Jews have lived in Italy for over two thousand years, and were fully integrated into Italian culture and society. In 1933, the Italian-Jewish population numbered approximately 50,000. There was relatively little anti-Semitism in daily life although there were fanatical anti-Semites among the Fascist leaders. In 1938, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist regime passed anti-Semitic legislation that removed Jews from government jobs, banned marriage between Jews and non-Jews, dismissed Jews from the armed forces, incarcerated Jews of foreign nationality and removed Jews from positions in the media. Italy joined the Axis in 1939, and declared war on Britain and France in June 1940, entering World War II as Germany's ally.

Although Italy had passed strong anti-Semitic legislation, Italian authorities did not always enforce the legislation, and frequently allowed for broad exceptions to the rules. Jews of foreign nationality were moved to internment camps, but these camps had livable conditions. Italian military authorities generally refused to participate in mass murder of Jews or to permit deportations from Italy or Italian-occupied territory. Italian-occupied areas were relatively safe for Jews. Between 1941 and 1943, thousands of Jews escaped from German-occupied territory to the Italian-occupied zones of France, Greece, and Yugoslavia.

The majority of the Italian population did not approve of either the German alliance or the Italian entry into the war. The Axis surrender in Tunis on May 13, 1943, and the Allied landings in Sicily on July 10 caused the Fascist Grand Council to issue a vote of no-confidence on Mussolini's leadership on July 25, 1943. King Victor Emmanuel III arrested Mussolini and appointed Marshall Pietro Badoglio as prime minister. On September 8, 1943, Badoglio announced Italy's unconditional surrender to the Allies. However, the Germans quickly occupied northern and central Italy. SS paratroopers freed Mussolini from prison and installed him as the head of a pro-German Italian Social Republic based in northern Italy. The German occupation of Italy radically altered the situation for the 43,000 Jews living in northern Italy.

In October and November 1943, German authorities rounded up Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Trieste, and other major cities in northern Italy. They established police transit camps at Fossoli di Carpi,  at Bolzano in northeastern Italy, and at Borgo San Dalmazzo, near the French border. The transit camps had limited success, due to advance warning given to the Jews by Italian authorities and the Vatican, and in part to the unwillingness of many non-Jewish Italians, including Salò police authorities, to participate in the roundups. For example, of approximately 10,000 Jews in Rome, German authorities were able to deport less than 1,100.

From the police transit camps in northern Italy, the Germans deported 4,733 Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of whom only 314 survived. The German authorities deported 506 Jewish prisoners to other camps: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Flossenbürg. Virtually all those sent to Bergen-Belsen survived. The German authorities deported 328 Jews from Borgo San Dalmazzo via Drancy to Auschwitz, of whom ten survived; and 1,820 Jews from the islands of Rhodes and Kos, of whom 179 survived. The SS and police established the police transit camp and concentration camp La Risiera di San Sabba in Trieste, where they tortured and murdered more than 5,000, most of whom were political prisoners.

In all, the Germans deported 8,564 Jews from Italy, Italian-occupied France, and the islands of Rhodes and Kos, most of them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 1,009 returned. Approximately 100 died in the transit camps or in prisons through Italy. More than 40,000 Jews survived the Holocaust in Italy.