mussolini ignored him. The Duce, on the wrong side of history, would be ousted from power in Italy and then from his puppet government in the north. The Germans came.
After the fall of the dictatorship, Ettore Ovazza fled with his wife and children toward the Swiss border. He took several rooms at a hotel nearby and sent his son ahead first with a hired “guide”. His son never made it to Switzerland.
While having dinner in a restaurant two S.S. officers approached his table and told him his son was captured trying to cross the border. He had already been murdered by the S.S. Ettore and the rest of his family were taken prisoner and, in spite of his unwavering support of the Fascist regime, he and his family were murdered and their bodies burned in a stove in the basement of a school. His loyalty to Fascism and Mussolini did him no good. Money and jewelry he was carrying with him was never found.
He was 51 years old.
Obersturmfuehrer Gottfried Meir of the “Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler” was charged with Ovazza’s murder, tried in Austria after the war and acquitted, although two of his subordinates who had died were convicted. An Italian court in Turin convicted Meir in absencia although Austria would never extradite him to Italy. He lived out his years undisturbed as Headmaster of a girls school until he died in 1970. Another war criminal died peacefully in his bed.