06 June 2011

A 1940 “fait divers” in Fascist Italy

Dateline 1940.

Two years have elapsed since the Fascist Government of Benito Mussolini enacted anti-Jewish laws, inspired by the infamous 1935 Nürnberg Laws in Nazi Germany and a forerunner of the Fall 1940 anti-Jewish edicts in Vichy France.

Although this arduous period of Italian history has not received the full treatment that it deserves, when compared to its neighbors to the North, Jews--and especially foreign-born Jews who had escaped to Italy--were transformed overnight into second-class citizens whose rights were being reduced to nil across the Italian boot.

And so it was that a Hungarian-born Jew, Vittorio Földes fu Martino, living in Vicenza, approached a Munich-born German hotel owner who managed a pensione in Fiume, to sell him a 15th century miniature signed L.C., executed in the style of Lukas Cranach, and which portrayed the head of Saint John.

The German owner of the pensione called upon a friend of his, Emil Starle (or Stark), who was then the director of a Dürer Museum in Nürnberg (Norimberga). Mr. Földes probably should not have trusted these two men, but when you are in desperate search of money to help you survive, your capacity to doubt the sincerity of others might be trumped by your need for resources with which to survive. In other words, Mr. Földes was ripe for a duress sale. He left the painting with the hotel owner from Munich.

He was told to come back the following day. When he did, there was no one to greet him and to provide him with the funds that he needed in exchange for his 15th century miniature painting. The two Germans had vanished.

Luckily, Mr. Földes survived the war and filed a claim in June 1945 with the Occupation Military Government in Germany (OMGUS), which forwarded his request to the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP). Not too surprisingly, the work was not found. However, he did encourage his American interlocutors to go knocking on the door of the Dürer Museum in Nürnberg and see if his portrait of Saint John had ended up there.

Although we do not know the outcome of this all too familiar story of theft, Mr. Földes is convinced that he was fleeced because he is a Jew who sought help in Fascist Italy.  One should wonder how many stories like Mr. Földes’ occurred in Italy between the enactment of the anti-Semitic legislation in 1938 and the invasion of Italy by Nazi Germany in 1943.

How much attention did postwar Italian authorities pay to these crimes which were not committed by German troops, or the SS, or the Gestapo, but by German citizens who felt that they could act in impunity on Italian soil under cover of the anti-Semitic laws?

Has anyone cared to ask?