Italian Jews Who Survived the Shoah: A Critical Analysis Using Elements of Thought

Paul and Elder (2019) define eight elements of thoughts used in critical thinking: purpose, question at issue, information, interpretation and inference, concepts, assumptions, implications and consequences, and point of view. As these components are embedded in all reasoning, they are utilized here in deconstructing Picciotto’s 2016 “Italian Jews who survived the Shoah: Jewish self-help and Italian rescuers, 1943-1945.”

This analysis begins with the matter of purpose – what was Picciotto trying to accomplish in this article?

This is easily found and generally addressed in the abstract: “The aims of this extensive, ongoing research project are, first, to further examine Jews’ survival strategies; and second, to analyze rescuers’ demographic characteristics, with the ultimate goal of better understanding their motivations” (p. 20).

Another stated objective was “to learn the fate of at least 20 percent of the total number of 32,108 Italian and foreign Jews who survived the Holocaust in Italy” (pp. 26-7).

It follows then that the main question at issue is that of how Jews in Italy survived the Holocaust. The answer to the principal question, and consequently the concepts of the article, are also broadly addressed in the abstract:

“In the vast majority of cases, Jews who survived the Holocaust in Italy did so in one (or more) of three ways: by blending in with the non-Jewish population; by fleeing over the border into Switzerland; or by taking refuge in private homes, church dormitories or convents, or medical institutions.” (p. 20)

The vast information employed in this study included archival documents, autobiographical works, and survivor interviews. Additionally, the following data was compiled for identified survivors: “name, date and place of birth, means of survival, circumstances, location, and – in the cases in which assistance was provided – the names of those who assisted them” (p. 27).

Though readers can be confident that Picciotto’s sources were of a primary nature, it should be noted that a number of them are recollections by elderly individuals of events that occurred decades, even over half a century, past. Therefore, “despite the heightening or consolidating effect that trauma can have on memory, the testimonies could contain errors regarding dates, circumstances, or names,” (p. 27) however, data was crosschecked to ensure accuracy.

Another point to ponder is that of the frame of reference and worldview of the article. Neutral information is reported on the Italian Fascist regime, Nazi Germans, the Resistance movement, Jews, their rescuers, and many others and how they interacted. No major assumptions are made, except perhaps for the universal knowledge of the notorious Holocaust.

Based on the information provided, Picciotto adequately concluded how Jews in Italy made it through the Holocaust by finding that the following were the most frequently reported strategies for survival:

  1. Changed residence and/or identity (2,235 cases);
  2. Received material or moral assistance (1,950);
  3. Found refuge in the home of another person (1,690);
  4. Fled to Switzerland (965);
  5. Found refuge in a convent or other religious institution (900);
  6. Avoided arrest or capture during a roundup (518);
  7. Found refuge on a farm or in a mountain hut (504);
  8. Was warned of danger (452);
  9. Was released or liberated from imprisonment (397);
  10. Escaped to the South or was freed in the South (176);
  11. Found refuge in a hospital or other medical institution (171). (pp. 29-30).

Interestingly, when asked which of three factors, (1) commitment to charity, (2) universalist humanitarian principles, or (3) “feelings of friendship and solidarity due to personal connections” (p. 37), had, in their opinion, motivated their rescuers’, the answer was that they did not know.

While Picciotto may not have received a straightforward answer in this regard, she reasonably deduced that rescuers’ motivations were one, or a combination of, these reasons considering the time and environment. Moreover, data on rescuers’ demographics did not reveal any discernable patterns.

Picciotto’s conclusions have crucial implications – how did Italian Jews reintegrate into pre-war Italian society? Though the German occupation was at most twenty months, do German anti-Semitism and Nazi ideology still exist in, and influence, Italy today? What would have happened had rescuers’ efforts not been successful? These are points of further research to consider and potential effects to explore.

In applying a critical approach, Picciotto does well. A study completed on critical thinking by Moore in 2013 displayed truthfulness to ultimately be an important viable evaluation criterion, with one historian interviewed stating that one must maintain “their capacity for judgments about what is more likely to be a true, or correct interpretation [of an historical event]” (p. 511) when assessing arguments.

While Picciotto’s work is published in a journal with a distinct view (Holocaust and Genocide Studies), she limited assumptions, provided background from all major sides of the issue, and utilized primary sources – remaining truthful to the events that transpired and as impartial as is possible.

Patton dissected the intellectual roots of critical thinking in 2018, crediting them to Socrates, who “established the importance of seeking evidence, closely examining reasoning and assumptions, analyzing basic concepts, and tracing out implications not only of what is said but of what is done as well” (p. 12).

These aspects are clearly seen in Picciotto’s article, as demonstrated here and tie in well with Paul and Elder’s critical thinking concepts and tools.


Moore, T. (2013). Critical thinking: Seven definitions in search of a concept. Studies in Higher Education, 38(4), 506-522.

Patton, M.Q. (2018). A historical perspective on the evolution of evaluative thinking. In A.T. Vo & T. Archibald (Eds.), Evaluative Thinking. New Directions for Evaluation. 158, 11-28.

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2019). The miniature guide to critical thinking: Concepts and tools (8th ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Want to read more about the experience of Italian Jews during World War II? Check out “Syndrome K: The Fake Disease That Saved Italian Jews From the Nazi Regime

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