March 21, 1892|
|Died||October 11, 1943
Ettore Ovazza (Turin, 21 March 1892 - Intra, 11 October 1943) was an Italian Jewish banker. Believing that his privileged position would be restored after the war, Ovazza stayed on after the Germans marched into Italy. Together with his wife and children, he was killed near the Swiss border by SS troops in 1943 shortly after the collapse of Mussolini's government during World War II.
Early life and family
He was born, one of three brothers, to the Ovazza family, a wealthy and influential Jewish banking family based in Turin. They were one of the leading banking families in Italy. His father and his three brothers voluntarily enlisted to fight in the First World War. The family was well integrated into Italian high society, while they followed Jewish traditions such as celebrating Passover. His father served as the leader of the Turinese Jewish community.
World War I
Ettore Ovazza studied law at university and then travelled to Germany with a view to a diplomatic career. At the outbreak of World War I he had volunteered and trained as an officer, only to suffer the humiliating defeat at Caporetto. His patriotic letters from the front were published in 1928 and received general praise. After the war, the city of Turin was badly affected by the turmoil of the Biennio Rosso (Two Red Years) with repeated strikes, lockouts and violent demonstrations. The Ovazza family were alarmed by these developments.
Between war years
Ettore Ovazza was a committed Fascist from the start. He took part in the March on Rome in October 1922; in 1929 he was invited to meet Mussolini as a part of a delegation of Jewish war veterans. He later described the encounter: "On hearing my affirmation of the unshakeable loyalty of Italian Jews to the Fatherland, His Excellency Mussolini looks me straight in the eye and says with a voice that penetrates straight to my heart: ‘I have never doubted it’. When Il Duce bids us farewell with a Roman salute, I feel an urge to embrace him, as a fascist, as an Italian, but I can’t; and approaching him at his desk I say: ‘Excellency, I would like to shake your hand’. It is not a fascist gesture, but it is a cry from the heart… Such is The Man that Providence has given to Italy".
In the 1920s and 1930s Fascist attitudes to the Jewish population began to change. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and, although Benito Mussolini rejected his racist views, they influenced some leading Fascists in Italy. In 1934 several Jews were arrested in Turin for smuggling in anti-Fascist literature. Ettore Ovazza reacted by doubling his efforts to support the Fascist regime. He founded the newspaper "La nostra bandiera" (Our Flag) reminding Italians of the Jewish sacrifice for Italy in the Great War and attacking the idea that all Jews were Zionists. Taking a leading role in the Jewish community in Turin, Ovazza ensured that all the key positions were held by Fascist supporters. When Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, he immediately volunteered for service, an offer that was turned down probably due to his age (43). Despite the beginnings of anti-semitism, Ovazza was still being rewarded for his patriotism. In 1935 he was honoured for his contribution to the colony of Libya and in the following year was invited at the honour guard at the tomb of the royal family in Superga (Turin).
World War II and death
In 1938 when a series of anti-semitic laws were passed, the Ovazza family were hit hard. Jews were no longer allowed to marry ‘Aryan’ Italians, to send their children to state schools, to employ Italian servants or be in the army. Much more damaging were the rules that stated they could not employ over 100 people, or own valuable land or buildings. In 1939 Jews were banned from all skilled jobs; shops and cafés displayed signs saying that Jews were no longer welcome. Jewish organisations were disbanded and many Jews converted to Catholicism or emigrated abroad. This put an end to the Ovazza business and banking operations. Ettore Ovazza was expelled from the Fascist party and his brother from the military.
Ettore's two brothers left the country and advised him to do the same, but he was reluctant to leave the country, hoping that the Duce would alter his views. He wrote an anguished letter to Mussolini, expressing his pain: "Was it all a dream we nurtured? I can’t believe it. I cannot consider changing religion, because this would be a betrayal - and we are fascists. And so? I turn to You – DUCE – so that in this period, so important for our revolution, you do not exclude that healthy Italian part from the destiny of our Nation."
His nephew Alain Elkann wrote a fictionalized version of his life.