I have thought about Graziella Viterbi now and then over the past few months, wondering how she was and hoping to look her up in Rome.
Alas, I can’t now: this survivor of the Holocaust who found refuge in Assisi with her family in 1943 died in mid-March at the age of ninety-two.
“Assisi was home for her – more than Rome,” her son Rabbi Benedetto Carucci Viterbi told me when I recently called him in Rome to offer sincere condoglianze for the death of his mother. “She was very very attached to Assisi and in fact, my brother and I just found a poem about Assisi she had written.”
Ironically, participants in our Elderhostel programs in Assisi also stayed in that hotel – and after I met Graziella, I had invited her to each program to share her story; although she had lived in Rome since 1950, Graziella spent many months annually in her beloved Assisi.
Just a few doors down from the Hotel Sole was the Brizi gift shop (once their print shop). Enthroned in the center, surrounded by Assisi souvenir memorabilia and colorful Deruta maiolica, was the printing press on which Luigi Brizi and son Trento (uncle of Ugo, shop owner until recently) had printed the false ID documents assuring the safety of all the Jewish refugees (probably over 300) hidden in Assisi.
That historic, life-saving (literally) printing press greets you as you enter Assisi’s Museo della Memoria located in the Palazzo Vescovado (“Bishop’s palace”):
In this “Museum of Memory,” you’ll see the false ID’s printed by Luigi and Trento Brizi for Graziella and her family (with their new surname “Vitelli” and living in Lecce in southern Italy, already liberated):
…. and ironically here in this very Palazzo del Vescovado, Emiliano Viterbi, Graziella’s father, had once called on Bishop Nicolini in 1943 to ask assistance in housing for the Viterbi family. (The bishop offered them his own bedroom!).
On my recent visit there, I thought about Professore Emiliano Viterbi gazing on the same view of Assisi’s 14th-c fortress, la Rocca Maggiore, if he’d turned back when walking through the wrought iron entryway gate to the bishop’s palace:
You can read the story of his family’s flight from their Padua to Assisi in the section of the Museo dedicated to the Jewish refugees’ stories. A nearby display is dedicated to the religious institutions where some of the refugees were hidden. Steps away from the Museo della Memoria is the entrance to the cloistered convent of the Clarisse (Poor Clares), San Quirico: a convent of refuge.
A bit further down the road is the pink and white-striped Monastero di Santa Coletta, convent of the French Clarisse where a Jewish Belgian family at great risk lived with the Sisters right inside their cloister during 1943-1944.
In the section of the “Righteous Gentiles,” you’ll find the story of the five from Assisi honored in Yad Veshem, Israel: the two printers, Bishop Nicolini and the priests, Padre Rufino Niccacci and Don Aldo Brunacci.
More than once when taking visitors through Assisi, we’d stop at Casa Papa Giovanni to visit Don Aldo Brunacci to hear his stories of assistance to the Jewish refugees in Assisi – including Graziella’s family.
I remember one story he (or Graziella) had told me: Signor Viterbi went to see Don Aldo to request help on finding another home to rent, no longer feeling secure at the Hotel Sole (German soldiers had gone there looking for them). German soldiers came to arrest Don Aldo during the Viterbis’ visit (they were up on the second floor). Don Aldo went up to get his breviary, closed the door and went off with the Germans. The Viterbi family was safe. (Don Aldo was released due to lack of evidence to retain him).
Every encounter with Graziella during the Elderhostel programs was memorable. Each time, I learned more about the “Assisi Underground” successful efforts to hide the Jewish refugees at these open-question sessions. Questions varied and Graziella’s answers always unveiled new details.
For many, those sessions were a highlight of the Assisi EH programs. No one ever forgot her. Including Paul and Lois Levine of the San Francisco Bay Area. After the September 26, 1997 earthquake, the Levines made contact with Rabbi Doug Kahn in San Francisco. Their message was clear: Assisi helped the Jews during World War II and now it’s our turn to help Assisi. The Jewish community of the San Francisco Bay Area raised $40,000 for Assisi earthquake restoration (the funds were used for the post-quake restoration of Assisi’s Istituto Serafico, providing care for severely disabled youth and children).
I told Graziella’s son, Rabbi Carucci Viterbi, about this when we recently talked on the phone. Graziella had never told him about this bellissimo act of reciprocity, all due to her conversations with visiting Americans at the Hotel Sole.
I postponed my visit to Graziella.
Don’t postpone yours to Assisi and to the Museo della Memoria.
And end your visit to the Museo with a stroll to the sites mentioned above, creating your own “Assisi Jewish history” walk.
**Mille grazie to Rabbi Benedetto Carucci Viterbi for the lead photo of his mother, Graziella Viterbi. Thanks to Laura Papallo for her photo and also to Michele Modestini for her photos of the Hotel Sole. My thanks also to the Museo della Memoria staff for letting me photograph exhibits so freely in the Museum: many of those photos appear in this note.
Click here to read about the Clarisse of the Monastero di San Quirico – and how they celebrate Good Friday
Read about both Graziella Viterbi and Don Aldo Brunacci here.
See the video here of Don Aldo Brunacci’s testimony
Read about Jewish solidarity with Assisi, post-earthquake 1997 – and not only
Read about the Veshem declaration of “Righteous Gentile” for five in Assisi
Read more about Assisi’s assistance to Jewish refugees in World War II