Angelo Donati was the Jewish Raoul Wallenberg—a diplomat who worked tirelessly to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust. As a result of his efforts on behalf of Jews in the Italian occupation zone in France between 1942 and 1943, the diplomat of the tiny Republic of San Marino became known as “the Pope of the Jews.”
But who was Angelo Donati? And how did he become one of those rare figures, like Wallenberg or Oskar Schindler, who fought successfully to spare lives under Nazi occupation?
Angelo Donati came from a prominent Italian Jewish family that had been in the ancient town of Modena for generations. Modena, in northern Italy, is the historic home of the Italian car industry—Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati were once all based there—and, as Detroit is referred to as Motown, Modena became known by its nickname: “the capital of engines.” Aside from its industrial heritage, Modena has also had a Jewish community since at least the 15th century. And among the earliest members of the local community were the Donatis: There are records of the Donati family in Modena from at least as far back as 1621.
In the first part of the 20th century, Jews played an important part in the cultural and society life of Modena, and none more than the Donatis. Members of the family achieved high positions in politics, commerce and the professions—Donati’s cousins and siblings were lawyers, doctors, professors, bankers, industrialists and even a member of the Italian parliament. Angelo Donati worked as a lawyer and banker. He fought for his country in World War I and then moved to Paris where he managed Italian and French companies, and established a Franco-Italian credit bank.
Donati served from 1925 until 1932 as the general consul of the Republic of San Marino, a tiny state of 30,00 people located within but technically independent of Italy, about 100 miles southeast of the Donatis’ hometown of Modena. For his international work on behalf of San Marino, Italy and France, Donati was awarded the respective nations’ honors of Grand’Ufficiale of the Italian Crown, Commendatore dell’Ordine di Sant’Agata (after San Marino’s patron saint, Saint Agatha) and Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur. He was an influential figure in Franco-Italian commerce and politics when Nazi Germany plunged Europe into world war and the two nations he worked in and for would be pitted against one another.
When German troops invaded France and occupied the north of the country in 1940, Donati fled to Nice in the southern free zone and very close to the border with Italy. Two years later, Italian troops crossed the border to occupy Nice in November 1942. While in the city on the French Riviera, Donati became involved in the local Jewish organizations in an attempt to protect and serve the community, which was at risk of deportations to the death camps in the east. Appointed as an advisor to an Italian policeman named Lo Spinoso who was commissioner of Jewish affairs, Donati formed an alliance with a Roman Catholic priest, Father Maria Benedetto, and began to rescue Jews from arrest and deportation.
Donati and others ensured that the Italian authorities would not necessarily serve the Nazis as willing executioners as other countries collaborating with Germany. So in January 1943, the Italians refused to collaborate with the Germans’ roundups of Jews living in the parts of France under their occupation and even prevented the Nazis from deporting Jews form their zone. This did not go down well in Germany. Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop brought a complaint to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that, “Italian military circles […] lack a proper understanding of the Jewish question.”
Meanwhile, in Nice, Donati introduced Lo Spinoso to Father Benedetto and pitched a bold plan to the pair: to rescue all 30,000 Jews in Nice and its environs by bringing them to Italy if German troops were to take over the Italian occupied zone. In the summer of 1943, the priest Benedetto managed to get an audience with Pope Pius XII at which he attempted to get Papal blessing for the plan.
However at the same time Italy was on the rocks—and Mussolini fell in July 1943.
After Italy surrendered in 1943, it became the site of a battlefield between the Allies and Axis powers until 1945, and German troops arrived in Donati’s hometown of Modena. German troops brought with them their country’s plan to exterminate the Jews and began attempting to deport Italian Jews to Eastern Europe. When the Germans came, many Jews went into hiding in the countryside outside of Modena or fled north to Switzerland. Twenty-two members of the Donati family fled to the neutral state. Those who stayed in town sometimes received help from local non-Jews including antifascist partisans. In all, the measures taken by the Jews of Modena and others who helped them meant that in a town that was home to some 474 Jews in 1931, no more than 13 Jews were deported to their deaths during Nazi occupation.
With Mussolini gone, Donati set about trying to save not just the 30,00 Jews in his zone of France, but also some 20,000 Jews in Italy. He negotiated their safe transfer from France and Italy to North Africa with senior members of the Italian foreign ministry and British and American officials at the Vatican. However, although the Italian government promised Donati the use of four passenger ships for the transfer, Britain and the United States did not give the plan official approval.
Nevertheless, thanks to the help of Donati and the Italian authorities, thousands of Jews were saved by being permitted to cross into Italy from France. When it became too dangerous for him to remain in Nice, Donati escaped in 1943 to Switzerland. He continued his rescue and assistance operations for Jews there until the end of the war. After the liberation of Paris in 1945, Donati returned to the city and was made both a representative of the Italian Red Cross and an ambassador of San Marino.
Donati did not have children of his own but adopted two Jewish children aged 8 and 10 whose German Jewish parents had fled to France, only to be deported and murdered in German concentration camps. Angelo Donati died in the French capital in 1960 at the age of 75. Thanks to his efforts, and his use of his military and diplomatic connections, he persuaded the Italian authorities to protect Jews under their occupation from both the Germans and the French. Angelo Donati saved the lives of countless Jews in and around the town of Nice, where he is still remembered as “the Pope of the Jews.”