DP Camps in Italy

Before the outbreak of the war the Jewish community of Italy numbered about 50,000 people. In 1938 the Fascist Government of Benitto Mussolini, which had been establishing power in Italy from 1922, introduced under the pressure from Nazi Germany, the first anti-Semitic legislations. After the overthrow of the dictator Mussolini in 1943, northern and central Italy were occupied by Nazi Germany. Almost immediately Germany started rounding up and deporting members of the local Jewish communities. Jews were interned in transit camps and from there 8,000 people were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Yet, about 40,000 Italian Jews managed to survive the Holocaust either in hiding or by fleeing to the Allied-occupied parts of the country. Italy surrendered in April 1945 - notable for being the first Axis power to surrender. As a result of 1946, monarchy in the country was abolished and a new Italian republic established. The new republic accepted the Marshall plan and in the 1950s joined the NATO.

For Holocaust survivors, Italy became the main transit point point en route to Palestine. In 1947 there were 30,000 Jewish DPs in Italy, gathered in camps ran by UNRRA with help of other organisations such as ORT.   

ORT's work in Italy started in the end of 1946, much later than in Austria and Germany. The main reason for this was that the camps in Italy were seen as the last stop before reaching Palestine and therefore Italian DPs were more interested in moving on as fast as possible, rather than attending long-term vocational courses. Most of them believed that they would not stay in the camp long enough to learn a new trade. In Italy, unlike in Germany, there was therefore no large scale spontaneous organization of vocational training by the DPs themselves.

‘Thousands of DPs had left their camps in Austria and Germany; thousands of others left their countries in Eastern Europe, filtering through the mountain ranges of Northern Italy to discover that the DP camps in Italy, for all the misery they represented, were to become their homes for a long time to come. Only as the truth dawned upon them did they come forward in appreciable numbers. In the beginning they had to be persuaded that it was in their interest to learn a trade, but as months passed by, they exercised an ever increasing pressure on ORT, demanding the expansion of the existing workshops and the creation of new ones’-reported ORT on the initial stage of its work in Italy.[1]

As in other DP camps a major obstacle was caused by bad living conditions in the camps, especially lack of food. As the ORT report for 1947 stated: ‘even those willing to work and to learn choose the easiest trades, and decline the working of metal and wood on the grounds of their obvious physical weakness. If a remedy cannot be found, all the efforts of the ORT will be in vain (…) The fact, that in Cremona two good pupils of the ORT training workshops for cabinet-making left those to become street-sweepers, because they could earn a little money that way and thus appease their hunger...[This] is not a unique case.’[2]

 ORT also had problems with finding Polish and Yiddish speaking instructors, and had to often resort to using translators. However, as the courses expanded and gained renown, instructors started coming forward from within the camp communities and the first graduates of the courses started taking part in instructors’ courses.

After overcoming these initial obstacles ORT’s work in Italy developed very quickly. In July 1947 there were forty-one ORT training schools with 936 pupils, by November 1947 the number of students had risen to 1476 across fifty-eight institutions.

Due to the transitory character of Italian camps, courses organized there were shorter than those in Germany and Austria and lasted three to twelve months. A number of them dealt with vocations that the emigrants planned to undertake in Palestine - especially agriculture and construction works.  Agricultural training, for example, was supervised by experts from Israel who introduced the trainees to the environment and working conditions of the country. The graduates of the maritime courses organized in Southern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea later joined the Israeli Navy and those from the ORT School of Aviation became the foundation of the Israel Air Force.

The organization of ORT in Italy was divided into two parts: ORT-Rome for Central and Southern Italy and ORT-Northern Italy based in Milan. The first training workshops were opened in mid 1947 in Cremona, Grugaliasco, Rivoli and in the Adriatico camp near Milan. The majority of DP camps and ORT’s work was initially located in the North of the country but between 1947 and 1950 were progressively moved towards the centre. By the decision of Italian authorities, fifty five vocational trade schools and workshops were established by ORT, with over 1200 DPs enrolled had to be evacuated south. The transfer proved to be very difficult as large training centres in Adriatico, Rivoli, Grugliasco and Cremona had to be dismantled and moved to camps located hundreds of miles away, in the Ancona and Bari regions. According to ORT report: 'At the moment of its greatest development, ORT's work in Italy was dealt a blow by the decision of the Italian Authorities to transfer the DPs from the north of the country, where most of them were located and accordingly most of ORT's institutions had been established to the South...The depressing effects produced by the loss of instructors unable to follow their transferred DP pupils, and the material losses caused by the closing down of schools, are considerable.' [3]

Nevertheless, the schools located in the cities in north Italy remained open, training DPs living outside the camps and members of the local community.

ORT activities among DPs in Italian transit camps lasted until early 1950’s. Its training facilities in the cities kept functioning and expanding, catering to the needs of the local Italian-Jewish community.


[1] World ORT Archive d05a019: Three Years of ORT Activities. Report from the period August 1946- June 1949. Submitted to the Congress of the World ORT Union Paris, July 10th -15th 1949  p.82

[2] World ORT Archive d07a150: Partial Report: Illustrating the Expenditure incurred during the first quarter of 1947

[3] World ORT Archive d05a017: Report on the ORT Activities March 1- June 30, 1948. Submitted to the meeting of the Central Board of the World ORT Union, July 11th-13th 1948