I have always had a soft spot for Catholicism, due no doubt to the fact that, when aged four, my parents sent me to the Notre Dame Convent school in Manchester where I was taught by nuns.
Every day we filed into the chapel for morning prayers. The other girls dipped their fingers into a font on the wall containing a sponge soaked in holy water and would then cross themselves. I was faced with a dilemma. I wanted to be accepted by my classmates, but, even at this tender age, I knew I was Jewish. My compromise was to dip my fingers in the sponge and then wipe them surreptitiously on my skirt to ensure I would not be tainted by their alien holiness.
The other high spot, literally, of my convent education was when, dressed as an angel for a Christmas tableau, I was placed on top of a tall filing cabinet. I wore magnificent white-feathered wings that fluttered ethereally up to the heavens. It was a truly sublime experience and was, and probably still is, the closest I will ever get to heaven.
The Catholic Church has some pretty smart ideas, not the least in appointing a Saint, called Anthony, whose responsibility it is to help you find lost items. It seems that he once mislaid his precious book of prayers. He appealed to God and “heaven’s above” it was miraculously returned. A similar tale exists about a Rabbi who lost his prayer book. A few days later, a goat appeared before him bearing the book in its mouth. The Rabbi took it gratefully from the animal and exultantly proclaimed “It’s a miracle!” to which the goat replied “Well not really, it had your name and address on the inside cover”.
As a youngster I called upon the services of St Anthony quite frequently. He usually came up with the goods. I have not used this facility in a long time – but for some inexplicable reason, keys and reading glasses seem to get lost far more often these days and I wonder if I might once again have to invoke his services. However, I recently discovered that we actually have our own Jewish ‘lost property consultant’ called Rabbi Meir Ba’al Ha Ness – ‘The Miracle Maker’. If you mislay something, you say a special prayer three times, donate to charity and guess what! Your missing item should appear. It is assumed, of course, that in the first instance you do your utmost to look for the object and don’t just leave everything to him.
Now what, you might ask, has all this reminiscing got to do with the price of eggs or, more realistically, with Israel ?
It took an impromptu trip to Umbria recently to make me realise how our history is irrevocably intertwined with that of people in unexpected parts of the world.
Umbria was under the control of the Papacy from the 700’s until 1870. It was hardly surprising therefore to find that every hilltop village is blessed with not one but two or more churches. I wondered if the same condition prevails in Christianity as in Judaism – this being the necessity to have two places of worship within easy reach – one you attend and the second one you wouldn’t dream of frequenting.
One city of major importance to Catholicism is Assisi where, in 1181, St Francis was born. His ambition was to become a knight and join the army, but when captured by the enemy and imprisoned, he received visions from God urging him to devote his life to rebuilding the Church. This he did, ultimately establishing the Franciscan Order of Monks, characterised by simplicity, penance, poverty and love for the poor. He is the patron saint of birds and animals and today has millions of followers.
Whilst walking through Assisi and dwelling upon his fascinating life, we came across a museum displaying a poster with a Magen David and words saying “Lest We Forget’. Obviously we could not pass by without entering.
poster in Assisi museum
There to our surprise we found a permanent exhibition recording the story of how during World War 11 Jews seeking refuge in Assisi were saved from the Nazis.
In 1943 by order of the King, the Fascist Dictator Mussolini was arrested. Following the Armistice between Italy and the Allies, German troops entered the city and tried to take control. They were strongly opposed by Bishop Nicolin who asserted that the Church alone would deal with the influx of refugees pouring into the city, fleeing the fighting in the south.
He immediately established the ‘Assisi Network’ led by Father Aldo Brunacci and, with the help of Father Rufine Nicacci, they found accommodation for all the Jews in monasteries and convents, disguising them as nuns and monks.
One of the first Jewish families to approach the Bishop were the Viterbis from Poland. They had moved to Paris earlier in the war but then walked through the Alps to Genoa where they received false identity cards. These were vital, being their only means of obtaining food.
The Bishop realised that, by forging such cards, he could help the Jews to survive. He enlisted the help of a local printer, Luigi Brizi and his son Trento, who printed identity cards for more than 300 Jews. Trento would regularly cycle 20 kms to Foligno where a friend – an expert at etching – produced seals to authenticate the documents. Meanwhile, Bishop Nicolini secreted the true identity cards of the hidden Jews in a niche behind his desk.
In addition to providing accommodation and documents, the Bishop, who had been a bricklayer before becoming a Priest, worked with Father Brunacci to build a false wall in the basement of his house where the Jews’ possessions were secreted and returned to them after the war.
Bishop Nicolini was an exceptional man. When the Viterbis approached him for somewhere to stay, the only rooms available were his bedroom and his study “I can easily sleep in the study” he replied, “My bedroom is at your disposal”. This story is retold movingly in a filmed testimony by Grazia Viterbi and, thanks to the Bishop, she and her family escaped and now live in Israel. In 2013 she was invited to meet Pope Francis in Assisi. She thanked him for the Church’s actions, and he replied by asking her to pray for him.
Towards the end of the war Nicolini succeeded in protecting Assisi from Allied bombing by declaring it a ‘hospital city’. For this to be officially recognised, all German troops had to leave Assisi. This was achieved, surprisingly, with the help of Colonel Valentin Muller,
a German Colonel. As a deeply religious Catholic, as well as a doctor, he did not hesitate to disobey his superiors, claiming no knowledge of the clandestine operations going on in the city. Thanks to him, not one German soldier entered Assisi and all 300 Jews were saved. None of this could have happened without the courageous and selfless actions of these five Assisi men.
And so our unplanned visit to Umbria proved to be a profoundly moving experience. Before leaving I spoke at length to one of the Franciscan monks who had often visited Jerusalem. I told him the story and said how much we had been affected by it. I added how the caring ethos, established by St Francis so many years ago, had somehow prevailed over the centuries, manifesting itself in this outstandingly courageous support for the Jews.
He agreed with me, was touched by my comments and handed me a blessing from St Francis. I responded with a ‘Tfilat ha Derech’ ( Prayer for the Traveller) that I happened to have – useful for such an occasion, then we went our separate ways. I shall never forget this visit.
Bishop Nicolini, Fathers Brunacci and Nicacci and the Brizis, father and son, are honoured as Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.