In depth: Raffaele Mattioli, the banker who helped rescue Italy’s Jews

A history of the banker known for his efforts to protect Jewish colleagues under Fascism is celebrated in Intesa Sanpaolo’s Historical Archives

Group photo of the BCI Research Office: Hans Hirschtein, German Jewish economist welcomed by the Research Office in 1938, standing fourth from right; Antonello Gerbi seated fifth from left. Milan, 1938

Raffaele Mattioli was more than just an important figure at Banca Commerciale Italiana (COMIT), a bank that over the years became part of what is today Intesa Sanpaolo. Indeed his greatest contribution to humanity was in a different sphere altogether.

Born in 1895 in the town of Vasto on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, Mattioli completed an economics degree and service in the military before gaining top marks in the examination to join the civil service.   

Aged just 27, he was made general secretary of Milan’s Chamber of Commerce. Three years later he joined COMIT, where he would spend the rest of his professional life, serving as Chairman in the final 12 years until his retirement in 1972. 

The months just before the outbreak of the Second World War were dark ones for Italy. The Mussolini government passed a raft of notorious Racial Laws which transformed – for the worse – the lives of the country’s Jews. All Jewish children and students were thrown out of public schools and universities; likewise, Jewish teachers and professors were dismissed. Other measures included the removal of Jews from public jobs, the expropriation of Jewish property, and the prohibition of marriages between Jews and Catholics. 

The laws caused a mixture of disbelief and disappointment. Italian Jews, numbering just 48,000 in a national population of more than 40 million, had a reputation for being well integrated into society.

Mattioli hated what he saw happening in his country, claiming that it was “like falling into an abyss”. He vowed to stay on the side of justice, however, and to “keep working with eyes wide open and mind awake”.

What this meant above all was assisting his Jewish employees at COMIT, where at the time he was managing director. The bank had been nationalised not long after the Wall Street Crash, and in the wake of the Racial Laws of 1938 it was legally impossible for the roughly 70 Jewish staff to stay on. Mattioli, though, was determined to find some way to help them.

Take the case of Antonello Gerbi, the head of COMIT’s research department, who had been appointed by Mattioli in 1932. The managing director decided the best way to protect him was to apply for a visa on his behalf to travel to Peru. 

The official reason for the trip was that Gerbi would work there on secondment at Banco Italiano in Lima (a bank in which COMIT owned a small stake). Purportedly, he would be there to assist with an important project researching the Peruvian economy. Gerbi set sail from Genoa in October 1938 and started work a month later. 

Like all COMIT’s Jewish employees, he was officially released from the firm in February 1939. However, he was immediately taken on by Banco Italiano on a permanent basis. After the war, Mattioli would rehire his erstwhile colleague in his old role at the research department when the latter returned to Italy.  

Mattioli, “an honorary Jew”

Mattioli helped COMIT’s central director, Giorgio Di Veroli – who relocated to New York – in a similar way. He also ensured that the majority of the bank’s Jewish employees who didn’t emigrate were offered early retirement with healthy financial packages. Not for nothing did Mattioli call himself “an honorary Jew”, a moniker he wore with pride.  

Many of the details about his reactions to Italy’s Racial Laws can be found in Intesa Sanpaolo’s Historical Archives – Intesa Sanpaolo being the bank into which, after a number of mergers over the decades, COMIT has evolved.

In recent years, its archivists have created an inventory of, and published, Mattioli’s papers. “What we’re dealing with here isn’t just our banking group’s corporate memory but an invaluable public cultural asset,” says Barbara Costa, head of Intesa Sanpaolo’s Historical Archives.

Costa has produced a 10-minute video about Mattioli entitled The Activity of Raffaele Mattioli in response to anti-Semitic persecutions, through the sources of the Historical Archives of Intesa Sanpaolo.

“The archive allows us to reconstruct the many acts of Raffaele Mattioli in the rescue of Italian Jews,” says Costa. “He did whatever was humanly possible to save innocent lives and livelihoods put in danger, weighing up all risks to help various people before it became too late.”

Barbara Costa’s video on the life and work of Mattioli can be viewed here: