The subject of the Vatican’s response to the Fascist persecution of the Jews is complex and much debated. Whilst the Catholic Church has often been criticized for its tacit acceptance of the Nazi deportation of Jews, a clearer picture of Italy’s underground network of saviors – which allowed the majority of the 45,000 Jews residing within the Italian border to be rescued – seems to suggest that the majority of the survivors owed their lives to the Catholic clergy.
Historian Margherita Marchione in her book ”Yours is a Precious Witness” reveals that in a series of interviews with Italian clergy she was repeatedly shown how, contrary to general belief, ”at the request of Pope Pius XII, doors of convents and monasteries were opened to save the Jews when the Nazis occupied Italy” (from Holocaust Heroes). It seems in other words that whilst no official statement was made by the Pope as a reaction to the Nazi Final Solution, an efficient network of individuals ranging from local priests, monks and nuns to partisans and villagers alike, was established underground, working against the clock and under the Pope’s consent to ensure survival for the majority of Jews in Italian territory. Some 155 Catholic institutions, including convents, monasteries and seminaries across Italy each hosted on average 25-30 Jews and offered a safe haven to desperate families and children trying to escape their death sentence.
Mordecai Paldiel, the research Chief of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial which utilizes rigid benchmarks to assess Holocaust saviors, has no doubt of the importance of the Italian clergy in the rescue of the Jews residing in Italy during WW II: ”There can be little doubt that the rescue of 85 per cent of Italy’s Jews can be safely attributed to the massive support extended to fleeing Jews by the overwhelming majority of the Catholic clergy… as well as from people from all walks of life, even officials and militiamen within the more intensely Fascist regime” (from Holocaust Heroes). The local clergy, the partisans and villagers collaborated in an attempt to counteract the German plans of deportation and the majority of time succeeded in supplying refugees with a safe harbor, clothes, food and most importantly the forged papers necessary to reach the Italian South where freedom had been ensured by the Allies’ invasion and subsequent occupation.
Don Francesco Brondello, a local priest from Borgo San Dalmazzo, a small town in the Italian Alps, is one of such War heroes. Now retired in his late eighties and leading a quiet existence in the nearby village of Fontanelle, Don Francesco still possesses that same energy, compassion and commitment to those who suffer, that led him 60 years ago to risk his life and sacrifice himself for the safety of others. Born in Borgo San Dalmazzo in 1920, he was only 23 when he found himself at the geographical epicenter of Nazi deportation and started a localized resistance with the help of various partisans groups. Courageous, idealistic and an incredibly talented skier, Don Brondello used his knowledge of the surrounding mountains and his ability to master the tortuous paths that linked nearby villages, German military posts, and Partisans secret hideaways, to bring food and other commodities to dozens of Jewish families hidden in the Italian Alps after the armistice with the Allies.
Hundreds of Jews are estimated to have taken refuge in the steep mountains that connect the French border to Italian soil. With the armistice of September 8th, 1943, making Italy no longer allied to the Axis powers, the IV Armada in Southern France collapsed. The Italian army, which had occupied French territory since November 1942, had provided up to that moment, paradoxical as it sounds, a relatively safe existence for the thousand of non- French Jewish who took refuge in Southern France. Fajerstein- Walchirk, one of the refugees who lived under the control of the Italian army explains in an article which appeared in the Chicago Jewish News (Dec 2, 2004), how the Italian occupation had been relatively benign: ”Jews lived in a much more comfortable way. The Italians were not rabid anti-Semites.” ”Jews had to register at the police station”, she continues, but ”otherwise they were treated much more humanely and with greater dignity than elsewhere.”
Consequently, when the Italian army fell apart and soldiers rushed back to Italy, the Jews residing in the French southern areas, fearing that without the somewhat benign influence of the Italians they would be left in the hands of the Nazis, decided to follow the returning Italian soldiers through the Alps into Italian territory. In the days following the armistice, more than 800 Jews crossed the mountains through the Colle delle Finestre and Ciriegia with their families and babies, carrying suitcases and bundles and climbing the steep valleys in their sandals and summer clothes. Along the way, they slept in barracks and convents and after walking interruptedly for 3 long days, they finally reached the Italian towns of Valdieri and Entreacque.
For many of them the dream of escaping persecution did not become a reality. The Nazi troops reached the western Italian region around Cuneo a few days later and some 349 Jewish people, upon the Germans’ threat of execution, reported themselves to the Police and were deported to Auswichez soon after. However, many refused to give themselves up and, with the assistance of courageous priests such as Don Brondello, remained successfully hidden in the caves, which dotted the Italian mountains. Later, they made their way towards the liberated south territories.
During the days following the armistice, Don Brondello looked after hundreds of Jews hidden in the Alpine valleys, bringing winter clothes, shoes, and the little food that he managed to gather from the local peasants, and shared whatever he could with the refugees. ”It was amazing how people risked their lives. They shared their meager things with us when they really didn’t have any food either,” recounts on of the refugees who was saved by Don Brondello. In an interview given in February 2001 Don Brondello remembers the exodus across the Alps as a ”very painful situation for the 800 refugees searching for a roof… they had nothing with them, no warm clothes, or shoes, nothing to eat! It was painful to watch… I was 23 years old and I firmly believed that my role as a priest was to stand besides those who suffer, no matter which religious or ethnic group they belonged to.”
With the help of his good friend Don Ghibaudo Mauro (who was later killed by the Nazis), Don Francesco hid as many refugees as he could in convents and other institutions presided over by nuns, whilst some found hospitality in local houses. After having fed them and provided all necessary supplies, he organized and distributed forged identity papers in collaboration with a partisan organization. With the assistance of Don Viale, he helped entire Jewish families to escape to Switzerland via Milan or to Southern Italy via Genoa.
”In order not to be caught by the German police,” Don Brondello remembers, ”Don Ghibaudo and myself had fabricated a plan: we had decided that all the communication between us with the regards to the Jewish refugees should be in the local Piedmont dialect, written in Greek characters… in this way they would not be able to understand any of our correspondence.”
Despite his astute plan and his incredible agility as a skier, Don Brondello was eventually detained by the German police, tortured and put in prison until the end of the war.
The first time the German police tried to arrest him he was on his way to the nearby French town of S. Martin carrying 78 letters from the prisoners of Borgo San Dalmazzo concentration camp to their families and friends. ”When the Jews crossed from the town of S. Martin Vesubie, some left over there families and friends… I remember 78 letters written by the prisoners who wanted me to take them to St. Martin… I remember there was a Slovenian man who came with me- he said that it was years since he saw his mother last… he had just found out that his mother had gone to work in St. Martin as a maid and wanted to join me in the journey… It was mid November and there was snow everywhere… We spent the night in the woods and the next day the Slovenian decided to go back to the Italian border because he thought the crossing to be too dangerous… However as I later found out he was not going back for that reason… in reality he was a spy for the Germans and his role was to pin point any dangerous individual working for the Resistance… like me… As I climbed into the bus in St. Martin two Gestapo policemen approached me and asked for my passport- there was nowhere to escape… So I stayed in the bus and arrived in Nice at 6 in the evening – […] I began to walk in Central Nice and the police officers were standing right behind me… I said to myself, ‘I have to run away or else I’ll end up in the police office!’… So I began running and they start shooting, but I kept running… I eventually found a church, the church of St. Francois de Paul, and I went in asking for help. A friar opened the loft in the roof of the church and I ran upstairs to hide… I was terrified in that instant… I stayed hidden for a while and then I asked the friar for a bike and went back to Valdieri, near Borgo San Dalmazzo. […] I was so happy that I was back in Valdieri that I couldn’t stop crying for the joy… I kept screaming, ”I managed to run away from the Germans!”
Despite eluding the Germans in Nice, Don Brondello was eventually captured, beaten up and locked up in prison, when a villager from Borgo San Dalmazzo who had joined the ”Black Brigade” (the military wing of the Fascist party instituted in June 1944) betrayed him to the German police. Brondello himself recounts: ”One time a man named Ferraris from the Village, who knew me and belonged to the Black Brigade, asked me to follow him. ”Go and get your hat,” said the man, ”and follow me.” This time I thought to myself I won’t run away… They put me in a van and took me to the Police Station where the head of the Black Brigade, commandant Bellinetti ask me a series of questions: ”Why do you follow the order of Pope Pio XII?… You priests should only have the right to live if instead of teaching Jesus’ life you gave young boys weapons and taught them to shoot, shoot. Shoot!!”… Then somebody else took a hand grenade and put it into my mouth whilst another officer starts asking questions to which I could not answer because I had the bomb in my mouth… ”Answer! Answer or otherwise I shoot you!” he kept yelling… The next day I went through another interrogation… I was tortured, beaten up, for two long hours… I was bleeding everywhere…”
The terrible injuries inflicted by the Gestapo and Black Shirts to the young priest for refusing to divulge the names of his collaborators did not effect his intrinsic goodness and righteousness. His only answer to the police’s questions of why he helped Jews and partisans alike rather than collaborating with the Authorities was: ”I don’t care if one is a partisan or a Jew… When I meet a man who asks for help, as a priest, I must stop, whatever the consequences… instead of asking his name I do what I can to help as if he were my brother.” Sixty one years after the end of the war Don Brondello remembers those terrible events with a hint of humor as if the smile on his face could not be wiped off even by the most painful of personal memories. He still puts sacrifice for those who suffer at the top of his duties and he feels no resentment for the men who tortured him. ”I don’t care what they did to me in prison… I forgive them, I will always forgive them. I only pray for them to understand, so that they will never do again what they have done in the past.”
The story of Don Brondello personifies those rare virtues of selflessness and courage that represent the only lights in the darkness of the Holocaust. But his story is not unique; hundreds of priests, nuns, and monks throughout WWII set such an example of generosity and sacrifice which should not be underestimated. As Paldiel of Yad Vashem emphasizes vis a vis the support of the Italian clergy for Jewish refuges: ”In no other occupied Catholic country were monasteries, convents, shrines, and religious houses opened to the fleeing Jews, and their needs attended to, without any overt intention to steer them away from their ancient faith, solely to abide by the pre-eminent religious command for the sanctity of life. Through this, they epitomized the best and most elevated forms of religious faith and human fidelity.”
- Paldiel, Mordecai. The Path of the Righteous. Hoboken: KTAV Publishing House. 1993.
- Dubkin Yearwood, Pauline. ”Giving Thanks.” Chicago Jewish News. Nov. 26 – Dec. 2, 2004.
- Il parroco che aiuto gli ebrei. Intervista a don Francesco Brondello. Febbraio 2001. <www.deportati.it>