Anne's Blog

Assisi: Graziella Viterbi’s Refuge during the Holocaust

Date: January 28, 2021 - categories: , , , , - Leave your thoughts

When I think about Graziella Viterbi, I always remember that bright twinkle in her eye, that spark. That spark was there when she met Pope Francis in 2016 during his Assisi visit, thanking him for the Church’s assistance to her and all the Jewish refugees saved in Assisi during World War II.

She certainly had that same sparkling twinkle when she once told an interviewer that with Mussolini’s 1938 racial laws, her initial reaction was relief at not having to go to school – she was twelve at the time –  but then quickly she realized the injustice. “Humpf, they don’t want us? Then I don’t want them.” As she explained it, “That was my reaction of pride”: those racial laws deepened her pride in being Jewish.

Graziella’s father, Emidio Viterbi, soon lost his seat as  chemical professor – and dean  – at the University’ di Padova (Padua) and then many friends, then social esteem- and the family would soon lose the city they loved, Padua.   On September 8, 1943, the Viterbi family’s relatively serene  summer vacation in Porretta  (Emilia -Romagna town famous for centuries for its thermal baths)  was cut short with the arrival of German soldiers.  As Padua was now occupied,  Graziella’s parents decided to head south to Assisi, a city considered to be a safe destination for Jewish refugees – “and although the mayor is Fascist mayor, he’s a kind man, ” a guest in their Porretta hotel had told Professore Viterbi.

Viterbi was also an admirer of San Francesco di Assisi, keeping a copy of the Fioretti – inspirational stories from the Saint’s life – near his bed. Graziella once told me, “My father felt we would be safe in the town of St. Francis.” Decision made.

Upon arrival, recounts Graziella, “we found room in a small hotel.” Ironically, that hotel was the Hotel Sole……seat for many years of  the Elderhostel programs (Roads Scholar now). I used to co-ordinate those programs – and also taught various courses – and after I had met Graziella Viterbi, I asked her to come in to talk about her experiences with our groups… – whenever she was in Assisi, for as of the 1950’s, the Viterbi family lived in Rome.

But Graziella’s heart was in Assisi and she returned often.

Her memories of  her family’s salvation from the Holocaust in Assisi were often the Elderhostel program highlight.

Placed between the wooden shutters of the second-floor bedroom windows on the facade of the Hotel Sole, a painted maiolica tile with the face of San Francesco looks out over his town. I wonder if Professore Viterbi had noted it as he entered his family’s temporary home – that hotel.

 

Once settled in the Hotel Sole, Graziella told our Elderhostel groups that her father had made contact with the Bishop Placido Nicolini so on advice from a Padua friend.

Graziella described the Bishop as a “loving man…like a boy in his enthusiasm – with a wonderful heart.” I also remember her recounting that on receiving the Viterbi family in his quarters at the Palazzo Vescovado (Bishop’s Palace)…

…he told her father that there was no room left except his office, saying”I can make do and sleep in the office. The bedroom is yours.” (and that building still links, in a way, to the Viterbis and other Jewish refugees hidden in Assisi for the Bishop’s Palace now also houses the Museo della Memoria).

And this was the beginning of the Viterbi family’s ties to Monsignore Nicolini, Bishop of Assisi, one of the forces behind Assisi Clandestina (the Assisi Underground). In his (successful) efforts to hide about three hundred Jewish refugees in Assisi, the Bishop was assisted by Don Aldo Brunacci…

Canon of the Cathedral of San Rufino…

and Padre Rufino Niccacci, O.F.M…

…a Franciscan priest at the Church of San Damiano, just outside the Assisi walls:

This clerical team of  Assisi  procured false identity cards and ration cards for the Jewish refugees and procured them lodgings in convents and monasteries – and rental apartments as well.
The Viterbi family were “assigned” Lecce in Puglia (the “heel of the boot”) as their provenance on their identity documents for the accent of Lecce is not strongly identifiable as a southern accent…and southern Italy had been liberated by the Allies. As Don Aldo explained, “We knew that if a suspicious German or Italian fascist soldier tried to check the documents, that they would hit a dead end.”
Graziella and her family therefore had to “study” Lecce so as to be prepared if interrogated.
She told me that she spent hours with books – also in the Assisi library – studying Lecce. Here are a few of her notes:
Graziella worked daily with her younger sister Mirjam, quizzing her on the locations of various places in Lecce.
Graziella told me, too, that those instrumental in the Assisi Underground, i.,e., Padre Rufino Niccacci and 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.
The Viterbi (an Italian Jewish surname) family became “Vitelli”.
Here is Graziella’s false carta d’identita…

 

…and here is her father Emilio’s (his name changed to “Emidio Vitelli”):

…and that of her mother, Margherita (whose name was changed to “Maria Rita Vitelli”):

…and this is her sister Mirjam’s ration card:

These identity cards – as well as Graziella’s notes – are now in Assisi’s Museo della Memoria which documents the story of the “Assisi Underground”:  ironically, in the same building where Bishop Nicolini had received them in 1943:

After a couple months at the Hotel Sole, Graziella’s family moved to a rental apartment in Via Borgo Aretino – not far from the Basilica di Santa Chiara. Superb Assisi photographer, Andrea Angelucci, took this bellissima photo some years ago – not far from the location of the Viterbis’ Assisi rental apartment.

(Photo thanks to Andrea Angelucci, www.angelucci.com)

Even after the liberation of Assisi in June, 1944, the Viterbi family stayed on in the town of St. Francis which had become their home, this place of refuge.  Professore Viterbi, Graziella and Mirjam’s father said  this about Assisi: “Those of us who found refuge in Assisi will never forget the efforts made to save us. Because in the mass extermination of six million European Jews, in Assisi not one of us came to any harm”.

The Viterbis stayed in Assisi until the 1950’s when they moved to Rome (Graziella had graduated in law in Rome – commuting via train from Assisi). But as Rome’s Rabbi Benedetto Carucci-Viterbi, one of her sons, told me some years ago: “Assisi was home for her – more than Rome.” Her other son, Emanuele, an actor and also living in Rome, affirmed this  as we reminisced recently in long telephone chats about their beloved mamma – who died in March, 2019 :  “She lived in Padua until she was seventeen, then in Assisi a couple of years and then for over seventy years in Rome – but her heart was always in Assisi.”

In fact, the Viterbis maintained rental of the Assisi apartment until they had to give it up following the 1997 earthquake (the owners needed to reinforce the structure).  And after that, Graziella would stay in the Hotel Belvedere doors away from their rental apartment.

But Graziella never gave up Assisi: she used to come frequently from Rome to the Hotel Belvedere.

I’d meet her on the street now and then during a guided Assisi tour and my guests were always thrilled to meet her…

– enjoying the added highlight to their tour. We’d chat a bit and then Gabriella would head off, walking slowly back to that favorite hotel, a cane aiding her in later years.

Ah, that resilient, indomitable Graziella.

…and her son, Emanuele, told me why she would never change her Assisi hotel:  when awaking each morning, she wanted to see that view.

Read about Paul Levine, an Elderhostel student of mine in Assisi – and his link to Graziella

Read about Don Aldo Brunacci here

Click to read about Bishop Nicolini’s care for the Jewish refugees in Assisi

Read about Yad Vashem and the Righteous Among the Nations

Read about the cloistered Poor Clares who gave shelter to the Jewish refugees
Read about the Assisi Good Friday procession – with stops at a convent where refugees were hidden
Read about Luigi and Trento Brizi, printers, who falsified the documents hiding Assisi’s Jewish refugees
Read more here about the Brizi printing press  – and a related Assisi commemoration event
Read about Gino Bartali who cycled thousands of miles, transporting hidden documents.

 

 

 

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Agenzia Viaggi Stoppini in Assisi handles all technical support for my guided visits (bus transportation, organization of meals, etc)