Father Andre told us about Don Aldo Brunacci tonight after dinner. I had heard a little about him because an exhibit of his letters was on display as part of the first Yom Hashoah observance held at St. Francis after I started working there.
It began with a letter in 1943 from Bishop Giovanni Montini, a high level Vatican official who went on to become Pope Paul VI, to the Assisi Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini. The letter told the Bishop to take in any war refugees that came to Assisi, no matter their religion.
Knowing that this was a mandate to save the Jews of the city and beyond, Bishop Nicolini assigned Don Aldo Brunacci, a young priest in his thirties to the task. The two of them trusted no one else. Besides the Nazis who had taken over the city, there was also fear of neo-fascists. Some of the priests around the city were suspect.
Don Aldo arranged for a father and son to print fake documents for Jews. I hope to see the actual press later this week. Apparently the family is being evicted and there is debate on where to move the press.
By night Don Aldo bicycled across the valley to Perugia to get official stamps for the fake papers, sometimes hitching rides back on the Nazi convoys that went between the cities. A quick search of his satchel would have meant certain death.
To complete the ruse, the Jews were taught the Hours (prayers) in Latin and many women donned habits.
Part of Bishop Nicolini's worldly experience was in brick work and when new refugees came he and Don Aldo would work by candle light to hide their religious artifacts behind a fake wall he had constructed in the basement of the Bishop's Palace.
At the same time, a German Commander named Valentin Muller was put in charge of Assisi. He was raised Catholic and saw what Allied bombings had done to destroy the Benedictine Abbey and city of Montecassino. To prevent the same fate from befalling Assisi, Colonel Mulller declared Assisi a Hospital City. He did not receive approval from Berlin for this, which brought the attention of the SS but no immediate action.
Casa Papa Giovanni, the place where we are now staying was one of the places in the hospital network.
Muller's son says that Muller was aware of Don Aldo's subterfuge and did not want to address it in his role as city leader.
However, word began to spread and one day as Don Aldo was returning to his apartment to help a new refugee family he was alerted that neo-fascists were waiting for him outside. He knew if he entered the apartment, they would be killed. So without hesitation he surrendered himself to the men. He was placed in jail in Perugia and slated for deportation to a concentration camp.
But the Allies were working their way deep into Italy and for whatever other reasons Don Aldo was released. Vatican officials quickly brought him there until the war ended.
The work of Don Aldo Brunacci saved the lives of some 300 Jews from the Holocaust.
Father Andre is co-author and co-editor of a book that details the lives of the three men mentioned above: Three Heroes of Assisi in World War II (Editrice Minerva - Assisi).
Don Aldo was recognized at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel, as a Righteous Gentile, but only accepted after requesting that Bishop Nicolini be honored as well. They were, together.
Don Aldo visited St. Francis College a few years before I started working there and was honored with a degree. Mayor Bloomberg also sent him a letter of praise. Among his other honors are from the country of Italy itself, Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, a printing organization and a Temple in New Jersey.
Don Aldo spent much of his time in later years in the bookstore at the base of Casa Papa Giovanni, taken care of by the same woman for 25 years, Rita, who is tending to us now.
One day a family came in, asking where his tomb was. He was happy to tell them that there was no tomb yet and they thanked him personally for saving a family member.
Another frequent visitor is the little girl, now grown up, who was in his apartment the day he was arrested.