Under the Wings of the Church
In September 1943, Father Cipriano Ricotti was called to the office of Elia Dalla Costa, the Archbishop of Florence. Germany had recently occupied Italy and the deportation of the Jews was about to begin. In the presence of the Archbishop’s secretary, Giacomo Meneghello, Dalla Costa asked Ricotti: “Do you believe that you will be able to dedicate yourself to the rescue of Jews?” When Ricotti confirmed that he would, the Archbishop gave him a letter to give to the heads of monasteries and convents in Florence and its surroundings, asking them to open the gates of their institutions to Jews. In his memoirs Ricotti said that “this letter was crucial to the sheltering of Jews in the convents and monasteries which otherwise would not have opened their doors.”
This was the beginning of a unique initiative – Christian-Jewish cooperation between Archbishop Dalla Costa and his clergy and Jewish leaders such as Raffaele Cantoni and Rabbi Nathan Cassuto. Thanks to the Archbishop’s letters and the goodwill of his people, many Jews found a safe haven in Catholic institutions in the city. A shelter was created in the seminary of Minore di Montughi from which the Jewish fugitives were taken to the different convents and monasteries, and some were even housed for a short time in the Archbishop’s residence.
The letter of Archbishop Dalla Costa also reached the convent of Suore Francescane Missionarie Di Maria at Piazza del Carmine.This is how Mother Sandra Busnelli described her decision to turn her convent into a safe haven for Jews:
“In September His Eminence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa asked our house to clandestinely host Jewish victims to German persecution. We hoped they would be safer in the religious houses. The Superior General of our order gladly gave her permission and immediately fifty women were brought to the main hall.”
In November 1943, Wanda Pacifici the wife of the Rabbi of Genoa and her two sons arrived in the convent. Since the convent was closed to males, the two boys were transferred the next day to the Instituto di Santa Marta. Shortly afterwards, on 26 November 1943, the Germans broke into the convent and arrested the Jewish women. Only one woman, Lea Reuveni, survived the raid. In her testimony she described the hours of horror:
“I remember Sister Emma Lucia rushing in half dressed. She was dressed, but she was without her veil – they have this beautiful veil. She came running. I will never forget how she wanted to enter the hall in order to be with us, but there were two Fascists who did not let her in. She argued with them, told them: ‘I want to be with them’…She seemed so very beautiful in those moments, being so courageous”.
Mother Busnelli was arrested, but freed thanks to the intervention of Archbishop Dalla Costa. On 6 December 1943, the Jewish women, including Wanda Pacifici, were deported to Auschwitz, where they perished. Wanda Pacifici’s two sons, Emanuele and Raffaele, stayed in the Instituto di Santa Marta in Settignano, near Florence where they were welcomed by Mother Marta Folcia. In his testimony, Emanuele Pacifici highlighted the special consideration the nuns gave to their religious needs, knowing that they were the sons of a Rabbi. She would pronounce a special blessing which she taught herself in Hebrew, and when all the children had to kiss the cross, Mother Marta Folcia would cover it with her fingers, so that the two Jewish boys would kiss her hand instead.
In April 1944, German soldiers entered the school in Settignano and occupied one of its wings for a month. The nuns kept the true identity of the Pacifici boys secret, and the soldiers were unaware that two of the boys in the school were Jews. In June 1944, with the arrival of the Allied forces, Settignano became the center of several battles, and soon after the town was liberated. Emanuele spotted a soldier, of the Jewish Brigade, recognizing the emblem of the Star of David on his sleeve. Consequently the two boys left the school where their lives had been saved.
These are some of the priests and nuns of Florence that were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations:
On December 10, 1972, Yad Vashem recognized Father Cipriano Ricotti as Righteous Among the Nations.
On December 13, 1994, Yad Vashem recognized Mother Marta Folcia, Mother Benedetta Vespignani, as Righteous Among the Nations.
On July 31, 1995, Yad Vashem recognized Mother Sandra Busnelli as Righteous Among the Nations.
On February 29, 2012, Yad Vashem recognized the Archbishop of Florence Elia Dalla Costa as Righteous Among the Nations.