Don Aldo Brunacci died Feburary 2nd and his funeral was on Saturday, the 3rd, in the overflowing 12th century Cathedral of San Rufino where Don Aldo had served as canon for many years. The funeral Mass was presided by the bishop, surrounded by over 10 other clerics and Prof. Gustavo Reichenbach, representing the Jewish community of Perugia. As the Cathedral choir sang, "The Lord is my shepherd", I couldn't help thinking how befitting that this Old Testament psalm highlighted Don Aldo's funeral: he had been the "good shepherd" to so many Jewish refugees hidden here in Assisi in World War II, along with Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini, Padre Rufino Niccacci and the printers Luigi and Trento Brizi (who falsified the ID and ration cards of the hidden Jewish refugees).
In 1975, he had been a "good shepherd" to us, too, one of the first people in Assisi to help us get a start. I was talking to Professor Reichenbach after the Mass and as we talked, a RAI (our national TV network) reporter came up and asked us each to share our reflections on Don Aldo. I saw myself on TV that night as I talked about Don Aldo's generous assistance to us when we arrived in Umbria (see "Spielberg Honors an Assisi Priest"), as well as the moving encounters of Don Aldo with some of my tour guests (some of them, children of holocaust survivors).
Now and then - for special occasions (such as the Feast of St. Francis, October 4th) - I took small groups of tour guests to meet Don Aldo. Each encounter with Don Aldo was unique and each was most moving. My tour guests asked Don Aldo questions about his efforts here in World War II and of course, questions varied and the answer to each one always brought me new surprises and new information. Here are a few dialogues I remember:
(from a Jewish tour guest) Q: "Why, Don Aldo, did you take the risk to help our people?" Don Aldo: "Because my bishop asked me to do so - and as Christians, our task is to extend assistance to those who need it"
... and here are examples of a few other exchanges of my tour guests with Don Aldo:
Q: "Did anyone ever die during the year or so that the Jews were hidden here in Assisi?" Don Aldo: "Yes, one woman, Edith Weiss - an elderly Austrian. She died of a heart attack. She was hiding in the convent of San Quirico and one of the Sisters came to tell me. We arranged a funeral - and I went to the municipality and purchased a funeral plot - and she is still buried there in the plot in my name. I led the funeral procession - Catholic, of course - out the Porta San Giacomo gate to the cemetery. As we passed, a German guard at the gate saluted the procession!" (If I remember correctly, Don Aldo also told us that a rabbi was in the procession and when at a distance outside the gate, murmured prayers in Hebrew. Note: Edith Weiss was buried with the surname of "Bianchi" - which like Weiss means "white". Her son came to Assisi in the 1950's from Argentina to visit his mother's tomb - and now her tombstone bears the Star of David).
Q: "Did the Jewish children attend school here in Assisi during the year they were hidden here (note: 1943-1944)? Don Aldo: "No, we felt it better not to run that risk. They studied on their own and I myself tutored some of the older students from northern Italy in Greek and Latin - so that they would be ready for their state exams. The young people also had 'work' to do at home - they had to study about the area in which they had once 'lived'. You see, we provided them with false ID cards and false ration cards. 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, that they would hit a dead end."
*Note - The Italian Jewish refugees in Assisi came principally from the North, for example, from Ferrara, Padua and so forth... Signora Graziella Viterbi, from Padua, was hidden here in Assisi at the age of 18 with her family. They were "assigned" Lecce (in Puglia, the "heel" of the boot) as their provenance - as she told me that - curiously - the Leccese accent was fairly similar to that of Padua. Graziella and her family therefore had to "study" Lecce so as to be prepared if interrogated.
She told me that she spent hours daily working with her younger sister Miriam, quizzing her on the locations of various places in Lecce. Graziella told me, too, that those instrumental in the Assisi Underground, ie, Padre Rufino Niccacci, Don Aldo Brunacci - decided that the false names should start with the same syllable as the true surname in order to (hopefully) give one a second to think and move to the "right" name in time of questioning.
For example, the Viterbi (an Italian Jewish surname) family became "Visconti".
Don Aldo helped me find my first job here in Asissi - just as he found shelter for over 200 Jewish refugees. His reach was wide - and his generosity given without question.
These are comments I received from tour guests who visited Don Aldo with me.
"Thanks, Anne, for letting me know of the death of Don Aldo. Of all the places we went and of all the things we saw, our seeing and hearing him was an absolute highlight for me. I think he was a person at peace with himself and that was so reflected in his demeanor and his humility. When I think of Assisi, I think of him and always will. The book he autographed is so much more precious now.
You know, Anne, it takes a certain kind of person to create a strong sense of serious contemplation in the very middle of the most wonderful trip to Italy. Among the hype, anticipation, exuberance, jubilation, and the magic of seeing all the things in Italy we had heard about---right in the middle of it all, comes this amazing unexpected surprise that just blew us all away. There was not a dry eye in out group and all of us agree he gave us something----I don’t know what in an exact sense it was, but he gave us something special----I think maybe a sense of doing the best we can in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.
His serenity, humility, and the very visible “at peace with himself” composure was so evident. Blew me away…..Assisi has lost a great man." Diane Ruter, Springfield, MO. Feb 2007
"A particularly touching moment during our FESTAtour occurred while visiting Don Aldo Brunacci, a 90-yr old priest in Assisi. A Jewish family accompanying us on the tour brought tears to our eyes as they expressed their heart-felt thanks and appreciation to Father Brunacci for his efforts in helping to hide about 250 Jews from the Nazis in Assisi during WWII."
Ann Corbett, Seattle, WA, 2002
If you would like to know more about Assisi's hidden network that saved Jews and refugees during WWI, friends of ours have produced a very interesting documentary on the subject, entitled Assisi in Silence. You may find it at the following link: www.visionvideo.com.