What Really Happened in Assisi in 1943-1944? (the Shoah)

By Korwin, Yala | Midstream, April 2002 | Go to article overview

What Really Happened in Assisi in 1943-1944? (the Shoah)


Korwin, Yala, Midstream


EDITOR'S NOTE--The author, Yala Korwin, writes: "When I traveled to Assisi, I intended to honor the heroic friar, Rufino Nicacci, by bringing flowers to his grave. Nobody could tell me where he was buried, and I was informed about his tarnished reputation. I went back home disappointed, the little volume I bought, in my luggage. Only later, reading it carefully, analyzing it, re-reading Alexander Ramati's book, and viewing his film again, I arrived at the conclusion expressed in my essay. I care very much about this Italian hero. After all, I owe my life to some decent Italian people."

The picturesque town of Assisi, Italy, sheltered and protected 300 Jews. Father Rufino Nicacci organized the effort, hiding people in his monastery and in homes of parishioners.

From the speech of President Ronald Reagan, delivered on occasion of the National Holocaust Commemoration Ceremony in Washington, DC, 1983.

This lie was accepted most of all in America, to the point that in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, the entry under the name of Nicolini, we find Father Rufino Nicacci mentioned as his collaborator. No greater offense could have been given to a person like Mons. Placido Nicolini who, at great risk, saved so many Jews in Assisi.

Rev. Aldo Brunacci, The Strategy that Saved Assisi, Editrice Minerva, n.d.

The nearly forgotten episode of the rescue of several hundred Jewish refugees in Assisi, during the period of September 1943 till June of 1944, is a glorious, heroic deed in the annals of the 20th century stained with Jewish blood. Especially remarkable is that no Jew lived there before the German occupation. Assisi is a city that saved strangers.

Alexander Ramati, a Polish-born Israeli writer and film producer-director, wrote a book and made a film, both bearing the title, The Assisi Underground. (1) The book, presently out of print, is gathering dust on shelves of a few public libraries. The film, made in 1984, may be borrowed, in the form of videocassette, from collections specializing in Holocaust mementos.

In June of 1944, Ramati, then a 23-year-old soldier of the Polish corps of General Anders, part of the British Eighth Army, was one of the first war correspondents to enter Assisi after the Germans had been driven out. That day, he met Padre Rufino Nicacci, a Franciscan friar, who, more than 20 years later, was to become the narrator of the story told in the book, and also the main character in the film.

The rescue effort had been initiated and directed by the Bishop Placido Nicolini, an elderly man, whose heroic and dangerous enterprise demanded great secrecy. His main collaborator was his young secretary, whom he nominated the chairman of the Committee to Aid Refugees, Reverend Aldo Brunacci. Among several other individuals admitted into the Bishop's confidence was Father Rufino Nicacci, a young man of 32, of peasant origin, who at that time served as Father Guardian of the monastery of San Damiano.

Another important character, Dr. Valentin Muller, the German colonel and physician in charge of military hospitals, was instrumental in helping declare Assisi a hospital city, and thus spare it from bombardments. He was a devoted Catholic and great admirer of St. Francis, the patron saint of Assisi; when forced to evacuate the hospital, he left behind a gift to the city, a great amount of medical supplies for distribution. (2) Although not directly involved, he unwittingly aided the rescue operation.

According to Ramati's account, Father Rufino's first task assigned to him by the Bishop was to take to Florence a group of Jews who had escaped from Rome disguised as Christian pilgrims returning from Assisi to their homes. The errand was risky. "Why did you choose me?" asked Father Rufino. "Because you are the only friar who would not lose his head when questioned by the Gestapo," (3) was the answer.

The Bishop nominated Father Rufino, who, by his own admission, had never before seen a Jew, as a guardian of the Jewish refugees, some of whom were to be placed in various monasteries, others in private homes. …

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