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Lehigh to host screening Thursday of ‘My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes’

Italian cycling legend Gino Bartali secretly helped save Jews from Nazi persecution by transporting fake identification papers and messages in his bicycle frame as he trained for the Tour de France. Other Italians, including Roman Catholic priests, are also among the silent heroes who helped protect Jews who were living or seeking refuge in Italy during World War II.

Their stories, and those of Jewish survivors, are among those told in My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes, a documentary directed by Oren Jacoby, narrated by Isabella Rossellini and produced by Lehigh alum and trustee Joseph R. Perella ’64 ‘06H.

On Thursday, Lehigh will host a free, educational screening of the film at 6:30 p.m. in Baker Hall in the Zoellner Arts Center. A panel discussion with Perella, Jacoby, a Holocaust survivor and others will follow.

Bartali, who won the Giro d’Italia three times (in 1936, 1937 and 1946) and the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948, is shown in archival footage. His words are spoken in a voice-over by actor Robert Loggia. The film includes dramatic re-enactments and interviews with survivors and relatives of the rescuers.

“I am thrilled, as a Lehigh alumnus, to be bringing this film to the Lehigh campus,” said Perella, who is the son of Italian immigrants.

The film debuted at the 2014 Rome International Festival and the Hamptons International Film Festival. It is based on the book, It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust, by Elizabeth Bettina.

Perella explained why he got behind the documentary: “10,000 Italian Schindlers…This phrase came to mind when I read a Wall Street Journal article in December 1993 by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dorothy  Rabinowitz; it was the beginning of many coincidences that moved me to bring  the story of these brave Italian heroes to the screen.

“I met Elizabeth Bettina, the author of the book It Happened in Italy at the annual Columbus Day Parade in New York in 2006,” he said, “and through Elizabeth, connected with Vince Marmorale, a retired history teacher who followed his passion to locate Holocaust survivors from Italy in the United States. Later I met Oren Jacoby, the director of My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes, in a barber shop we both frequented. These accidental encounters brought us all together to create this wonderful film.”

President John Simon will deliver opening remarks, and Perella will introduce the documentary. Those participating in the discussion that will follow the screening include:

  • Perella, founding partner and chairman of Perella Weinberg Partners, a global advisory and asset management firm. He graduated from Lehigh with a business degree and earned his MBA from Harvard. With his wife, Amy, he has endowed the Perella Department of Finance and four department chairs in the College of Business and Economics.
  • Jacoby, who also directed Constantine’s Sword and Lafayette: The Lost Hero. His film, Sister Rose’s Passion, won Best Documentary Short Film at the Tribeca Film Festival and was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award.
  • Bettina, who graduated from Smith College with a degree in economics and Italian literature. Her varied career has taken her from advertising and marketing to retail and on-air television broadcasting. Her book, It Happened in Italy, was published in 2009.
  • Marmorale, consulting producer for My Italian Secret. He taught social studies at the Sachem School District in Long Island, N.Y. for more than three decades. He established and implemented the Holocaust Studies Program for the junior high schools and conducted a prejudice reduction program for the district’s 12 elementary schools. He is the president of the Italy and the Holocaust Foundation.
  • Ursula Korn Selig, a Holocaust survivor from Italy. Born in 1925 in Breslau, Germany, she escaped to Italy with her parents during the Nazi persecution. They lived in Alassio, Italy, until the war broke out, and they were sent to separate camps in Italy—her father to one, and she and her mother to another. They were reunited in Citta di Castello, where they were protected by Monsignor Beniamino Schivo, who risked his life to ensure they had a place to hide and food to eat. She currently resides in Riverdale, N.Y.

Michael Gill, associate professor of psychology at Lehigh, will serve as moderator of the panel discussion. Gill specializes in teaching and research pertaining to blame and moral responsibility, particularly what motivates people to make moral versus selfish choices and the impact of role models on decision-making.

No tickets are required for Thursday’s screening. Parking will be free.

The event is supported by Lehigh’s Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies, Jewish Student Life and the Catholic Campus Ministry.

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Poster for My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes