Catholic Saved Thousands during Holocaust

In honor of Father Marie Benoit’s actions to save thousands of lives during the Holocaust, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) sponsored a Mass on Dec. 1, the fortieth anniversary of Benoit’s designation as a ”Righteous Among the Nations” at St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church. Members of the IRWF gathered in the Church’s Hall afterward to greet guests and provide further information on Holocaust saviors.

Father Marie Benoit used his connections with border guides, the French underground, and diverse religious organizations to obtain asylum documents and hiding places and to smuggle refugees into Spain and Switzerland. The printing press in the basement of his Capuchin monastery in Marseilles created thousands of false baptismal certificates for distribution to Jews, and he persuaded the Italian commissioner of Jewish affairs to refrain from action against the 30,000 Jews who lived in and around Nice.

Undaunted after the Gestapo’s discovery of his activities forced him to move from France, Benoit transformed his new monastery in Rome into a way station and rescue center to aid hundreds of Jewish and anti-Nazi refugees. He worked with Delasem (Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei), the Jewish welfare organization in Italy, which would use Benoit’s monastery to store archives, hold meetings, and provide food and shelter to refugees. He reached out to neutral and friendly embassies to procure asylum documents enabling Jews to circulate freely under false names, and from the police he extracted ration cards that he pretended were for non-Jewish emigrants.

While the Vatican has been criticized for its silence during the Nazi deportation of Jews, the actions of a large number of clergy, including Benoit, can be remembered and honored as moral examples for all to emulate and learn from, even in the face of great evil. His actions demonstrate civic courage, solidarity, and compassion regardless of religion or ethnicity—timeless values upon which peace depends.

A commission headed by a Supreme Court of Israel justice awards the honorary title of Righteous Among the Nations to non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. It depends on meticulous studies of documentation, including evidence by survivors and other eyewitnesses.

Masses will also take place in France: one in Angers, where Marie-Benoit passed away, and another one in Paris where in 1966, he was bestowed with the righteous title. The Franciscan Capuchins of Italy, Portugal and East Timor are also joining the initiative by promoting the celebration of a Thanksgiving Mass on December 1st in their communities.

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization whose mission is to develop educational programs and public awareness campaigns that promote the moral legacy of Holocaust saviors.

About Father Marie Benoit

Father Marie-Benoit, Pierre Peteul, was born in Bourg d’Iré (Maine et Loire), France, on March 30, 1895. He served in the military in North Africa and fought World War I in Verdun. He received the distinction of five citations and a Cross of War. Later he entered the Franciscan Capuchin Order and became a priest.

In Marseilles in 1940, he found thousands of refugees trying to escape the horrors of World War II. He tried to help them because, in his own words, ”We Christians claim to be spiritual children of the patriarch Abraham. This should be enough reason to exclude any kind of anti-Semitism whatsoever, anti-Semitism being an ideology which we Christians cannot in any way share and be part of.”

The convent of the Capuchins in Marseilles, at 51 rue de la Croix de Régnier, served as his first basement ”headquarters.” There he installed improvised and elaborate printing facilities that he used to create fake passports, certificates of baptism, and other documents that helped hundreds of refugees to cross the border to Spain and Switzerland, with the aid and collaboration of Jewish organizations (such as the General Union of the Israelites of France) and members of the French resistance.

In Nice, Father Benoit met Angelo Donati, a Jewish banker and director of the French-Italian Bank of Credit. Donati had a plan to transport over 30,000 Jews from Italy to North Africa by boat. To carry it out, he needed the cooperation of the Holy See in the Vatican to approach the Italian authorities. His Superior General arranged a meeting between Father Benoit and Pope Pius XII, to whom Father Benoit explained that the police in Vichy were acting against the Jews. Pius XII showed his surprise, saying, ”Who could ever expect this from France?” He promised Father Benoit that he would diligently deal with the situation.

Soon after this meeting, Father Benoit together with Cardinal Maglione in the Vatican tried to arrange for Spanish Jews stranded in France to be transferred back to their country. Spanish leader Francisco Franco agreed in principle, but in reality bureaucratic and other obstacles jeopardized the plan.

Several times in France and Italy, the Gestapo subjected Father Benoit to intensive searches and tried to arrest him. After a warning, he was forced to go underground to continue his rescue efforts. He was in Italy when the Allies entered Rome on June 4, 1944. As the Jewish gathered in front of the Synagogue, unable to enter, ”this blessed father” appeared in the middle of the confused crowd and happened to know where to find the hidden key.

On December 1, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Father Benoit as a Righteous Among the Nations. He helped hundreds of Jews to reach Switzerland and Spain from the South of France. Pursued by the Gestapo, he escaped to Rome. There, from his office in the ”College of the Capuchins,” and in coordination with Delasem (the main Jewish welfare organization), he continued his lifesaving efforts. He became a legendary figure, called ”the father of the Jews” by those he saved.