They Must Never Be Forgotten: Priests and Nuns Who Rescued People From the Holocaust


In those times of chaos, it was extremely dangerous and difficult to organize rescue activities. The Nazi Gestapo and secret police were vigilant and quick to punish anyone who tried to save Jewish people. Aware of the terror and cruelty of the Nazi regime, the Catholic priests and nuns who engaged in rescue activities did so at the risk of their own lives.

"There is a Christian morality, there is a human morality which imposes duties and recognizes rights. These duties and rights are derived from the nature of men. It is in the power of no mortal to suppress them. Women, men, fathers and mothers are treated like as vile herd, members of the same family are separated from each other and shipped off to an unknown destination; it has been reserved to our times to see these sad spectacles.

Jews are men and women. Foreigners are men and women. There is a limit to what can be permitted against them; against these men, these women, against these fathers and mothers. They belong to the human race. They are our brothers like so many others."

Father Jules-Gerard Saliege

Jules Gerard Saliege was the Archbishop of Toulouse, France during World War II and gave his full support to the rescue of Jewish people.

The Holocaust is a story of indescribable tragedy and horror. No nation ever attempted the systematic mass murder of people as did Germany in World War II. It is estimated that 11 million people were victims of Nazi genocide, 6 million were Jewish, the others were Gypsies, people with disabilities, Germans who resisted, and thousands of others.

In those times of chaos, it was extremely dangerous and difficult to organize rescue activities. The Nazi Gestapo and secret police were vigilant and quick to punish anyone who tried to save Jewish people. Aware of the terror and cruelty of the Nazi regime, the Catholic priests and nuns who engaged in rescue activities did so at the risk of their own lives.

Rescue activities took many forms and included hiding people, helping them escape, and providing false identities, food and shelter. These activities had to be carried out in secret, there was always the risk of being discovered. The rescues that took place are a tribute to the power of goodness over evil. Rescuers who were caught were arrested and sent to concentration camps and prisons and many were killed. The stories of the heroic priests and nuns who risked their lives to rescue Jewish people have been documented, they have been honored by the Catholic church and the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Documentation Center in Israel, but they are not as well known as they deserve to be. They must never be forgotten. This article is based on documented accounts and briefly summarizes the rescue activities of courageous priests and nuns.


In spite of the fact that Italy was Germany's ally on the battlefields, many priests and nuns were deeply involved in rescue activities. Renzo De Felice, an Italian historian, calculated that 155 Catholic institutions, convents and monasteries, orphan homes, institutions and hospitals in Italy opened their doors to Jewish refugees and contributed so much to help the majority of Italian Jews to be saved from the Holocaust.

The sheer brutality of the mass arrests were seen everywhere. Families were separated and hundreds of Jewish children were homeless and abandoned. Father Arrigo Beccari saved the lives of a hundred Jewish orphans who had escaped to Italy from Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia and were taken to a village in central Italy. When SS troops were stationed in the village, Don Baccari hid the youngest children in his seminary and found places for the older ones with local farmers. He visited them nearly every day and made sure they were well looked after. The children trusted Father Beccari and looked to him for comfort and courage.

A large rescue effort took place in Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan order. Assisi is a medieval town in the heart of Umbria, 90 miles north of Rome. Jewish people were hidden in monasteries and churches in Assisi and the surrounding countryside. Shortly after the Nazis invaded Italy, Padre Ruffino Nicacci, head of the seminary of Saint Damiano made the Basilica of Assisi a hiding place for more than 300 Jewish refugees and helped them escape. Not one of the 300 refugees sheltered by Padre Nicacci was captured.

Father Pietro Boetto, the Cardinal Archbishop of Genoa, Italy, worked with the Jewish underground agency to rescue Jewish people. As soon as Father Boetto learned about the death camps, he intensified his rescue efforts. With Don Franseco Repetto, he organized a rescue network that continued its operations even after Mussolini was overthrown in 1943 and the Nazis occupied northern Italy. Father Boetto never relented, despite the efforts of the Nazis to stop him. He was helped by Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa of Florence, Ildefonso Schuster of Milan and Maurilio Fossati. Father Boetto saved the lives of at least 800 people.

Monsignor Vincenzo Barale provided food and shelter for Jewish people in the city of Turin. Arrested by the Gestapo, he was not liberated until the war was over.

Monsignor Quadraroli, and Father Calliste Lopinot urged convents in Rome to open their doors to Jewish people. Refugees were given shelter at the convent on Via Cicerone. Monsignor Quadroli, secretary at the Vatican provided them with false Identification papers. Sister Maria Pucci hid Jewish people in the convent on Via Caboto. During the frequent air raids, the sisters took the refugees to the cellar or to the trap door under the stage. With bombs falling around them, they prayed and wept together.

Father Pierre-Marie Benoit, the head of the Capuchin Monastery in Rome saved hundreds of Jewish lives. When war broke out between France and Italy, he moved the Capuchin monastery to Marseille. At that time, thousands of Jewish refugees from Poland, Germany and other countries were fleeing to the south of France. When the Vichy government began its ruthless manhunt for Jewish refugees, Father Benoit welcomed refugees to the monastery, he arranged hiding places and planned their escape into Switzerland and Spain.

In 1942, the Germans occupied southern France. Father Benoit moved the Capuchin monastery back to Rome where he worked with the Jewish service agency, Delasem ( Delegazione Assistenza Ebrei) to save Jewish people. He became the president of Delasem when the Jewish president was arrested. Father Benoit brought a printing press to the basement of the monastery so that false baptismal certificates could be printed and obtained ration cards from the police on the pretext they were intended for non-Jewish refugees. Under his leadership, Jewish people were hidden in private homes and churches.

Father Petro Palazzini, Father Frederico Don Vincente, Cardinal Fossati and Don Beniamino Schivo and Father Pio Abresch were also involved in rescue.


The Germans occupied France in June 1940. The country was divided into two zones; the occupied zone of the north and the "Free zone" ruled by the Vichy fascist government that collaborated with the Nazis. The French police were ruthless and cooperated with the Nazis. To a large degree, the war against the Jews of France was a war against children. Between 1942 and 1944, 11,401 children were deported to Nazi death camps. Nearly 12,000 children were rescued by priests and nuns.

During the German occupation of the south of France, many Jewish children found themselves alone and abandoned when their parents were arrested. Father Pierre Chaillet, a Jesuit priest, searched the streets of Lyon and the countryside looking for abandoned children. He found children hiding in caves and brought them to a monastery. When he learned that children were being held by the police, he went to police stations to rescue children being held by the French police. Father Chaillet also hid Jewish adults.

Father Jacques de Jesus (Lucien Burel) a Carmelite friar was headmaster of a school in Avon. Young men who were being forced to go to Germany as laborers and appealed to him for help. Father Jacques hid these men along with the Jewish children he wanted to save. He was arrested by the Gestapo and badly mistreated. He died soon after he was liberated by American troops.

The Abbé René de Naurois arranged the escape of Jews into Spain. His activities were known to the Gestapo and he had to leave the country to avoid arrest. Abbe Joseph Folliet, Catholic chaplain of the Jeunesse Ouvriere Chretienne (JOC) arranged for Jewish refugees to stay at church sanctuaries in the department of Haute-Savoie. He also helped people escape.

Bishop Pierre-Marie Theas in the Diocese of Montauban, near the city of Toulouse, wrote to all the parishes within 100 kilometers of Montauban asking for help in saving Jewish people. Many priests in Toulouse and Lyon answered his call Bishop Gabriel Pignet arranged for Jewish children to be hidden in Sainte Marguerite, a Catholic boarding school. He was arrested for his activities. The seminary had to be closed.

Mother Marie-Angelique, Mother Superior of the Sisters of St. Joseph, arranged and supervised hiding Jewish children and children of members of the French resistance.

Father Marie-Jean Viollet, the Abbey Simon Gallay, Albert Simond sheltered Jewish people in Evian-les-Bains. The Archbishop of Nice, Monsignor Paul Remond hid Jewish children in convents until they could be placed with families.

The Fathers of St. Francis, a Catholic seminary close to the Swiss border helped many people escape. Father Louis Favre, Gilbert Pernoud, Raymond Boccard and Francois Favrat enabled hundreds of refugees, most of them Jews, to escape into Switzerland. They had to be constantly on guard. Father Favre was betrayed and was executed in 1944.


The German army invaded and occupied Belgium in May 1940. Although the Belgians were allowed to govern their own internal affairs, no leniency was to be shown to Belgian Jews. Cardinal Van Roey , the head of the Catholic church in Belgium, defied the German orders and worked with the Jewish Defense organization to rescue people..

Father Joseph Andre also worked with the Jewish Defense Organization. He had to be very careful, his parish office was located across the street from the German military headquarters. The parish door was always open, he never refused anyone. Father Andre traveled from place to place looking for monasteries and convents willing to hide Jewish children. Father Andre did not hesitate to move a child, if he thought the child was not safe. One small boy in his care became very ill and Father Andre brought him to the hospital under a false identity. As soon as the boy recovered, Father Andre brought him to his own parish. His activities were discovered and in 1944, he had to go into hiding.

Father Bruno (Henri Reynders), a Benedictine monk worked with the Jewish organization and placed hundreds of children in homes and churches in the Liege region of Belgium. He took responsibility for every child. The Gestapo learned of his activities and he had to go into hiding himself, but he managed to visit the children every week. Father Bruno saved the lives of more than 300 children and 116 adults. After the war, Father Bruno searched for their parents and reunited as many as he could with their families.

Sister Marie Leruth looked after the La Providence orphanage near Antwerp. She brought Jewish boys whose families had been arrested to the orphanage. Sister Marie never faltered and continued her secret activities even after the Germans began to conduct surprise visits.

Eastern Europe

Rescue in eastern Europe was much more difficult. In Hungary, Father Jakab Raile, Prior of the Jesuit College, saved almost 150 people at the Jesuit residence. Father Jozsef Javiossy, head of the Holy Cross Society, saved many lives. Several priests and nuns who tried to rescue people were betrayed and arrested. Sister Margit Slachta who headed the Benedictine Order helped to save Jewish lives. On her instructions, the order's convents were opened to Jewish refugees. She did this without the support of the church hierarchy.

In Poland, assistance to Jews was made a crime punishable by death. Yet nuns in more than 300 institutions sheltered Jews in convents and schools. Rescue had to take place under the strictest secrecy. The few cases that have been documented represent only a fraction of the rescue efforts that did take place. False baptismal certificates had to be obtained for every child, their names had to be changed. In Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania, similar conditions prevailed.

At the end of the war, in gratitude for having been rescued, many tributes have been paid to the heroic priests and nuns.

Dr. Joseph Nathan spokesman for the Hebrew Commission publicly expressed heartfelt gratitude to those who protected and saved Jews during the Nazi-fascist persecutions. "Above all," he stated, "we acknowledge the Supreme Pontiff and the religious men and women who, executing the directives of the Holy Father, recognized the persecuted of their brothers and, with great abnegation, hastened to help them, disregarding the terrible dangers to which they were exposed."


Gilbert, M. (2003) The Righteous: Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, Toronto, Canada, Key Porter Books.
Marchione, Sr. Margherita. "Pope Pius XII and the Jews." Crisis 15, no. 1 (January 1997): 20-23 
Paldiel, M. (1993) The Path of the Righteous. Hoboken New Jersey, KTAV Publishing House. 
Catholic Holocaust Education Center website (Seton Hill University) Yad Vashem Documentation Center, Israel. . 
Zielinski, Father Zygmunt. "Nuns Who Saved Polish Jews." National Catholic Register (2000)


Sally M. Rogow. "They Must Never Be Forgotten: Priests and Nuns Who Rescued People From the Holocaust." Catholic Educator's Resource Center (November, 2003).


Educator and author, Sally Rogow has written books and articles on language development, literacy, play and social development as well as stories and books for children and young people. Her most recent book Faces of Courage: Young Heroes of World War II, tells the stories of young Christians as well as Jews, Germans. Gypsies, young people with disabilities, who rescued, resisted, and defied Nazi terror. A native New Yorker Sally Rogow now lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Copyright © 2003 Catholic Educator's Resource Center