Italy granted her a pension for Holocaust survivors. Then it asked for the money back.

Messauda Fadlun, seen in old photos, was living in Libya in 1938 when it was an Italian colony and under the racist laws targeting the Jewish community. (Courtesy of Ariel Finzi)

Simone Somekh

(JTA) — In 2012, Messauda Fadlun received a letter from the Italian government asking her to return all the money she had been receiving as part of a restitution program for those racially persecuted by the fascist regime during World War II.

Fadlun, an Italian-Libyan Jew, and her family were shocked.

“We thought there had been a mistake,” said Ariel Finzi, Fadlun’s son, who is the rabbi of Naples. “Worst case, we presumed the government would stop paying for the pension, but not that we would have to return the money.”

They were wrong: It was just the beginning of a long legal fight with the Italian government, which claimed she had not been eligible to receive the pension, despite granting it earlier.

Fadlun died in 2018, and now her 98-year-old husband, Alberto Finzi, is expected to pay the sum of 76,000 euros (about $92,000).

Fadlun’s misadventure with Italian bureaucracy is not unique. Other Jewish families over the past few years have been asked to return the pensions. Still others had to jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove their eligibility and provide decades-old documentation that’s often hard to obtain.

Many of the families prefer to remain anonymous. But after losing a second appeal in court, Finzi decided to share his mother’s story, hoping that others would begin speaking up and the government would cease its battle against the survivors.

In Fadlun’s case, the government claims she was not an Italian citizen during World War II. Fadlun was born and raised in Tripoli, the capital of Libya — an Italian colony in 1938, when the fascist regime passed a series of racist laws that targeted the Jewish community. The  discriminatory policies written in Rome were applied to the Jews living in Libya.

At the time, Fadlun had Italian-Libyan citizenship, which was considered “inferior” to regular Italian citizenship.

“My mother and her family were victims of the racial laws just like all other Italian Jews,” Finzi said.

Finzi said his mother recalled that as she was walking out of school one day, a man spat in her face and called her “dirty Jew.”

“After the laws were passed, her family traveled to the mountains,” he said.

“Her little brother was sick, and a doctor suggested that some time in the mountains might be beneficial to him. When they arrived, the hotel owner refused to let them sleep in his hotel because they were Jewish. They were forced to sleep outdoors for two nights, and her brother died.”

Italy passed a law in 1955 — updated in 1980 — to provide monthly pensions for Italian citizens who were persecuted for racial or political reasons during the Mussolini regime. A different law, passed in 1980, provided pensions for Italian citizens who survived the Nazi concentration camps.

The battle for the allocation of these benefits has been a hard-fought one, said Giulio Disegni, a lawyer and a member of the government’s commission that approves or denies the benefits for those persecuted for political and racial reasons during the fascist era.

The commission was instituted in ’55, but only in 1998, after receiving pressure from the Jewish community, did the panel add a representative of the Union of Jewish Italian Communities. Disegni, vice president of the Jewish umbrella group, has been a member of the commission for two decades.

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, he explained that the government has been keen on making it difficult for many survivors to receive the pension.

“For many years, the commission had been granting the pension only to the Jews who could prove they had been persecuted before 1943, when Italy fell under German control,” Disegni said. “We lobbied to create some guidelines that would grant benefits also to those persecuted after 1943, as well as those who had escaped abroad after the promulgation of the racial laws.”

Another hurdle: The commission had been asking those who requested the pension to “prove” that they had been persecuted.

“That’s not always an easy task,” Disegni said. “You need to have witnesses, or descendants of witnesses, which is complicated.”

After more lobbying from the Jewish community, the Italian government enacted a law in 2020 stating that survivors were not required to prove they had been persecuted.

But even after the survivors are granted the pension, the Ministry of Economy and Finance often appeals to revoke it. That’s what happened to Messauda Fadlun.

Fadlun moved to Israel in 1948, after Israel declared independence and Jews in Libya were targeted in a series of deadly pogroms. During a trip to Italy a decade later, she met her future husband, Finzi, and moved to Italy, obtaining a “full” Italian citizenship. In Turin, she worked for decades at the Jewish day school as a primary school teacher. In the Jewish community, she is remembered as an innovative teacher and a cultured, intelligent woman.

Fadlun was recognized in 1982 by the Italian government as a Holocaust survivor. In 2007, she began receiving the pension.

After her status was revoked in 2012, Fadlun appealed to the Court of Auditors in Turin, where she personally pleaded her case. The judge ruled in her favor and determined that the Ministry of Economy and Finance should resume the payments of the pension. But the ministry appealed again.

At the highest level of the Court of Auditors, Fadlun’s lawyer argued that it did not make sense to distinguish between “Italian” and “Italian-Libyan” citizenships because the racial laws targeted all Jews under the fascist regime. The court disagreed, ruling against Fadlun.

Having lost in the courts, Finzi has decided to turn to the media and has appeared multiple times on Italian television. In his JTA interview, he stressed that he believes this issue is bigger than him or his family.

“The Italian government must make it clear that there is no nostalgia whatsoever of the fascist era,” Finzi said. Other survivors, for various reasons, have also been revoked their status and asked to return the money.”

Finzi said he is thinking of writing a letter to Italy’s president.

“A country that does not defend its elders,” he said, “does not defend its history.”