When Montreal’s largest English school board renamed one of its schools after Italian policeman Giovanni Palatucci, it was a high-profile tribute to a man considered a wartime hero for his life-saving exploits during the Holocaust. Now, the board finds itself forced to awkwardly reconsider its choice.
New evidence has surfaced casting doubts on claims that Mr. Palatucci rescued 5,000 Jews during the Second World War. Instead, research suggests that the man dubbed Italy’s Oskar Schindler was a Nazi collaborator who, far from saving lives, may have actively participated in sending Jews to their deaths.
The Centro Primo Levi in New York, based on scholars’ examination of hundreds of newly accessible documents, concluded that Mr. Palatucci’s accomplishments were more myth than fact. The centre’s concerns led the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington to remove references to Mr. Palatucci from an exhibition and the museum’s website.
Now Montreal, one of numerous locations around the world to publicly honour Mr. Palatucci, is dealing with the fallout from the changing narratives of history.
“At the time, we did it in good faith,” Angela Mancini, chairperson of the English Montreal School Board, said in an interview on Sunday. “Now we’re wondering what is going to happen next … for us it came as a shock. We’re now saying, ‘Maybe we have to go back to the drawing board.’ ”
The school board chose the former Wagar High School to name after Mr. Palatucci in 2006. The choice was symbolic. Wagar is located in the predominantly Jewish community of Côte Saint-Luc. For the rechristening event, the board invited dignitaries from the Montreal and Italian communities. Retired Canadian general Lewis MacKenzie delivered the keynote address.
The board even brought together pupils from mainly Italian and Jewish schools and served kosher pizza in a gesture of cultural rapprochement.
The Montreal board now says it will await word on what to do next. It is hoping to get a signal from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and authority in Israel that had originally given Mr. Palatucci a stamp of approval by declaring him “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1990; his name still appears on the memorial’s website. Yad Vashem’s designation led to Mr. Palatucci being declared a martyr by Pope John Paul II, a step toward sainthood, and his name was placed on public sites not only in Montreal but in Israel, Italy and New York.
Originally, Mr. Palatucci had been praised for heroically saving thousands of Jews between 1940 and 1944 while a police official in the Adriatic port city of Fiume, destroying records to prevent the Nazis from sending Fiume’s Jews to concentration camps. However, Natalia Indrimi, the executive director of the Centro Primo Levi, told the New York Times that records show Fiume had only 500 Jews in 1943, and about 80 per cent of them ended up at Auschwitz, a higher proportion than any other Italian city.
Ms. Mancini says if the doubts raised by the new findings are confirmed, the Montreal board will not hesitate to remove the sign reading Giovanni Palatucci Facility from its west-end school building, which houses an adult education centre and school for special-needs students.
“It’s disrespectful for the community,” she said. “Once we have knowledge [about Mr. Palatucci’s past], we have to act on it.”