The Heroic Capuchin Friar Who Saved Thousands of Jews During World War II
Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, named Father Marie-Benoît ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ for his efforts during World War II.
Father Marie-Benoît, who was awarded the title of “Righteous Among the Nations,” helped save no less than 4,000 Jews from the Nazis thanks to a solid network between France and Italy, and with the financial support of Pope Pius XII.
He was known as “the Father of the Jews” during his lifetime. Father Marie-Benoît, a French Capuchin priest who spent his life between France and Rome, put the defense of persecuted people at the heart of his religious vocation.
Although his figure is relatively unknown today, his name recently recovered a place of honor in the book Histoires extraordinaires des Justes: Portraits de 30 héros parmi les nations (“Extraordinary Stories of the Righteous: Portraits of 30 Heroes Among the Nations”) by historian Dominique Lormier. In this work published on the eve of Victory in Europe Day, May 8, the author — a renowned expert on the history of World War II and the Resistance — focuses on the personalities and journeys of those who, through their heroic actions, often at the risk of their life, helped save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in the regions of Europe that were in the grip of Hitlerian barbarism between 1940 and 1944.
In addition to well-known figures like Giorgio Perlasca and Oskar Schindler (made famous in the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List), four heroic Catholic clergymen attracted the special attention of the French historian: Father Pierre Bockel, Father Jean Fleury, Father Marie-Benoît and Cardinal Jules-Géraud Saliège.
Father Marie-Benoît, in particular, was already the subject of a section of Lormier’s previous book about the “hidden truths of France under the German occupation” (Les vérités cachées de la France sous l’Occupation), notably because of his unexpected collaboration with the Italian army in rescuing Jews during the war. American scholar Susan Zuccotti also dedicated a book to his epic story in 2013.
Born in 1895 under the name of Pierre Péteul, Father Marie-Benoît grew up in the Pays de la Loire region (northwestern France) and distinguished himself through his courage during the First World War, where he was awarded the Croix de guerre and five citations for bravery.
As Lormier recounts in Histoires extraordinaires des Justes, Father Marie-Benoît joined the Capuchin convent of Marseille (Southern France) after the surrender of France in 1940, and hid Allied aviators, members of the Resistance and Jews, providing them false papers so that they could flee to Spain or Switzerland.
In 1942, when the Germans invaded southern France — which had been a free zone until then — Father Marie-Benoît began drawing increasing scrutiny from the Nazis. The French Riviera and Haute-Savoie were under Italian occupation at the time, so he turned to various Italian civil servants and military figures for assistance. They helped him bring thousands of Jews to safety during the war. “Some Italian officers from the elite corps of bersaglieri (skirmishers), carabinieri(gendarmes), and alpini (mountain infantry) took part in these rescue actions,” Lormier wrote.
Recalling that, among European countries, Italy saved the second highest number of Jews (85%) after Denmark (99%), the historian also tells how the priest finally fled to the Capuchin College of Rome to escape the Gestapo in 1943, and continued his rescue mission from there.
In addition to some Jewish organizations, the Capuchin friar relied on another important financial supporter to carry out his mission: that of Pope Pius XII, as documented in Les vérités cachées de la France sous occupation. While quoting Rabbi David Dalin’s testimony, Lormier reveals that an estimated $4 million was transferred directly from the Vatican to Father Marie-Benoît for his rescue work, which saved the lives of around 4,000 Jews.
“The first reason for my action is justice,” Father Marie-Benoît wrote in a note that Lormier found in the Archives of the Capuchin Order in Paris. “The reign of Jesus Christ, which is a reign of love, is also, because of this, a reign of justice: whoever sincerely loves his neighbor, respects first of all his right to life, and therefore cannot remain indifferent and passive in the face of a persecution which is as atrocious as it is unjustified. The duty to intervene is therefore imperative ...”
Christians, he continued, “have in common with the Jewish people the sublime doctrine of Moses according to which all men are created in the image of God, that they are Sons of God, and therefore brothers of one another and called to live this brotherhood in the observance of the Mosaic Decalogue.”
“For more than 30 centuries, this Decalogue has remained the immutable and indispensable basis of all human progress and of the permanence of peace. Christians and Jews recite the same psalms contained in the Bible, which are the most beautiful prayers that a man has ever addressed to his Creator ... Father of all.”
After the war, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, named him among the first “Righteous Among the Nations.” A tree was planted in his honor in the complex’s Garden in Jerusalem.