When Rome's Religious Houses Saved Jews

Interview With Historian Sister Grazia Loparco

ROME, JAN. 21, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Testimonies and documents reflect that Pius XII gave ecclesial institutions instructions to shelter and help Jews in Rome when Nazi persecution broke out during World War II. 

No one knows exactly how many Jews were hidden and saved by the Church, but according to "Three Popes and the Jews" by Jewish historian Emilio Pinchas Lapide, then consul general in Milan, "the Holy See, the nuncios, and the Catholic Church saved between 740,000 and 850,000 Jews from certain death." 

It is estimated that more than 80% of the Jews in Italy escaped the Nazi genocide. In Rome alone, the Jewish community has certified that the Church saved 4,447 Jews from the Holocaust. 

Coordinamento Storici Religiosi, an Italian cultural association that coordinates the documentation of religious history, is carrying out research on Jews sheltered in the religious houses of Rome between the fall of 1943 and June 1944. 

In this interview with ZENIT, Salesian Sister Grazia Loparco, professor of Church history at the Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium in Rome and vice president of the association, explained that such research "constitutes a starting point with a view toward a more ample reconstruction that embraces the same phenomenon in north-central Italy, where the emergency took on its own and more prolonged connotations, and at the same time referred to local numbers that were small compared to the great Roman community." 

Q: How many Jews were saved by the Catholic Church in Rome? Who, in particular, saved them? 

Sister Loparco: In 1943 the Jewish community was made up of 10,000-12,000 Jews. According to scholars, it is difficult to specify the number, as other Jews arrived in the capital from other European states during the conflict hoping to find greater security. 

The research begun in 2002-2003 approximates a minimum number of 4,300 Jews lodged in religious houses. It is certainly a figure by default, based on the first study published by De Felice in 1961, and taken up again Civiltà Cattolica of the same year in an article signed by Father Robert Leiber. 

Given the uncertainty, I have considered the lower number. It will not be possible to arrive at precise figures, both because not all the witnesses knew how to distinguish who was or was not Jewish -- there were many there who were opposed to being recruited or who were politically persecuted -- and because, with rare exceptions, lists of names didn't exist. 

One can conclude that sometimes the Jews did not reveal their identity, or that only the superiors of the religious communities knew it. 

Another reason for imprecision is due to the fact that our research concerns religious houses and parishes entrusted to religious, not parishes entrusted to diocesan clergy. 

There are grounds to suppose that at least half of Roman Jews found shelter in ecclesial institutions. Just over 1,000 were arrested the morning of October 16, 1943, and several hundred more were arrested later as a result of denunciations. For every Jew singled out, one could receive 5,000 lire if they were men, and 3,000 lire if they were women and children. 

Beginning October 16, 1943, Jews who were in extreme danger found immediate shelter with acquaintances, friends, and sometimes with Catholic domestic staff or businessmen, men's and women's religious houses, including cloistered monasteries -- which could not have taken them in without a papal dispensation -- parishes and seminaries. 

They did not always stay in the same place. It was difficult to remain hidden in private family homes, so in many cases they sought shelter in religious houses. 

After immediate concealment in the more central places of the city, several tried to go to more peripheral areas, potentially more peaceful. Often, men and women religious hid Jews a few meters from the Nazis' eyes. 

Q: How was the network of help to the persecuted organized and to what degree did Pope Pius XII intervene to support it? 

Sister Loparco: Several witnesses recall the instructions coming orally from Vatican ecclesiastics on the opportunity to open convents and institutes because it was "the hour of charity." And the majority did so realizing that they were doing no more than their duty, as the lives of unjustly persecuted people were at stake. 

The Delasem existed, an organization that gave financial help to Jews in difficulty; and then there was the famous Father Benoit, a Capuchin who together with others worked near Termini, Rome's main train station, to provide false identity documents and other papers, with the collaboration of men and women religious, in addition to municipal personnel and young people of Catholic Action. Another "knot" of the false documents net was near the catacombs of Priscilla. 

Some religious houses recall having received provisions form the Vatican to feed the Jews, who often increased by dozens the number of the communities' members. 

But many other times, the testimonies of nuns especially speak of great sacrifices to share the little they had, rationed by cards, and recourse to collections and the black market to acquire the necessary. 

In some cases Jews could pay for their pension or provide for their maintenance, but many other times they could not. All these thousands of people were almost never refused because they were unable to pay for their maintenance. 

Moreover, hospitality was offered in different ways, according to the case: Sometimes whole families could be lodged, at other times only women and children, or men and boys, or only children without adults. It was important to camouflage these people among the usual guests of the houses. 

In several cases, however, Jews were hidden in wine cellars, underground shelters, hidden rooms, attics, storage rooms, hatchways, being able to come out to stretch their legs and breathe fresh air only after school hours. In the case of hospitals and clinics, they were camouflaged among the patients. 

In some cities such as Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa provided a list of religious houses where the Jews could go. In Rome, however, the impression is that the character of emergency, creating a network of collaboration, marked the speed of the operations. For example, the Salesians' Basilica of the Sacred Heart near Termini became a placement center, and it wasn't the only one. 

From the documentation and testimonies emerges evidence of the full support and instruction of Pius XII that, although only oral, at the time was interpreted as an authoritative order. 

Many concrete events, such as the opening of cloistered monasteries and convents, prove the fact that many Jews were lodged because of the direct concern of the Vatican, which also provided food and assistance. 

I can say no more, given that access is not allowed both to the historical archive of the Vicariate of Rome for this period as well as the Vatican Secret Archives, where there certainly must be archives of the religious Institutes. 

Q: In recent weeks there have been controversies on the question of Jewish children snatched by the Catholic Church from the Nazi rage and then, in some cases, baptized. Can you explain what the Vatican directives were in this respect and what was the incidence of this phenomenon in Rome? 

Sister Loparco: In the city of Rome cases occurred of requests for baptism by adults and sometimes by youths. Very few cases -- only one institute among hundreds -- speak of baptizing children. 

An example might give an idea of the mentality of that time: A nun recounts how she carried a bottle of water on her person; when sirens rang and they had to hide in shelters, and, if it had been a case of extreme danger, she would have baptized the little orphans entrusted to her. It was the mentality of "extra Ecclesia nulla salus." 

There was no need. Instead, there are testimonies of Jews, who were youths or youngsters then, who felt completely respected in their faith, and who were helped and encouraged to pray according to their own Jewish customs. Sometimes they shared the prayer of a Psalm with the nuns, in cases of danger and fear. 

At other times, it has been alleged, there was a certain insistence that guests be interested in the Catholic faith, under pain of not being able to attain salvation, in the hope of a future conversion. However, those who defended their own convictions were respected and, not rarely, admired for their consistency. 

There were cases of those who asked for baptism more out of the hope of easing their situation than out of real conviction. And there were guests who remained in religious houses, obviously without being baptized, until they completed their professional formation, including some boys, who did not know where to go when the war ended. 

It is true that, in many cases, direct contact eliminated residual, reciprocal prejudices. Men and women religious were willing to acknowledge the human and moral qualities of the Jews they lodged. Long friendships kept over the years prove that esteem and real sharing in the meaning of life were not conditioned by religious membership.