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In Assisi, the Righteous Among Nations: “Just doing my job…”

Date: January 30, 2021 - categories: - 1 Comment

What did a world-champion Tuscan cyclist have in common with two Assisi printers? A couple of things: all three have been recognized as Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem in Israel. And each of the three termed their heroic efforts – at risk of their own lives – as “simply doing my job.”

Gino Bartali –  champion cyclist who transported documents hidden in his bike frame, thus contributing to the salvation of about 800 Jewish refugees – said simply, “I am a cyclist…the others are heroes. I only made available the skills that I have…Riding a bike was my job. I put my  job at the service of others in need…”

His words had been echoed by elderly Trento Brizi, the Assisi printer who assisted his father, Luigi, in falsifying the ID documents (essential for their ration cards  – and sustenance) for the Jewish refugees hidden in Assisi.

Trento’s nephew, Ugo Sciammana – now 86 but still dynamic and with a vivid memory – and I chatted recently about Zio Trento. I asked him if his uncle had spoken much about the risky work undertaken with his father, Luigi, in 1943 and 1944. “Quasi mai – molto poco (‘almost never and very little’),” Signor Ugo replied.  He told me that Trento, if questioned, simply said that they had a responsibility and a duty: “it was something that had to be done and we needed to help those in need.”

I asked Signor Ugo if they had realized the risk, the danger.

Certo” was his reply, “but my uncle and his papa’ Luigi also knew that less talk was better in those days. Everyone did in that horrible time for all.”

Ugo’s son Marco described Trento and his papa’ Luigi as “silent protagonists of an affair that continues to fascinate the world. All of Trento’s relatives confirm his silent discretion both during the war (when clearly reserve served also to protect one’s relatives) and afterwards,  when all knew about the deeds of the protagonists who had silently guarded their actions within the ordinarietà of their daily life.”

The Brizi combination souvenir and print shop near the Basilica di Santa Chiara  had handled all Assisi’s printing needs – which included church bulletins.

A confirmed atheist, Luigi Brizi was approached by one of the local priests – possibly Don Aldo Brunacci, canon of the Cathedral of San Rufino about urgent assistance in a printing project.  He was told that the Jewish refugees in Assisi had need of carte d’identità (identity cards) so as to apply for ration cards – or needed for attempted escapes.

He printed the documents on his rudimentary, pedal-operated press and then added copied seals of southern Italian towns. As southern Italy had been liberated, the Germans could not verify the validity of documents from the South. All the Jewish refugees hidden in Assisi were given false surnames and false places of residence in southern Italian locations.

Father Aldo Brunacci, right-hand man of Bishop Placido Nicolini, spearheaded the rescue operations. One day he lent a bicycle to Trento Brizi so the young man could go to the nearby town of Foligno to the expert engraver there, making the town seals for various places in Southern Italy. The Brizis used these to stamp the fake documents they printed, thus enhancing their “authenticity.”

Marco Sciammana shared with me this extraordinary photo of the engraver’s stamps.  The stamp on the left is engraved with two images: on  the right is the seal of the city of Perugia with griffin, cross and crown and to the left, note the Fascist seal with its symbol, the eagle with wings outspread on the fasces. This bundle of sticks featuring an ax was a symbol of Imperial Rome indicating power over life and death.

In this photo which Marco shared, we see a variety of expertly-engraved stamps of various Italian cities for the falsification of documents:

And here’s Luigi (who died in 1989):

Righteous Among Nations: Luigi

…and years after the war, Trento in their print/souvenir shop (indicating a newspaper article about the  “saints” of Assisi, i.e., the protagonists of the Assisi Underground):

As of  1992, elderly Trento was no longer in their shop:  his nephew Ugo Sciamanna and his lovely wife Giovanna were there to welcome guests to the small shop, now a spot for the purchase of Assisi memorabilia.  

But the historic printing press was there. In the middle.

And here’s a photo of Don Aldo Brunacci – also declared “Righteous Among  the Nations” by Yad Vesham in Israel for his (successful) efforts to hide 300 Jewish refugees in Assisi:

I often included a brief stop at the Brizi shop with my tour guests during an Assisi guided tour where Signor Ugo and Giovanna were delighted to answer anyone’s questions, proudly showing visitors the printing press (which is now in Assisi’s Museo della Memoria).

In 1984, Don Aldo Brunacci and Edo Romoli – then Assisi mayor – accompanied Trento Brizi (age 80) to Philadelphia to receive the homage of the  Graphic Arts Association. Trento Brizi was honored with their Freedom of the Press Award “for demonstrating commitment to a free and uncensored press and to the basic human rights of all people.” At that time, Henry Waldman, chairman of the Graphic Arts Association said, “Trento Brizi and his town of Assisi are examples of what ordinary people can do in the face of tyranny.”

Some years later, Waldman visited Trento in Assisi, seeing first hand the typeset – now in Assisi’s Museo della Memoria – used to print the false identity documents:

 

Alas, Trento died just three years before he and his father Luigi were declared “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Veshem in Israel (July16, 1997).

…and their names are inscribed among the thousands (now, over 27,000) of the Righteous Among Nations:

When you’re next in Assisi, look for the plaque over the door near the Basilica di Santa Chiara, once site of the print shop:
In 2010, Ugo and Giovanna Sciamanna had to move to other premises. Marco Sciamanna shared with me this photo of his papa’ Ugo removing the press on moving day:

From that door, this is the view of the Basilica di Santa Chiara. (That ex- Brizi shop is now a coffee bar. Sigh).

After your stop at this historic Assisi spot,  head on to the Museo della Memoria, 1943-1944 on Piazza del Vescovado for the full story on the Assisi Underground.
You might encounter a school group in there, the students taking notes as they hear the fascinating story of Assisi Clandestina:
…or even Signor Ugo Sciamanna showing the exhibit to an interested relative:
(Mille grazie to Marco Sciamanna for the above photo).
The  Luigi and Trento Brizi story is on the wall to the right of the two sets of  wooden drawers containing all the typeset of their printing press…
…and that historic Brizi printing press will be just inside the entrance:
And you may wish to have a “local” accompany you to the Assisi cemetery to pay tribute at the tomb of Luigi and Trento Brizi:
When I was there recently on a chilly February day, I noted a sign of recent visitors: fresh flowers.
The plaque in Mt. Subasio pink limestone behind the vase of flowers – put up by the City of Assisi in 2016 –  reads, “Here repose Luigi and Trento Brizi, father and son, who during the dramatic years, 1943-1944 at risk of their own lives printed in their print shop the documents to save numerous Jewish refugees then in Assisi.”
Their photos are up above, on the left of the plaque…
Luigi in black beret, tranquilly puffing on his pipe…
…and son, Trento below him, looking at us serenely, as if to say, “…after all, we simply did what we had  to do…”
Read how the California Jewish community thanked Assisi following the 1997 earthquake
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.
Read about Don Aldo Brunacci here
Click to read about Graziella Viterbi, hidden in Assisi in World War II with her family
Click here to read about a northern Italy Jewish family hidden in Assisi
Read about Yad Vashem and the Righteous Among the Nations
Read about Bishop Placido Nicolini who directed the successful sheltering of 300 Jewish refugees
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
Visit Assisi’s Museo della Memoria
Read about Colonel Valentin Muller, German commander in Assisi – and protector

1 Comment

  • Janet Eidem says:

    It was an honor and a privilege to see the printing press in its original location. The next best thing will be to return to Assisi and visit the museum.

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