Through a series of coincidences and a lot of curiosity, Elizabeth Bettina, author of It Happened in Italy, discovered that Italy, ally to Hitler's Germany, also contained concentration camps in which Jews were interned. Though she had summered with her Italian grandparents for years growing up, it took a random photo showing a Jewish rabbi alongside a Catholic priest on the steps of a convent during World War II to spark Bettina's imagination: What was a rabbi doing in Italy during the war? What was a Catholic priest doing, smiling alongside him? Thus was born a journey that would take Bettina into Italy's past and forge friendships that would celebrate a shared heritage.
Elizabeth Bettina's discovery that Italy had concentration camps near her grandparents' hometown fueled her desire to get to know some of the Jews who lived in them, and through her research, she came to know several of the survivors quite well. Italy, though one of the Axis powers, did not persecute the Jews in the camps like the Germans did; many of the Jews were allowed to visit interned family and to even walk around the villages during the day. As Bettina further delved into the story, she came to realize that it was the decision of most of the Jews to move to Italy as the war began that actually saved their lives; their treatment was much gentler, and the local Italians not only helped them, they hid them when necessary. Bettina eventually brought the survivors to the notice of the Catholic church,which had sheltered and helped many of them, and was instrumental in having them visit with several high-ranking officials at the Vatican, including Pope Benedict. She escorted several of the survivors on trips back to the camps; her experiences often border on the fantastic when connections are made from random remarks and old photographs.
Elizabeth Bettina's book sheds important light on a facet of World War II history that is often overlooked. I personally had not realized that Italy housed concentration camps, but I was immensely relieved to realize that, as one survivor said, there were good people alive in bad times. Bettina's writing style is a bit repetitve at times, and though I truly believe she loves the survivors and their stories, she does make sure to give herself credit for their recognition. But honestly that is a minor fault in a well-told story that found me learning so much about an area I previously knew nothing about. I can recommend this book as a great way to get to know Italy's role in the Holocaust; the survivors' stories will make you realize how much they lived through and triumphed over.