|EMSB TO RENAME WAGAR FACILITY AFTER ITALIAN HOLOCAUST HERO GIOVANNI PALATUCCI|
MONTREAL, FEBRUARY 22, 2006– The Côte Saint-Luc facility which was home to Wagar High School for 40 years and presently houses John Grant High School and the Marymount Adult Centre will be renamed the Giovanni Palatucci Educational Centre.
According to EMSB research, this will mark the first time in Canada that a public school building has been named after someone who saved lives during the Holocaust. There are a number of public schools in the United States and Europe named after Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved 10,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis.
English Montreal School Board (EMSB) Chairman Dominic Spiridigliozzi and Dr. Syd Wise, the commissioner for Côte Saint-Luc and a former Wagar principal, are spearheading this initiative which will have a significant educational component attached to it.
The EMSB plans to twin two schools, Laurier Macdonald High School in St. Léonard and Bialik High School in Côte Saint-Luc. Students from John Grant and the Marymount Adult Centre will be implicated as well. Together, they will learn about the heroics of Giovanni Palatucci and others who saved lives during the Holocaust. The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre (MHMC) has agreed to play a central role in the programming aspect. Over the last two years, the EMSB and the MHMC teamed up on a Holocaust sensitization program which brought students to the museum for visits and meetings with Holocaust survivors. This was an especially eye opening experience, particularly for the non-Jewish students. Museum visits for the EMSB students will be incorporated into this year’s project.
Plans call for the Bialik students to visit the Laurier Macdonald campus, where they will get a screening of the docu-drama Ripples in Time. This riveting 48 minute film was produced by staff and students at Laurier Macdonald as a companion to the publication of their sixth book describing the route their parents and grandparents took to come to Canada. The students will all gather at the Wagar building at a date to be determined this spring where they will view the critically acclaimed documentary Paper Clips and participate in the official renaming ceremony. Paper Clips is the moving and inspiring documentary film that captures how students from the small American town of Whitwell, Tennessee responded to lessons about the Holocaust with a promise to honor every lost soul by collecting one paper clip for each individual exterminated by the Nazis. Despite the fact that they had previously been unaware of and unfamiliar with the Holocaust, their dedication was absolute. Their plan was simple but profound. The amazing result, a memorial railcar filled with 11 million paper clips (representing six million Jews and five million gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of the Holocaust) which stands permanently in their schoolyard, is an unforgettable lesson of how a committed group of children and educators can change the world one classroom at a time.
Dr. Wise said this will be particularly fitting because many of the participating Bialik students will have just returned from the March of the Living, a program which brings thousands of young Jewish high schoolers from around the world to Poland where they visit the former Nazi death camps and then to Israel.
"By recognizing the heroism of Giovanni Palatucci we will also be honouring the bravery of countless men and women," said Dr. Wise. "We are also honouring the memory of the millions of victims who perished in the Holocaust and to the victims of hatred in places like Nanking, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Western Sudan and the tragedy of the Armenians. It is for this reason that we are establishing an educational component to this renaming to show our students what prejudice and hatemongering are and the results they have had in the 20th century alone."
Dr. Wise says that his wish is to illustrate the important role so many brave non-Jews played in saving lives during the Holocaust, which is why the name Giovanni Palatucci was chosen. Between 1938 and 1944, he was in charge of the Foreigners Office and later Chief of Police in the city of Fiume, located in northern Italy. He is credited with saving the lives of 5,000 Jews destined to die in the extermination camps. Following the promulgation of racist laws in Italy, he began forging documents and visas for thousands of Jews, sending them to internment camps, "protected" with the added help of his uncle, the Bishop of Campania. Following the 1943 capitulation of Italy, Fiume was occupied by the Nazis. Palatucci remained as head of the police administration without real powers. He continued to clandestinely help Jews and maintain contact with the Resistance, until his activities were discovered by the Gestapo. The Swiss Consul to Trieste, a close friend of his, offered him a safe pass to Switzerland, but Palatucci sent his young Jewish fiancée instead. Palatucci was arrested on September 13, 1944. He was condemned to death, but the sentence was later commuted to deportation to Dachau, where he died in February 1945.
Palatucci was officially honoured by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 1990. He grew up in a family of theologians. Two uncles, heads of Franciscan monasteries in Puglia and Naples, were important role models in his youth. But it was another uncle, Giuseppe Maria Palatucci, the Bishop of Campania, who would help Giovanni free Jews from northern Italy, occupied by the Nazis, sending them to the safe zones of the south. Once Giovanni finished his basic studies and the military service, he went to the Turin University, where he graduated in laws in 1932. In 1935, he became an attorney and shortly afterwards, he went to Rome, where he took a course that would qualify him as inspector at the ministry of public administration. In 1937, he was sent to Fiume, which is now part of Croatia, where he was put in charge of the department of foreigners.
When Benito Mussolini was appointed Prime Minister in 1922, the Italian Fascist Party was not practicing anti-Semitic policies. This changed in 1938, when the government of "Il Duce" gave in to Nazi pressure and decreed a series of anti-Semitic laws that included the confinement of foreign Jewish refugees in reclusion camps.
"They want to make us believe that the heart is just a muscle, to prevent us from doing what our hearts and religion tell us to do", said Palatucci referring to these laws.
One of the largest camps was located in Campania, where Giovanni’s uncle was the Bishop. Palatucci’s work consisted in editing the necessary residence papers requested by law for the refugees. He silently started to falsify documents and visas. When Palatucci "officially deported" Jews, he arranged that they were sent to Campania, by telling "his" refugees to contact his uncle, who would offer them the greatest assistance possible.
By this time Giovanni sent a setter to his parents in which he said "I have the possibility to do something good and people is really grateful for this. As a reward for my actions, I receive their sincere gratitude."
After Mussolini’s imprisonment in 1943, the German forces occupied northern Italy, turning the situation in Fiume of growing danger for Palatucci and deadly for the 3,500 Jews who were there.
In February 1943, Palatucci became the Fiume chief of police and thus he was able to continue his secret work. Instead of giving the Germans information about "foreigners" to be deported, he destroyed the files. When he learnt about the Nazi plans, he warned people in time, most of the time providing them with false documents and money to run away.
In June 1943, high level German officers inspected Giovanni’s department, looking for information about Jewish residents, but the only list they could find belonged to people who had left Italy long ago. From that moment onwards, the relation between Palatucci and his superiors became very dangerous.
A close friend, the Swiss ambassador to Trieste, offered Palatucci a safe ticket to Switzerland. He accepted his friend’s generous offer but he sent his fiancée, a young Jewish lady, instead. She spent the rest of the war there and nowadays lives in Israel.
On September 13, 1944, Giovanni Palatucci was arrested by the Gestapo, accused of conspiracy and was sent to the Trieste Prison, where he was condemned to death. However, his sentence was commuted and on October 22, he was transferred to the extermination camp of Dachau. His prisoner number was 117.826.
He died there on February 10, 1945, weeks before it was liberated by the Allies. Some say that he died of malnutrition and others declared that he was shot. He was only 36 years old.
On October 2002, the Pope’s vicar in Rome, Father Gianfranco Zuncheddu, opened the case for Palatucci’s beatification. The process took place in Rome, because most of the documents related to Palatucci are in the Ministry of the Interior and many of the witnesses are Italians.
In 1953, the city of Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, paid hommage to Palatucci by giving his name to a street. During the occasion, 36 trees were planted, one for each year of Giovanni’s life. On April 17, 1955, the Group of Italian Jewish Communities posthumously awarded Palatucci with a gold medal. His family worked through the years to keep his story alive.
Michael J. Cohen