The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews
Ramati, Alexander Stein and Day, New York 1978
Alexander Ramati’s The Assisi Underground: The Priests Who Rescued Jews recounts how in Assisi that Jews were saved by Catholic priests, nuns, and locals. And remarkably none of the Jews sheltered by them were captured by the Nazis.
The fall of Mussolini in August 1943 brought the German occupation of northern Italy, which meant that Jews faced arrest and deportation to concentration camps. In the Vatican, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty ran an operation to help conceal Jews and later escaped allied prisoners of war. Through a network of priests and others, Jews were also transited to outlying cities and towns like Assisi, where this story takes place. Assisi is a unique city owing to its religious significance. St. Francis and St. Clare both came from here and the city has a rich and deep spiritual history with famous churches (Basilica of San Francesco, Basilica of Santa Chiara, Cathedral of San Rufino, and Church of San Damiano). The city is also a major Christian pilgrimage site.
Father Rufino Niccacci, a Franciscan, and Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini would lead the efforts to conceal in Assisi. Father Rufino would be summoned to meet with Bishop Nicolini after the Germans occupied Rome to help Jews that had fled get to safety. Father Rufino was stunned and asked why he was being asked to do this. Bishop Nicolini responded he wanted someone who would not lose his head in dealing with the Germans and OVRA (the Italian secret police). The group of Jews was being disguised as Catholic pilgrims heading home. Father Rufino’s task was to make sure they got to Florence. One of the group, a Rabbi, asked the Bishop to safeguard the Torah until he returned, which the Bishop was happy to do so.
The trip itself by train was uneventful until the Germans at one point boarded to check identification papers. Fortunately, an allied bombing cut that short and the train had to quickly move on. Rufino thanked God and the British for their intervention. So began Father Rufino’s involvement in the Assisi Underground. At first the task was simply to try to move Jews out of the country (by land to Switzerland, to a port where they could get on a ship, or across a river in the south to get into Allied controlled Italy). Those options became impossible as the Germans began cracking down and the Swiss were refusing entry to but the very old or pregnant. This meant Jews had to be concealed for the long haul requiring the use of convents, monasteries, and private homes to hold them.
It also meant having to come up with skillful counterfeit identification documents, which was done by a local printer (Luigi and Trento Brizi). Their birthplaces were all in areas under Allied control, so there was no way to verify them. For those who could easily move about (many were native born Italians so spoke Italian well), they taught them various Catholic customs and traditions so they would pass easily and not stand out. Some men were disguised as monks and learned how to look like they were in deep prayer in church should anyone notice them. Those who had stronger accents generally had to stay concealed as that would raise suspicions. Concealing was not enough since raids were not uncommon, so they set up a system that in case a raid was spotted coming to Assisi, bells would ring 5 times and Jews would go into a more secure place to avoid being caught. Many who lived in private homes showed their counterfeit identification and were never arrested.
Assisi under German occupation meant the city faced the possibility of being bombed, so effort was made to change that by having it declared an open city. While the city, the Bishop, and the Vatican sought this, help would come from an unlikely source: Colonel Valentin Müller. Müller as a doctor was in charge of treating wounded German soldiers in Assisi. As a devout Catholic, he appreciated the spiritual side of the city. He wrote to Field Marshal Kesselring asking Assisi to be declared a hospital city. This was agreed to, and German troops and military police departed leaving only the hospital staff and its patients in Assisi. Colonel Müller became a familiar site through his walks, drinking wine in the public area, attending church, and seeing the holy sites with Father Rufio as his guide. He also met with Bishop Nicolini and had extra food rations sent to them during Christmas. Father Rufio believed he had been sent by God to help Assisi.
Despite it being a hospital town, the regional SS along with the OVRA were hard at work to find antifascists, partisans, and of course Jews being hidden. The local SS captain ordered raids of convents, monasteries and churches and had no scruples about violating areas deemed off limits by the religious order. Rufio fell under suspicion from this SS captain after returning from a expedition south near the Allied demarcation line (he went there to test out it being used to smuggle Jews across the river) where smuggling was going on. He would be arrested at one point by this SS captain, forced to endure three days without food and water, and then taken to an execution site to see what happens to those who oppose them. Rufino did not give him anything and faced execution but was reprieved and released from custody thanks to some high-level intercession.
During this time, the Jewish children still attended school but not in public. Thanks to people such as Don Aldo Brunacci, lessons would continue so they would not lose time in getting educated. Brunacci also working with Bishop Nicolini, found housing for over 300 Jewish refugees. For Father Rufino, working with Jews opened his eyes about who they were. Since Jews were mostly in the large cities like Rome, he never encountered them and thus had no experience in their customs and practices of Jews. He learned much during this time which opened his eyes and appreciated more deeply the Jews he was helping.
When the Allies defeated the Germans at Monte Cassino, it was the end of the German occupation. Sappers were sent to Assisi to mine the city, but Müller received orders (counterfeit it turns out) from Kesselring that Assisi was an open city. Müller ordered the German army and the SS out and started the evacuation of the German wounded that were scattered over the city. Before he left, Müller left all the medical supplies to Assisi. When the British arrived, they were greeted with joy by the people of Assisi. All of those who had been hidden during the occupation came out of hiding in joy. For Father Rufino and Bishop Nicolini, it was a great moment in time. Most of the Jews that were hidden would return home though one family did choose to stay. The wife of one of those who had died while being hid now had her name changed to Weiss with a Star of David above it. As Jews recorded their stories of survival in Assisi, others outside became aware of the remarkable effort to conceal and save Jews from being deported and killed in the Nazi death camps.
This remarkable story shows how Catholic priests, nuns, and bishops took the risk of helping Jews from being caught by the Nazis. They did not for any fame or glory but because it was the right thing to do. They certainly knew the risk. Many religious in other places under German occupation had been arrested and sent to concentration camps (often to die there from infections or execution). The Vatican could not publicly support this for obvious reasons that it would result in the Germans occupying the Vatican. So, the public posture was to appear neutral but behind the scenes to do anything they could to assist (such as Monsignor O’Flaherty). Both Rufio and Nicolini, along with Don Aldo Brunacci would be recognized by Yad Vashem, which would award them Righteous Among the Nations. This is a very special honor given to non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler was given the same honor as well as were others who risked their lives to help Jews during this time. Colonel Müller would return in 1950 with his family and be warmly welcomed. At the time the book was published, there was no official recognition of his role in helping Assisi during this time. There is now with the road to the hospital bearing his name and a plaque.
The book is well written and really gives you a good look at how they concealed Jews (and others as well) during the German occupation. The fact it was a simple Franciscan priest who spearheaded the effort speaks as well to the simple faith that guided his and others to do it. There was never any question of doing it, just the logistics. The Jews that were saved were grateful and let it be known. Ramati had learned of the story when he was there after the liberation and said that one day, he would write a book to chronicle this remarkable story. And it is a book worth reading to see how the accomplished it under German control. Whether Müller knew what Rufino was doing is not clear, but as Ramati reveals from interviewing his son, he probably did and why him being there made a difference.
The book was made into a 1985 movie The Assisi Underground starring Ben Cross as Father Rufino and James Mason as Bishop Nicolini (it was his last movie). It is okay but takes liberties with the source material and adds an unneeded search for a scientist. Maximilian Schell plays Colonel Müller pretty close to the original (there were a few deviations from the book but not too many). Read the book and then watch the movie is my humble suggestion.
The book is out of print though checking your local library would be a good place to start. Libraries are part of a shared network so even if they do not have it, you can retrieve the book to be checked out. Amazon does have it available for purchase as a used book, so you can also try there. The movie can also be found in many libraries and as of the date of this posting, available for free viewing by Amazon Prime members.