Following Francis’ Footsteps: How Assisi Protected Jews During World War II, Part II

At significant risk to themselves, local Catholics and a German Catholic commander preserved peace in the birthplace of St. Francis.

American soldier at altar in bombed Catholic Church in Acerno, Italy. Acerno was bombed in September 1943 by Anglo-American forces, which destroyed part of the bishop’s palace and the church of S. Maria degli Angeli. This was the scenario feared by civil and religious leaders in Assisi in 1943-44.
American soldier at altar in bombed Catholic Church in Acerno, Italy. Acerno was bombed in September 1943 by Anglo-American forces, which destroyed part of the bishop’s palace and the church of S. Maria degli Angeli. This was the scenario feared by civil and religious leaders in Assisi in 1943-44. (photo: Office of War Information, United States National Archives and Records Administration/ public domain)

ASSISI, ITALY-The Italian city of Assisi, that was the home of St. Francis, became from 1943 to 1944, a shelter for thousands of refugees displaced by World War II.  Italian Scholar Francesco Santucci has researched and recounted the Catholic effort to protect Jewish refugees.  Yesterday Part I told the story of Assisi’s wartime bishop, Guiseppi Nicolini, and his priest secretary, Father Aldo Brunacci, who together masterminded the network of hiding places for Jewish families in the city’s convents, monasteries and private homes—including the bishop’s palace. Part II recounts the strategy that prevented Assisi from suffering any military damage despite its location in an embattled region.


Catholic Military Contribution

What spared Assisi from military hostilities, according to Santucci, were an intelligent strategy and an intense lobbying campaign carried out by Bishop Nicolini, the town’s mayor, Arnaldo Fortini, and the German Catholic commander of the occupying force, Col. Valentin Müller.

A medical doctor who would favor religious over national identity in some key strategic decisions, Müller had been placed in charge of German medical operations in Assisi; in 1944, he was assigned to serve as its German commander. A cradle Catholic from Bavaria, he had attended minor seminary from age 13 to 20 before entering medical school. His military assignment before Assisi was in Lourdes, France, where he served as medical director.

While in Assisi, Müller attended daily Mass and Communion at St. Francis’ tomb.

According to Santucci and to Don Aldo’s testimony, it was Müller who initiated a campaign to designate Assisi as a “hospital city.” Under the Geneva Convention that governs wartime engagement, that meant the area gained immunity from fighting and could not be bombed.

Achieving “hospital city” status meant eliminating military personnel not engaged in medical work. As it was close to two airports, Assisi was a natural place to pilots and officers, but Müller managed to move German pilots and officers out of Assisi hotels.

Meanwhile, Mayor Fortini approached Italian authorities to request that Italian recruits not be allowed to train in Assisi. For his part, Bishop Nicolini appealed to the Vatican to prevent air-raid shelters from being built near the local basilica.

Since the Vatican controlled extensive religious properties in Assisi, the bishop requested that the Pope negotiate immunity for Assisi with Allied forces. Arguments for this included the absence of industry or major transportation networks in the town.

Another avenue on behalf of Assisi was opened by Father Bede Hess, the general superior of the Order of Friars Minor Conventional, who was an American with close ties to President Franklin Roosevelt’s special representative to the Holy See, Myron Taylor. He argued that American troops should protect Assisi because so many American Catholics venerate St. Francis. Moreover, the town was largely composed of religious buildings with no military significance.

An example of how Bishop Nicolini and Müller maintained communication during the war was offered by Santucci. When the bishop discovered that some German military personnel had occupied a strategic villa, he called Müller, who ordered the Germans out and immediately set up a small hospital in the villa instead.

Eventually, Müller established six hospital sites in Assisi, several in religious buildings, for which the bishop gave permission — despite the fact that the Vatican technically owned at least one, the Umbrian Regional Seminary.


Final Dangerous Days

As German troops retreated from the area in May and June 1944, pushed further north by Allied troops, Assisi faced its final, most risky phase of the war. If desperate German troops or S.S. units entered Assisi, the town would immediately risk bombardment from the allies.

So Müller sent hospital staff to guard Assisi’s gates and prevent troops from entering the town, setting up an around-the-clock barricade to preserve Assisi’s demilitarized identity.

In mid-June 1944, Müller evacuated 2,000 German wounded from the hospitals as Allied troops closed in. He personally stayed at Assisi’s main gate as violent and vengeful S.S. troops pillaged through the surrounding area, torching silos, bridges, villas and barns.

Müller finally evacuated Assisi himself after midnight on June 16, a night of intense fighting. Citizens and religious gathered in the lower basilica to pray the Rosary at the tomb of St. Francis, turning the church into a massive dormitory.

As the Allies arrived on June 17, they opened fire on Germans in surrounding hills, which provoked a German artillery barrage. Luckily, the hilltop town avoided major destruction, and the Allies established a new government in Assisi that day.

As Santucci said, “The people of Assisi felt that they were protected by God, St. Francis and Colonel Müller.”

The colonel’s unusual role was recognized by town officials, who named a street after him. In 1950, he visited Assisi and was warmly welcomed, despite being part of the invading army. One year later, he died in Germany of lung cancer.

On the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Francis, a delegation from Assisi was visiting various Franciscan sites in Europe. They decided to bring olive branches to Müller’s grave, where they were moved to see, carved on his headstone, a relief of the Basilica of St. Francis and the words: In serviendo consumer (I give my life in serving).

In his summary of the Assisi story, Don Aldo Brunacci wrote, “In a period of passion and opposing views, a few citizens … had overcome, even at great risk to their own persons, the divisions between ideologies and saw in each person a brother or a sister whom they must save.”

Although there are no comprehensive records of German Catholic officers during World War II who tried to bypass the death and destruction embodied in the German mission, another interesting case can be found in Monte Cassino, the monastery destroyed in March 1943.

Before the battle of Monte Cassino, two Christian German officers, the Catholic Lt. Col. Julius Schlegel and the Protestant Capt. Maximilian Becker, packed the 1,500-year-old Abbey of Monte Cassino’s archives and masterpieces into a convoy of 100 trucks and transferred the priceless materials to the Vatican in an effort that took three weeks.

Had they not made this massive effort, the manuscripts and paintings would have been destroyed in the massive bombing raid by Allied forces — an attack that the Pentagon concluded in 1969 was unnecessary because there were no German troops hiding in the monastery.


The Catholic Legacy

According to Don Aldo, in terms of using Church resources to hide and protect Jews, “Practically all the Italian clergy were working on similar lines as ourselves.”

Asked by an American journalist in 2003 about Pope Pius XII’s purported “silence” during the war, Don Aldo responded, rhetorically, “What is better: to do or to say?”

When the journalist said, “To do,” Don Aldo responded, “Then let me tell you what Pius XII did for the Jews, in all the convents of Rome, in the Vatican and in the extraterritorial zones of the Vatican — there were Jews hidden in all those places [which] could not have done what they did without the Pope knowing. … The clergy everywhere in Italy did a bit of what we did in Assisi.”

On June 4, 1944, when Rome was liberated by the Americans, Don Aldo was in the Vatican’s relief office. He watched Gen. Mark Clark drive up the steps of St. Peter’s in a jeep.

“I saw St. Peter’s Square and the Via della Conciliazone fill up with crowds who had come to thank Pope Pius XII,” Don Aldo said. “There were many Jews among them. The question of Pius XII arose after 1963, and no one knows why. For what reason did they need a scapegoat?”

According to Rabbi David Dalin, whose book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews From the Nazis (Regnery Publishing, 2005) is an excellent account, “Pope Pius XII … deserves to be recognized as a ‘Righteous Gentile’ as well; no other pope in history had ever before been so universally praised by Jews as Pius was for his role in saving Jews during the Holocaust.”

Rabbi Dalin considers Pinchas Lapide, an Israeli historian and diplomat, to be the foremost authority on the case of Pius XII. Lapide, who served as the Israeli consul in Milan, spoke to many survivors and conducted research on the question. He concluded that Pius XII “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000, Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.”

Rabbi Dalin says that Lapides’ research and his book Three Popes and the Jews are the “definitive work by a Jewish scholar on the subject.”

Who does Rabbi Dalin blame for the slander against Pope Pius XII? He sees the dispute as an aggressive reflection of the culture war.

He writes, “Jews, whatever their feelings about Roman Catholicism, have a duty to reject arguments that usurp the Holocaust and use it for a liberal war against the Catholic Church, that, if successful, would undermine the foundations of Christianity and Judaism alike, because of the liberal critics’ overwhelming disregard for traditional religion and the truth” — an attitude that was irrelevant when real people were saving real lives in places such as Assisi in 1943 and 1944.

Victor Gaetan received the 2011 Catholic Press Association’s top award for a Register series on Cuba. He writes from Washington, D.C.