I first met Don Aldo Brunacci in 1975 shortly after Pino and I moved into our Assisi countryside farmhouse. At that time, I had started teaching English to children – as a supplement to our work on the farm (which was giving us great pleasure and satisfaction but no lire!). The number of students requesting lessons was growing, requiring me to find a space in which to conduct my classes.
One day, I dropped in at the Mancini travel agency steps away from the Basilica di San Francesco. I introduced myself to Dr. Mancini and asked him for suggestions on a solution. With a big smile and “aspetta un momento,” he picked up his phone and dialed.
He had called Don Aldo Brunacci, who ran the retreat house in Assisi, Casa Papa Giovanni. I immediately had a classroom there – at no rent. I taught my classes there during the school year and the following summer, I worked at Casa Papa Giovanni cleaning rooms and helping in the kitchen, along with the two nuns working there.
When our first child, Keegan, was born in 1980, Don Aldo baptized him (in the Cathedral of San Rufino). The traditional festive lunch afterwards – il pranzo del battesimo – for all the guests was held there in Casa Papa Giovanni (once a noble palace, Palazzo Locatelli), upstairs in the frescoed dining room (the palazzo dates to the 17th century). Above our heads were the glorious grottesche frescoes of Prospero Orsi:
We were so grateful to Don Aldo for offering us such a stunning setting for our son Keegan’s baptismal lunch. His reach was wide – and his generosity given without question.
And only years later did I come to know how many people in the world were also grateful to him, this Assisi hero.
Just as Don Aldo immediately found a venue for my students upon request from Dr. Mancini, about three decades prior, he had responded readily to Bishop Nicolini’s request to assist in finding lodgings for about 300 Jewish refugees here in Assisi 1943-1944.
I learned about the “Assisi Underground” bit by bit, through local oral history, by reading, through talks with Don Aldo and Graziella Viterbi from Padua, a survivor who was hidden here in Assisi with her family at the age of 18 – thanks to the help of Don Aldo – and remained inextricably linked to Assisi.
And on her visits – and sojourns – in Assisi over the years, Graziella had always stayed in touch with Don Aldo:
I also had learned much about Donald and “the Assisi Underground watching with fascination the three-hour video interview with Don Aldo done by Spielberg’s Foundation years ago.
In 2003, I had written, “I just read in the paper that Don Aldo Brunacci is in Milan today for the inauguration of the exhibit I Sommersi, I Salvati (‘The Supressed, the Saved’) sponsored by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah, Visual History Foundation. Don Aldo, close to 89 years old, assisted the bishop of Assisi in hiding Jewish refugees in World War II. For this event, Spielberg chose to interview Don Aldo along with three other direct witnesses (out of 400 interviewed by the Foundation in Italy and 50,000 in 57 countries). The event today in Milan will be broadcast on Channel 5, a national network.”
Also in 2003 – on January 19th – Don Aldo was recognized on a national level when Presidente Carlo Azeglio Ciampi conferred on him the Gran Croce dell’Ordine al Merito della Repubblica, one of the highest honors which can be bestowed on an Italian citizen.
Years previously, Don Aldo had been declared Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel.
At that time, those recognized as “Righteous” planted a tree after the awards ceremony – here is one of Don Aldo’s as he planted his tree (a carob tree):
(NOTE: Nowadays, the tree-planting tradition has been discontinued due to lack of space: as of January, 2020, over 27,000 men and women from 51 countries have been recognized by Yad Vashem – where more than 10,000 authenticated rescue stories have been gathered).
For many years, a stop at Casa Papa Giovanni for a chat with Don Aldo sometimes highlighted my Assisi tour – which also included a stop to see the printing press used to falsify the identity documents for the Jews hidden here. Over the years, the print shop had become the souvenir shop of the Brizi family on Piazza Santa Chiara. The press was near the door, surrounded by Assisi memorabilia – and this photo of some years ago shows Don Aldo in that shop near the press:
(The historic printing press is now on display in Assisi’s Museo della Memoria).
Each encounter with Don Aldo was unique and each was most moving.
My tour guests’ 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:
“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.”
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 Sisters came to tell me (NB in November, 1943).
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 medieval arch…..
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 as “Bianca 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 in the Assisi cemetery bears the Star of David…..
….and this inscription: “Here in Assisi she found loving hospitality during the Nazi persecution, taking her last breath peacefully..” Stones line up just below the inscription- an ancient Jewish tradition for cemetery visits.
And Don Aldo Brunacci is buried not far away. He died February 2, 2007. And here, too, many visitors have left stones in homage on the cross marking his grave – Jewish visitors, Italian ones, too:
A plaque at the foot of his grave pays tribute to Don Aldo as “priest of great culture and profound spirituality, commendable for his help to victims of political persecution, especially the Jews during the War 1940-1945, counted amongst the ‘Righteous’ by Israel.”
I will always remember his funeral on February 3, 2007 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 more than ten other clerics and also Professore Gustavo Reichenbach, representing the Jewish community of Perugia.
As the Cathedral choir sang, “The Lord is my shepherd,” I thought 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 Professore 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 as well as the moving encounters of Don Aldo with some of my tour guests (some of them, children of holocaust survivors).
These comments from tour guests who had visited Don Aldo with me.
“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 over 250 Jews from the Nazis in Assisi during World War II.”
Ann Corbett, Seattle, WA, 2002
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…Assisi has lost a great man.” Diane Ruter, Springfield, MO. Feb 2007
Meet this great man, read about his story in Assisi’s Museo della Memoria: