Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy, the great-grandson of King Victor Emmanuel III, wrote a letter to the country’s Jewish community in which he said his family’s role in rubber-stamping dictator Benito Mussolini’s anti-Semitic laws caused “a wound still open for the whole of Italy.”
He said he and his relatives “dissociate ourselves firmly” from the King, who approved Mussolini’s rise to power and gave the laws royal assent, and asked for forgiveness for his ancestor’s actions.
But the gesture, made ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day on Wednesday, has been dismissed by historians as “too little too late,” and has drawn the ire of Jewish groups who condemned the family’s lengthy reluctance to confront its role in laying the groundwork for the Holocaust in Europe.
Mussolini’s race laws tore away at the civil rights of Jewish Italians between 1938 and 1943, during which time the dictator allied himself to Hitler to form the Axis powers.
“What happened with the racial laws, at the height of a long collaboration with a dictatorship, is an offense to Italians, Jews and non-Jews, which cannot be erased and forgotten,” the Jewish Community of Rome said in response to Emanuele Filiberto’s letter.
“The silence on these facts of the descendants of that house, which lasted more than 80 years, is a further aggravating circumstance,” they added. “The descendants of the victims have no authority to forgive and it is not up to Jewish institutions to rehabilitate people and facts whose historical judgment is engraved in the history of our country.”
Emanuele Filiberto, 48, is the grandson of Italy’s last King, Umberto II, and a would-be heir to the throne had the royal family not been disbanded in 1946 in a referendum. Descendents of the former Italian monarchy still use royal titles, though these are not recognized in law.
Historian Amedeo Osti Guerrazzi, a researcher at the Shoa Foundation Rome, told CNN his letter was “too little too late, adding: “I think it was an attempt at some publicity.”
“The King had a very serious role” in approving Mussolini’s laws, he added. “Some testimonies say he was against (the laws) personally, (but) he didn’t want to go against fascism. He didn’t want to risk a conflict … It was an episode of great cowardice.”
Andrea Ungari, a historian and professor at Rome’s Luiss Guido Carli University, added it is “not clear” what Emanuele Filiberto’s motivations were in writing the letter. “Of course, none of the responsibility is on him nor on his father, so if someone had to excuse himself it was King Umberto II,” he said, referring to the monarch who reigned for a few months in 1946 as the royal family battled in vain for its survival at the ballot box.
Mussolini’s race laws, enacted alongside his infamous “Manifesto of Race,” banned Jewish people from going to university or holding public office, restricted their travel and assets, and imposed numerous other controls on their public lives.
Emanuele Filiberto’s letter was published ahead of January 27, a day of remembrance that marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“I am writing to you with an open heart a letter that is certainly not easy, a letter that may surprise you and that perhaps you did not expect,” he wrote to the Italian Jewish community.
“I wish to officially and solemnly ask for forgiveness in the name of my whole family. I decided to take this step, which is a duty for me, so that the memory of what happened remains alive, so that the memory is always present,” he added.
More than 6 million Jews died at the hands of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust, both in society and in hundreds of concentration camps set up across central and eastern Europe.
CNN’s Antonia Mortensen contributed to this report.