My Italian Secret: 'A story of devotion to one's fellow man'

If history is not told or forgotten, its power to educate is lost. So when Joseph R. Perella ’64 ’06H heard about the unknown story of Italians risking their lives to rescue Jews and other refugees during World War II, he knew it had to be shared on a grand scale.

On Thursday, Oct. 22, the documentary My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes was shown in Lehigh University’s Zoellner Arts Center to a packed crowd of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and members of the community. A panel discussion followed.

The powerful 90-minute film chronicles true stories from Elizabeth Bettina’s book, It Happened in Italy, about the bravery and acts that Italians, “from high officials to simple people,” performed during one of the darkest periods in the civilized world. 

“When you ask people what they know about Italians, they answer ‘Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci, and Christopher Columbus’,” said Perella, who is the film’s executive producer and founding partner and chairman of Perella Weinberg Partners, a global advisory and asset management firm. “Nobody knows that Italians were exemplary against the most evil people of the last century.”

Lehigh University President John Simon, who welcomed the Baker Hall audience and introduced Perella as a financier, philanthropist, devoted alumnus, and dedicated Lehigh trustee, said, “What we can learn from the documentary is not only historical significance, but what we can learn from it today. It is a story of devotion to one’s fellow man.”

During his opening remarks, Perella spoke about the current challenges that we face in making a decision at a moral crossroads like the Italians, and said, “If you are not indifferent when faced with something wrong, evil, different, or even inhuman, you can make a difference.”

A Wealth of Stories

Vince Marmorale, president of Italy and the Holocaust Foundation and a vital resource in providing Bettina with valuable historical knowledge, said, “This is a role model story. Thousands of people had the courage to care. Thousands of people risked their lives.”

He continued to say that no one let the secret out that Jews were hidden all over the country in people’s homes. The Italian military consciously stopped Jewish deportation and would tip off Jews to escape before the Germans arrived to force them to concentration camps.

“If one person had told that Jews were there, the whole town would be destroyed,” said Marmorale.

Fascinating stories in the film include Dr. Giovanni Borremo’s creation of the fake “Disease K” to keep the SS from entering a hospital where more than 1,000 Jews were hidden. When SS officers would demand entry, Borremo would tell them the disease was very contagious and would cause brain damage and paralysis.

Champion road cyclist Gino Bartali, Europe’s top sports idol at the time, risked his life transporting fake identification documents from city to city in his bicycle frame while the Nazis watched him ride through the countryside “in training.”

Bartali, who received the Medal of Valor for his bravery, kept his secret for decades and only told his son what he did in later years saying that if you talk, you are taking advantage of other people’s misfortunes. Bartali, who won the Giro d'Italia bicycling race three times (1936, 1937, 1946) and the Tour de France twice in 1938 and 1948, was quoted as saying, “Some medals are not to be worn on your shirt, but on your soul.” 

Fate Took Over

Perella said that the events that led to the making of the documentary were serendipitous. His interest about the subject was first piqued more than two decades ago when he read a 1993 Wall Street Journal article, An Army of Schindlers in Italy, by Dorothy Rabinowitz. The information about Italians rescuing Jews lay dormant in Perella’s mind until Bettina introduced herself at a New York City function in 2006 and shared that she was researching the mostly unknown subject because of her Italian ancestry. Four years later, Perella saw her again and learned about the book. Fascinated by these stories that derived from his parents’ homeland, he committed himself to turning the book into a documentary where it would have a bigger impact and “bring communities together.”

Soon after, Perella was talking at his local barbershop about how nobody knew what thousands of Italians did to save Jews. Award-winning documentary director Oren Jacoby overheard the conversation in the small establishment and told Perella that he would love to discuss the project. My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes is the third documentary that Jacoby produced in which he brought to light stories of Christians and Jews in overcoming hate.

In making My Italian Secret, which was filmed in Italy, Israel, and the United States, Jacoby said he found that “many of those who survived felt guilt. It took a long time (for survivors) to even go back to thank those who helped them.”

One of the survivors was panelist Ursula Korn Selig, who had escaped to Italy from Germany with her parents in 1938 to avoid Nazi persecution. When war broke out, Selig and her mother were sent to a separate camp than her father. After several transfers, the family was reunited. They received special protection from Monsignor Beniamino Schivo, who Selig credits for their survival. He risked his life to ensure they had a place to hide and food to eat. The documentary tells of how Schivo had Selig and her mother pretend to be Catholic nuns, wearing complete habits, and hide in a convent.

During the panel discussion, Selig said, “We are all children of the same God. We should go back to all of the people who saved lives and say thank you.”

Bettina was drawn to writing It Happened In Italy when she discovered that more than 80 percent of Jews in Italy were saved, while 80 percent of Jews in the rest of occupied Europe perished. She wanted the book to open people’s minds and educate.

Marmorale, who admitted he has been passionate about this subject for more than 30 years, said, “Let’s not forget the 20 percent of the people who didn’t make it.”

After the documentary, panelists Bettina, Marmorale, Jacoby, and Selig answered audience questions. Moderator Michael Gill, associate professor of psychology, said, “Moral action can be contagious,” and hoped that people would take the message to heart.

Lehigh University student Aletta Ren ’19 commented that she studied WWII and Nazi Germany for her senior project in high school and never knew about what the Italians did.

“This documentary makes me view national courage from a different perspective,” she said. “When you think about war, you always think the glory of a country is about how many enemies they killed. But after watching this documentary, I think the courage of a nation is about how many people they protect.”

During the question-and-answer segment, an audience member told the panelists that he came to the documentary “as a proud American Italian, and I leave here tonight as an even prouder Italian American.”

Story by Dawn Thren

Photos by John Kish IV

To view more photos from the day's events, please visit the photo gallery