Anti-Semites Who Loved Jews…
And the Jews Who (Sometimes) Loved Them Back
In an oddity overlooked in the annals of human love, it has come to light that Adolf Hitler once loved a Jewish woman. Or, at least, he thought he did. As a moody teenager in Linz, Austria, the future Fuehrer’s youthful prejudices paled in the face of his crush on a local golden girl, Stefanie Isak, the lithe and well-dressed daughter of a widow. According to Hitler’s childhood friend and biographer August Kubizek, both young men assumed, based on her last name, that Isak was Jewish. Kubizek even went so far as to protect his friend’s reputation by keeping Isak’s name a secret throughout the Nazi era. In his 1953 memoir, The Young Hitler I Knew, Kubizek said he stayed mum out of “discretion.”
Already enamored with Richard Wagner’s operas, Hitler romanticized Isak as a Valkyrie with a soaring voice. He composed undelivered love poems that typically featured a damsel in velvet riding “a white steed over the flowering meadows.” Isak who, as it turned out, was not Jewish at all, barely knew Hitler existed. Still, the young man was sure his love was secretly returned even though, since he never spoke to her, his courting strategy resembled stalking. Every evening, he watched as she visited the town’s main plaza to flirt with handsome army officers. Isak’s tormented admirer nursed dark fantasies of kidnapping her, according to the loyal Kubizek. And, appalled by her love of dancing, he devised elaborate plots of murder-suicide even as he planned for their marriage.
If the Great Dictator himself could dream of marrying a girl he thought was Jewish, then it should come as no surprise that fellow Axis leader Benito Mussolini had similar tastes. Unlike Hitler, Mussolini did more than fantasize: The comely and fiercely intelligent Margherita Sarfatti—a Jew from a wealthy Venetian family—served as his mistress as well as a trusted political advisor who helped pave her lover’s way to power.
When they met in 1911, Sarfatti was 31, married to a Jewish lawyer and making a name for herself as an art critic and salonista while writing for Avanti, the Socialist party organ. Mussolini, then 28, was its new editor, bursting onto the Milan scene with a three-day growth of beard and what Sarfatti called the “glint of fanaticism in his eyes.” The rough-hewn, self-educated son of a blacksmith, Mussolini may have sensed that Sarfatti’s social confidence and connections—her husband, Cesare, once served as mayor of Milan—could prove valuable.
There was nothing particularly strange about their cross-cultural affair at the time. Italian radicals during and after World War I regularly fraternized with Jews, socially and politically, and many Jews migrated to fascism from Socialism and trade unionism. Sarfatti was one of these and spent the following two decades helping hone Mussolini’s message. She wrote a fawning biography and ghost-wrote articles under his byline for America’s Hearst Newspaper Service. She also enjoyed easy access, for afternoon liaisons, to his personal quarters. Mussolini’s uneducated wife, Rachele, sensed early on that Sarfatti stood apart from her husband’s hundreds of other conquests. “Of all your father’s women,” she told her son Romano Mussolini, “I was jealous only of those who had a place in his mind.”
Sarfatti must have approved when, at first, Mussolini openly dismissed Hitler’s racism as “scientific nonsense.” She remained at the heart of Il Duce’s world until the early 1930s, when he dropped her. Her fading looks played a role, but Sarfatti was also becoming a source of embarrassment; as Mussolini sought to project an increasingly muscular persona, deferring to an opinionated Jewish woman no longer fit his image. In 1937 he expunged all mention of Sarfatti from the political diary he had been keeping, with her help, for posterity. (Some of the pages were even in Sarfatti’s hand.) As Mussolini lowered his hammer on the Jews in 1938—banning inter-marriage, for instance, and restricting Jewish property ownership—Sarfatti fled to Argentina. Ultimately, her former paramour and his German allies would deport some 20 percent of Italy’s Jews, among them her sister, who died en route to Auschwitz.