The crew of the Transatlantic Rex

from 1933 to 1940 it transported 30,000 to 50,000 persecuted Jews to the United States

On August 1, 1931, at the Ansaldo shipyard in Sestri Ponente, the Rex, the largest ocean liner ever built on Italian soil, was launched in the presence of King Vittorio Emanuele III and Queen Elena. Within a few years, the ship became an icon of italian maritime history, achieving in 1933 the prestigious record of becoming the first (and only) Italian-flagged vessel to win the famous Nastro Azzurro, the award conferred for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. Few know, however, the story of humanity that links the crew of the Rex to the rescue of European and Italian Jews during the Shoah.

From 1933, when Hitler took power in Germany, the exodus of the five hundred thousand German Jews began. It is estimated that about half of them managed to emigrate from Germany before 1938; the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich, which took place in the same year, caused the Austrian Jews to leave their country as well, thus joining the exodus of the German ones. Most Jewish refugees managed to obtain new documents and visas valid for expatriation to the United States from the Hebrew Immigration Assistance Society (HIAS) in Vienna. In Italy it used to operate, since 1939, the Delegazione Assistenza Emigrati Ebrei (DELASEM), which was as well actively involved in helping Jewish refugees who had fled to Italy from other European countries.

The escape route which was used more frequently by Jewish refugees in the period between 1933 and 1940 consisted in the passage from Austria to Trieste, and then on by train to Genoa, where they could wait to board the Transatlantic Rex in protected places. During the stopover in the Ligurian city, a prominent role in assisting the persecuted Jews was played by the Catholic Church, with several clergymen (Cardinal Pietro Boetto, Monsignor Francesco Repetto, Monsignor Carlo Ivo Salvi and Monsignor Emanuele Levrero) who provided courageous assistance to the refugees and were later honoured by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In addition to the Genoa boarding, many Jewish families could board the Rex directly from France, at the port of Villafranca-Cannes. In some cases, boarding also took place in southern Italy, at the port of Naples.

Once they boarded the liner, the Jewish refugees could count on the humanity and kindness of Rex's crew, as revealed by numerous audio-visual testimonies exposed at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, which tell us even today about the help provided to Jewish refugees by the Rex's crew. Following the conclusion of an agreement between the Union Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Navigazione Italia, a kosher cook and a rabbi were always present on the liner, with scheduled shifts, so that their support could never be lacking. Even following the enactment of the racial laws in 1938, the discriminatory and anti-Semitic provisions promulgated by the fascist regime never applied aboard the Rex, thus enabling between 30,000 to 50,000 European and Italian Jews to reach the United States and escape the Shoah.

This valuable and courageous assistance lasted until the dawn of fascist Italy's entrance into the war. In May 1940, the Rex made its last transoceanic voyage, transporting persecuted Jews to the United States for as long as it could. Later, in order to protect the ship from the war, the fascist government decided to leave the Rex safely in the port of Genoa. Only after the city was bombed by Allied troops the Transatlantic was transferred to Trieste where, after the Armistice of September, 8, 1943, it fell into the hands of the Nazis, who used it as a barrack. A year later, on September, 8, 1944, the Rex was sunk off Capodistria during a RAF bombing raid and was later scrapped between 1947 and 1958. 

Thus ended the astonishing story of the Rex, a ship that was at first a symbol of fascist propaganda and then a carrier of salvation for tens of thousands of Jews during the Shoah, who escaped persecution thanks to the precious help provided by the liner's crew.

This story is told by Flavio Testi, son of Metello, a petty officer in charge of the Rex's power plant and violinist in one of the orchestras. He was the only seaman continuously embarked on the Rex from September 26, 1932 to July 7, 1940 and a witness to the events. The story is described in a chapter of the book 'REX the Blue Dream', Erga Edizioni, written by Flavio Testi for the Ansaldo Foundation in 2021.

The crew of the Transatlantic Rex were honored as “Righteous reported by the civil society” in the 2024 ceremony.

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