The Assisi Network
Assisi is the home of Francesco di Bernardone – St. Francis of Assisi – the founder of the Roman Catholics' Franciscan and St. Clare (Poor Clares) Orders. As such it is a most meaningful place for Roman Catholics. No Jewish community was ever known to exist in Assisi. Paradoxically however, the only time in history when there is record of Jews living in Assisi is during the Holocaust, when the town and its churches, monasteries and convents became a safe haven for several hundred Jews.
Shortly after the German occupation, when the man-hunt for Jews began, the Bishop of Asssisi, Monsignor Giuseppe Placido Nicolini, ordered Father Aldo Brunacci to head the rescue operation of Jews and to arrange sheltering places in some 26 monasteries and convents. The Bishop went as far as to authorize the hiding of Jews in such places that were regularly closed to outsiders by the monastic regulations of the "clausura". The Committee of Assistance Monsignor Niclolini had put in place and presided over transformed Assisi into a shelter for many Jews; others who were passing through the town were provided with false papers enabling them to survive in other places.
After the war Father Brunacci described the Bishop's resolution in face of danger:
"I will never forget how insistent those threats were, yet how determined the Bishop remained. He would not let anyone intimidate him from performing what he, as a pastor, was required to do. I recall very well the strength Monsignor Nicolini showed in the face of repeated alarms of the 'big shots' who felt it was their duty to suggest prudence and moderation. There are times in everyone's life in which it is easy to confuse prudence with a calm life; there are times when heroism is required. Monsignor Nicolini took the path of heroism."
Father Aldo Brunacci, the canon of the Cathedral of San Rufino, served as the head of the Assisi network. One of the survivors, Mira Baruch was often invited to Brunacci's library, where he also taught her Latin. On 17 May 1944, one month before Assisi was liberated, the police came to arrest Father Brunacci. He asked the policemen to wait outside while he got his breviary. When he opened the door he found the Jewish family of Viterbi waiting for him – they no longer felt safe in the place where they were staying and came for help. Brunacci was able to warn them before he joined the policemen outside. He was tried by the court and was released by intervention of the Vatican.
Father Rufino Niccacci, the Father Guardian of the St. Damiano Monastery, played an important role in the network. He arranged false papers and found hiding places in the monasteries and convents, disguising the Jews as monks and nuns.
The network not only secured the Jews' lives, but also made great efforts to supply the Jews with some of their religious needs. As religious people they had great respect for the religion of others. After the war Brunacci described how Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement and the highest holiday in the Jewish calendar – was celebrated in Assisi in 1943, and how in one of the convents the nuns prepared the meal for the end of the fast.
Not only people of the church participated in this collective effort. Luigi Brizi owned a small souvenir shop in Assisi that operated a small printing press. Brizi and his son became members of the Assisi rescue network and risked their lives by printing false papers for the persecuted Jews. Luigi's son, Trento, went on bicycle to Foligno, 20 kilometers from Assisi, to a friend who was an expert in etching and who was able to produce seals in order to stamp the false documents.
The Viterbi Family were one of the families that were able to live openly because false papers that were prepared for them by Brizi. In the forged papers they were registered as residents of the town of Lecce. The forger had chosen that town because it had already been liberated by the Americans, thus preventing any possibility of checking the validity of the documents. Despite the fact that the family had arrived in a place where they were assisted and protected, and despite the false papers they had, the fear of being hunted down and caught never left them. Grazia Viterbi – or Graziella Vitelli as she was called in her false papers – wanted to make sure that they would pass interrogation if caught. She went to the Assisi library and took notes about Lecce in order to familiarize herself with the place, so that on the off chance of accidentally meeting someone from that town, she would be able to talk about the place.
Looking back on that period after the war, Brunacci remarked:
"In all about 200 Jews had been entrusted to us by Divine Providence with God's help and through the intercession of St. Francis. Not one of them fell into the hands of their persecutors…. Jews and Christians venerate the same book, the Bible, whose opening chapter reminds us that we were created in God's image and likeness. God is our father and we are all brothers and sisters."
On April 17, 1974, Yad Vashem recognized Father Rufino Niccacci as Righteous Among the Nations.
On December 6, 1977, Yad Vashem recognized Monsignor Giuseppe Placido Nicolini and Father Aldo Brunacci as Righteous Among the Nations.
On July 16, 1997, Yad Vashem recognized Luigi Brizi and his son, Trento, as Righteous Among the Nations.
Supported By: Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany