Israeli President Benyamin Netanyahu introduced Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to the Knesset with far more than perfunctory kind words. He told a moving story about Prime Minister Berlusconi's mother that left Berlusconi in tears as Prime Minister Netanyahu's words were translated into Italian.
During the Second World War, Berlusconi's mother, heavily pregnant, saw a Jewish girl being led away under arrest by a German officer. With reckless disregard for her own life, Mrs. Berlusconi pleaded successfully with the German officer to release the Jewish girl who was in his custody. Amazingly enough, Mrs. Berlusconi not only lived to speak of the incident but managed to get the Jewish woman freed from custody. The Times of Malta quotes Netanyahu as follows.
"The Italian woman, who was then eight months pregnant, stood between the policeman and the girl. And without a grain of fear, she confronted the German policeman and said to him: 'You can kill me, but look at the faces of the people on the train, I promise you they won't let you get out alive.'," Netanyahu said.
"With this firm statement, the Italian woman saved the Jewish girl and lit, if only for a moment, a ray of humanistic light and bravery in the great darkness that pervaded all of Europe. That brave woman was named Rosa, and one of her sons is named Silvio Berlusconi, today the prime minister of Italy."
The danger to Mrs. Berlusconi was indeed real.The Ardeatine Cave Massacre, in which 335 Italians were randomly chosen and executed on March 24, 1944. The majority of those executed (80%) were not Jewish. Lidice in Czechoslovakia was wiped off the map in an act of collective retaliation in 1942. The danger to Mrs. Berlusconi was real. Yet she spoke up. How many of us have such courage?
There were countries in Europe where well under 5% of their Jews survived the war. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, along with Poland have a very poor record of the survival of their Jewish population.
By contrast, 70% of Italy's Jews survived the war. The majority of those deported and killed mere murdered from 1943 to 1945 when the north of Italy was under direct German occupation. Even then, Italians risked their lives resisting the final solution.
Though there was particular courage in Mrs. Berlusconi's actions, Netanyahu's speech puts a human face on the kindness and bravery of many Italians who resisted attempts to transplant Nazi Jew hatred to Italian soil. It is a duty of honour for Jews to honour, remember and thank those who showed us kindness in our bleakest hour.
What is most fortuitous is that Prime Minister Berlusconi and Netanyahu spoke to the Israeli Knesset on the second anniversary of the death of Berlusconi's mother. Jewish tradition is to mark the anniversary of a person's death as their birth to the afterlife. It is proper on such occasions to recount their good deeds and offer prayers on their behalf. Netanyahu's public praise of Mrs. Berlusconi came at an auspicious time.
There are people who are alive today because of such acts of bravery as are exemplified by Mrs. Berlusconi. Sadly, there has been other chapters of genocide in the world since then. Rwanda, Sudan as well as Cambodia and Somalia have been dark chapters in world history that followed the Second World War. In each of those conflicts were acts of heroism to which survivors today owe their lives.
The courage that Mrs. Berlusconi found within herself on that dark day many years ago must be remembered. The stories of bravery in other genocidal conflicts should be told and retold as well. Because courage can be taught. And a value system in which each life is sacred must be taught as well.
Thank you, Prime Minister Netanyahu for sharing the moving story of Mrs. Berlusconi. Prime Minister Berlusconi, you have been a friend to the Jewish people. You are truly blessed to have such a wonderful mother. May the memory of her kindness be eternal.
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