I know where I will be at 9 pm on January 27th: in the city hall of Assisi where young local musicians and actors will perform readings of Primo Levi (his If This be a Man is one of the most compelling books I have ever read.) Brilliant scientist, Primo Levi was one of the few Italians who made it back from Auschwitz (liberated on January 27, 1945). Il Giorno della Memoria as a day of tribute to Shoah victims – “and to diffuse reciprocal respect for the diversities of cultures and religions, denying every type of racism and antisemitism” – became law in Italy in 2000.
During these days preceding January 27th, teachers all over Italy – at every grade level – are engaging their students in special projects to commemorate awareness of the Shoah – and racism and intolerance in general. As long as he was alive, Don Aldo Brunacci – the Assisi priest who helped hide Jewish refugees in Assisi – was asked to speak in the schools and for civic meetings. He died in late 2007 – and I wrote this at that time:
“Don Aldo Brunacci died Feburary 2nd and his funeral was the day after, 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 ten 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).”
When Don Aldo was alive, I took many people to visit him: The encounters were always very moving (some guests were holocaust survivors, others had lost family in the holocaust). Each encounter with Don Aldo was unique and each was most moving as Don Aldo answered visitors questions about the “Assisi Underground.”
(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”
Here are a few dialogues I remember:
Q: “Did anyone ever die during the year or so that the Jews were hidden here in Assisi?”
Don Aldo: “Yes, one woman, Clara Weiss – an elderly Austrian. She died of a heart attack. She was hiding in the convent of San Quirico and one of the nuns 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: Clara 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 “Vitelli”.
Graziella lives in Rome now but she tells me that her heart remains in Assisi, where she – and all the Jewish refugees hidden here – were saved. She once told me that her father decided to bring the family here, “knowing we would be safe in the town of San Francesco.”
Click here for information on the video Assisi in Silence (of our friends, Arturo and Patrice Sbicca) about Assisi’s hidden network that saved Jews and refugees during WWII.
Read more about the Assisi, Museum of Memory
Read about the Yad Veshem tribute to Don Aldo Brunacci and four others from Assisi
Graziella Viterbi and family were saved thanks to the “Assisi Underground” – read about her here
More on Graziella’s story here
Click here for a video on Don Aldo’s testimony
Read more on Assisi’s help to the Jewish refugees in World War II
Read how the California Jewish community thanked Assisi following the 1997 earthquake