Courageous Romans and Jews during World War II


This past January I traveled with an interfaith group to the Holy Land. I have had the pleasure and opportunity to travel to Israel five times since my first trip in 1981. I was a seminarian and was part of a biblical-archeological tour with priests and seminarians associated with the college seminary Saint Pius X in Scranton, Pennsylvania. That first trip included a number of days in Rome to tie together the holy cities of Jerusalem and Rome in the early development of the church and writing of sacred Scriptures. It was interesting to learn about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD and see where it once stood and just a week later view in Rome the Arch of Titus that depicted the sacking of the Temple. Rome and Jerusalem are forever linked throughout the rather rocky history of Jews and Christians through the millennia.

One of the places I always visit when I’m in Jerusalem is Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center. I have always been impressed with the monuments spread throughout the Yad Vashem complex honoring the “Righteous Among the Nations,” defined as non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Even in modern times there is a sad yet courageous chronicle of the connection between the Romans and Jewish people during World War II. While visiting a parishioner in a local rehabilitation center, I ran into a friend of mine, Mosheh Math, a member of  the local Jewish community here in Wildwood and asked if we could have a joint viewing of the documentary film, “My Italian Secret: The Forgotten Heroes.” It was written and directed by Oren Jacoby, and it tells the true story of the rescue of thousands of Italian Jews during the war by ordinary and prominent Italians.

The film is narrated by Isabella Rossellini. The film tells its story by relating the accounts of Jewish survivors “who return to Italy in their late adulthood to revisit the scenes of their worst nightmares: hidden in terror, fleeing in desperation, separated from loved ones, saying final goodbyes without knowing they were final.”

We will be viewing the film together, Jews and Catholics, on Tuesday, June 12, at 7 p.m. at Beth Judah Temple, Pacific and Spencer avenues, Wildwood. This presentation is open to the public and I invite all to attend. Now that the weather is finally turning nice you could make a day of visiting our beautiful beaches and boardwalk and attend our gathering in the evening.

The film is a mixture of archival footage and reenactments, in addition to interviews with survivors and relatives of the rescuers. It describes how many Italians, including Roman Catholic priests, risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazi troops after the German occupation of Italy in 1943.

The film focuses on the champion cyclist Gino Bartali who is shown in some of the archival material and whose son Andrea is interviewed. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini viewed Bartali as a paragon of fascist values, who proved Italians were part of the “master race.” But Bartali rejected fascism and opposed its anti-Semitic policies. During the war, he traveled throughout Italy on his bicycle while pretending to train for competitions, delivering documents for hidden Jews. He did this on the behest of the Archbishop of Florence, where he resided. Bartali never spoke of his wartime exploits after the war, not even to his family, and only did so late in life. Bartali risked his own life and the life of his family by his actions. In 2013, Bartali was recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem for his efforts during the war to save Jews.

About 80 percent of the Jews in Italy survived during World War II because of Italian rescuers, and Bartali alone rescued hundreds if not thousands of Jews and anti-fascist partisans. Only 1,006 Roman Jews were captured and sent to concentration camps. This has been attributed to the passive resistance of the Roman people and the organization of the church in Rome, which opened convents and rectories to Jewish refugees as part of an aid network that came from the highest ranks of the church.

I do hope you will be able to join us at Beth Judah Temple in Wildwood at 7 p.m. on June 12. It is an event open to the public, free of charge. We will have some time for discussion following the film. Hope to see you there.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.