ASSISI, ITALY — For almost eight centuries, pilgrims venerating St. Francis have come to the picturesque hilltop town of Assisi, 100 miles northeast of Rome, where the saint was born in 1182. Here was where he founded three religious orders and died at age 45.
Less known, especially by American Catholics, is Assisi’s legacy as a sanctuary for thousands of refugees displaced during World War II, including approximately 300 Jews who were hidden in the city’s convents, monasteries and private homes.
Religious and civil leaders of wartime Assisi dramatically mirrored the saint’s message of compassion and peacemaking. The compassion they extended to outsiders while Allied and Axis forces fought on Italian soil is the subject of ongoing research and an exhibit, “Museum of Memory, 1943-1944 Assisi,” at Assisi’s Palazzo Vallemani.
Italian scholar Francesco Santucci has spent the last 25 years reviewing town and Church archives in Assisi, assembling documents that form the basis for the exhibit. He shared Assisi’s remarkable story with the Register.
Italy at War
A particularly tense period for wartime Italy came after July 1943, when the government of Benito Mussolini was overthrown. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower announced Italy’s unconditional surrender to the allied forces on Sept. 8, but German troops remained in control of Rome as well as central and northern Italy.
Germany occupied Assisi in September 1943, the same month that British and American troops landed in southern Italy, intending to fight northward. Over the next 10 months, the two sides fiercely jousted, amidst the priceless treasures of Italian Catholic civilization.
People fleeing conflict from places such as Milan and Padua flowed into Assisi. Jews escaping Germans in northern Italy and beyond, from countries like France and Austria, flocked to the town too, although there had never been a Jewish community in Assisi.
Not one Jewish person — protected in Assisi through a network managed by the local bishop — was deported to a concentration camp, Santucci said. This fact was gratefully acknowledged by Jewish leaders in Rome just after the war and subsequently by Israel.
And the town itself was spared the devastation of allied bombing, a fate that destroyed the historic mountaintop monastery of Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict defined the rules of Western monasticism in the sixth century.
Santucci’s research has concentrated on two key historical issues. First is the scope and modus operandi of the Catholic effort to protect Jewish refugees in Assisi; and, second, the strategy that prevented Assisi from suffering any military damage, despite its location in an embattled region.
The scholar believes that the stature of Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini, who had served as local bishop since 1928, his ability to call on a wide network of religious allies, and the support he received from the Vatican were critical elements in the success of his extremely risky plan.
Bishop Nicolini had established a “Committee for Assistance” in his residence to manage refugee help. It was a well-organized effort to provide refugees with basic needs like clothing and shelter and paperwork if needed.
The bishop inserted the clandestine operation to protect Jews within this existing framework. He served
as president of the committee, and his most trusted priest, Father Aldo Brunacci, served as secretary. It was “Don Aldo,” as he is best known, who carried out some of the most sensitive logistical efforts, especially with respect to obtaining false identities for the Jews, which allowed them to obtain ration cards and even to live openly in hotels or private homes under their assumed identities.
Don Aldo, an important eyewitness to the Assisi story, died in 2007 at the age of 94. Before then, he provided essential testimony to Santucci and often spoke about the wartime events. His account is included in Three Heroes of Assisi: Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini, Colonel Valentin Muller, Don Aldo Brunacci (Editrice Minerva, 2005) written by two priests.
According to Don Aldo, in September 1943, Bishop Nicolini showed him a letter from the Vatican and said, according to his statement in Three Heroes, “We have to organize ourselves to help those who are being persecuted, especially the Jews. This is the desire of the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII. Everything must be done with the greatest secrecy and prudence. Not even the priests must know anything about this.”
The bishop’s plan was to hide Jewish refugees while new identity cards were fabricated by a small, trusted group of collaborators. A printing press in a small souvenir shop owned by a lay Catholic typographer was used at night; stamps were applied elsewhere, with Don Aldo, who was 30 years old at the time, carrying the documents between stops by bicycle.
“We provided them with false ID cards and false ration cards,” remembered Don Aldo. “We located their place of residency in a city south of Rome, as that part of Italy had been liberated by the Allies, so we knew that if a suspicious German or Italian fascist soldier tried to check the documents, they would hit a dead end.”
The priest and several collaborators were arrested by the Germans in May 1944, but they were saved the next month when hostilities finally ended in the region around Assisi.
Religious Hiding Places
Bishop Nicolini employed 26 monasteries and convents as hiding places, including some that were supposed to be cloistered, finding the main historical shrines as being too obvious. His residence was another trusted place. Interestingly, it is the same building where St. Francis received his own bishop’s blessing for his new order.
Personal effects, including family mementos and objects or texts used for Jewish religious services (some rabbis were among the protected), were hidden behind plaster walls in underground cellars in Bishop Nicolini’s residence.
Don Aldo described how he and Bishop Nicolini took turns walling up or pulling out the hidden materials.
“The work was not done by workers, but by the bishop himself, who used the trowel to build the walls while I held the lantern,” he said. “When a wall had to be broken into, I would wield the pick while the bishop held the light for me. These operations were performed whenever we had to restore objects to individuals who were leaving Assisi, even before the end of the war.”
The threat of German intervention was terrifyingly real, as demonstrated in October 1943, when German troops arrested Jews in Rome. On Oct. 23, 1,035 men, women and children were deported to Auschwitz- Birkenau, where more than 800 were murdered in the concentration camp’s gas chambers.
According to Don Aldo, it was too dangerous to keep precise records of the Jewish population — spies were everywhere — but he estimated that about 300 Jews were saved. Santucci confirms this estimate.
For the 50th anniversary of Assisi’s liberation in 1994, Santucci published a book in Italian that included testimony from refugees. An account by Emilio Viterbi, former dean of the University of Padua, who was protected, together with his wife and two daughters, is especially revealing about Bishop Nicolini’s selflessness.
“During the last period of the occupation, the episcopal palace of Bishop Nicolini had become an asylum for a great number of refugees and persons who were being persecuted,” wrote Viterbi. “Nonetheless, when I went to him to ask if, in the case of extreme difficulty, he could house me and my family, with great simplicity and a smile, he said: ‘There is no room left except my bedroom and my office. However, I can sleep in my office. The bedroom is yours.’ This is what this distinguished prelate of Assisi was like.”
As Don Aldo observed about Bishop Nicolini, “He would not let anyone intimidate him from performing what he as pastor was required to do.”
One Jewish family from Belgium had arrived in Assisi early in the war and were registered there as Jews. German police came to get them several times after the occupation, so the bishop assigned them to his best hiding place: the most rigid cloister in Assisi, where the French Colettine Poor Clares lived. Nuns in that order were never seen by the male priests except behind screens for confession, yet they adopted the Jewish Finzi family with the bishop’s permission.
Twenty years later, a notice came to the convent ordering the Finzis’ child, who had been born in Assisi, into Italian military service. The family had long before moved back to Belgium.
In 1977, Israel awarded Don Aldo and Bishop Nicolini’s successor on behalf of Bishop Nicolini, who died in 1973, the Righteous Among the Nations medal, which was given to non-Jews who saved Jewish lives at personal risk during World War II. Three others from Assisi also received the medal. More than 11,000 rescuers have received the designation.
At Yad Vashem, Israel’s monument to the Holocaust, an account of Assisi’s assistance to persecuted Jews is told.
Tomorrow: How Assisi Catholics Protected Jews During World War II, Part II.
Victor Gaetan received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba. He writes from Washington, D.C.