Holocaust survivor, Graziella Viterbi, 88, expressed her gratitude for the Church’s role in saving her life in a meeting with Pope Francis on October 4. The meeting took place in the archbishop’s residence in Assisi, where her family fled during the Holocaust.
They greeted each other with a “shalom” as they met in the “hall of divestment”, the first time in 800 years that a pope has visited the room where many Jews sought refuge during World War II. “Thank you for what the Church did for us,” Viterbi told Pope Francis who replied, “I thank you. Pray for me.”
Graziella Vitebri is the last living person to have been saved by the former Bishop of Assisi, Giuseppe Nicolini, a Benedictine who created a covert system to help Jews escape Nazi persecution by concealing them in convents and monasteries, without the knowledge of the city’s residents.
At the time, the city of Assisi was a popular refugee haven because of its proximity to the front lines of the war. The program is attributed with saving the lives of an estimated 300 Jews, including that of Nicolini’s family who moved there in 1953 when her father, Emilio Viterbi, a highly respected professor at the University of Padua, lost his position when the Italian fascist government issued anti-Semitic racial laws barring Jews from higher education.
According to Viterbi, Nicolini “kept the authentic identity cards of all the Jews hidden in Assisi in a niche right behind his working desk,” and even the mayor offered his help, hiding all of her family’s religious objects in his garden. Bishop Nicolini was assisted in his noble endeavor by his secretary, Fr. Aldo Brunacci; Fr. Ruffino Nicacci, Franciscan guardian of the Church of San Damiano; and Michele Todde, of a convent in the city. His two typographers, Luigi and Trento Brizi, also provided invaluable aid, printing false documents for the Jewish refugees. The network extended well beyond Assisi, spreading as far as Florence and Genoa.