“My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes” is a moving documentary that tells of people in Italy during the Nazi occupation and Mussolini regime who, at great risk, helped Jews escape or offered them sanctuary. As a result of these efforts, 80% of the Jews in Italy survived the war.
Much of the film, by Oscar nominee Oren Jacoby, is in Italian with English subtitles, but narration in English is provided by actress Isabella Rossellini. One of the film’s main stories is of Italian Tour de France winner, Gino Bartali, and quotes from his biography are read by Robert Loggia from the English translation.
Bartali is credited with saving 800 Jewish lives through delivering phony documents as he bicycled across Italy, pretending to only be training. He is quoted as saying, “This is a war without reason, without honor.” At the same time that he won the Tour de France, which was a source of great pride for Mussolini and Italy, the regime declared that “Jews do not belong to the Italian race.”
Since Bartali did not support the Fascist government, he ended up insulting Il Duce (Mussolini), and the party began a campaign against him. As interviews in the film with his son attest, Bartali was a modest man who had no interest in bragging about what he did. It was a long time before he disclosed any of it.
Another key story in the film is about an ingenious doctor, who hid Jews in his hospital, pretending that they were patients with a highly contagious disease that the Nazis were frightened of contracting.
Some of the film’s interviews with survivors are harrowing, as you would expect, and several of them break down as they recall what they endured, including the loss of family members. One man says that many Italians were paid 5,000 lire for every Jew they turned in to the Nazis. Each of those Jews was then taken to the concentration camps to die.
As we are in a period of much religious intolerance today, I found some of the stories in the film particularly moving, such as one about nuns who cared for Jewish children and, rather than force Catholicism on them, maintained absolute respect for Judaism. We can learn a lot from the courage and sacrifice of the people depicted in this film.
“My Italian Secret” opens this weekend, March 27, 2015, in New York and Los Angeles.