It is a stretch to call this piece 'living witnesses', as we are going to introduce you to an inanimate object--a small printing press. We 'met' this amazing witness last summer in Assisi--and what a story he has to tell! Please take a few minutes to hear:
The story of the printing press.
I'm retired now and live in a museum. But for many years I worked in a small souvenir shop in Assisi, printing prayer cards for pilgrims who came for St Francis' blessing. Just how powerful that blessing was, none of us knew, until the dark times came. You see, in September 1943, just as our friends the British and Americans landed in the South of Italy, our 'allies' the Germans occupied Umbria and all of Northern Italy. With war now raging in our beautiful land, all the monuments and pilgrim sites of Italy were under threat of bombing--and the Italian people were in dire straits. Worst of all, Italy's Jews were now threatened with deportation to the East.
The Brizi Souvenir Shop
Well, my friends, the first blessing came from an unexpected direction--the Bavarian officer in command of Assisi. Col. Valentin Müller was a fine man, a medical doctor, very devout, went to mass at the Tomb of San Francesco every day, or so I heard. (Sitting all day in a popular souvenir shop, you hear all the local gossip, you see.) It was he who arranged for Assisi to be designated a hospital city. As such, not only were we spared the Allied bombings, we were also freed from the presence of German troops--making it much easier for us to hide people in our midst. The Colonel must have known what we were up to, but he turned a blind eye to our efforts to save people from the death camps. For that was what we did--save three hundred Jews--and in a city which had never before, or since, had a Jewish community!
Col. Valentin Müller
The next blessing was equally unexpected--our Fascist mayor, Arnaldo Fortini. He was a kind man, a lover of San Francesco and Santa Chiara in his own way. He even wrote a biography of St Francis! Not only did he too play a part in lobbying for Assisi's demilitarized status, he also risked a lot to support our efforts, passing on warnings of impending Nazi raids.
You see, once we became a hospital city, a safe zone in the midst of bombing, our population was swollen by thousands of refugees. And among them were several hundred desperate Jews who had heard about the kindness of Fortini and hoped they might be safe here. They got more than they could have hoped for. No hiding in sewers or barns for the Jews that came to us. And that's where I played a very important part, as you will soon hear.
The third blessing for Assisi in those days was surely our wonderful Bishop, Guiseppe Placido Nicolini. He had already set up a "Committee for Assistance" to help the refugees. Under cover of this committee, he began the dangerous and difficult work of saving Jews. Our Holy Father, Pope Pius XII of blessed memory, had ordered Catholic institutions to save, hide and protect the Jews. And the humble and tireless Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, coordinated all these efforts.
The plan was to give all the Jews false papers--and that's where I and my owners, Luigi and Trento Brizi, came into the picture, you see. Father Aldo Brunacci was placed in charge of the rescue operation, along with Father Ruffino Niacci. Friar Niacci was a simple man from an Umbrian village who had never even met a Jew before! Yet he rose to the occasion and did what San Francesco would have done. I will never forget the day when Niacci came into our store to ask us to print the false papers. Luigi agreed to do this, at risk of his own life. And young Trento rode his bike to Foligno to get a friend who was expert in etching to create the seals. The documents were produced here by yours truly and taken to a different location to be stamped. I made false papers for other Jews too, those who just passed through Assisi and went on to live elsewhere
An example of the false papers
When the Jews first arrived, they were hidden in various convents and private homes and even in the Bishop's palace. I can tell you, our Bishop Nicolini was not above giving his own bed to the exhausted refugees. But the Bishop was not content to keep the Jews in hiding. His plan was that they should not just survive, but thrive to the greatest extent possible. And thanks to the fake identity documents I produced, the Jews were able to rent apartments, work within the community, obtain rations, and--most importantly of all to the Bishop--the children could attend school.
Father Ruffino Niacci at tree planting ceremony in Yad Vashem, being honoured as Righteous among the Nations
The Bishop felt it important to care for all the spiritual and material needs of our Jewish friends. He kept their valuables and money in his vault for them and hid their special religious objects in his palace cellars. He and dear Father Aldo constructed false walls with their own hands to create hiding places for sacred texts and other Jewish items. And when a family wanted to leave, the pair broke open the wall with a pick and shovel and then re-plastered it. He made sure the Jews could celebrate their special holidays, too. I remember Yom Kippur of 1943 and how the Sisters prepared the fast-break meal for the Jews. And the indomitable Father Aldo even arranged for a secret Hebrew school for the Jewish children to learn their faith!
Don Aldo Brunacci
There was one family I could not help. The Finzis from Belgium had arrived early in the war and were already registered as Jews. Well, you will never guess what our Bishop did! He hid them in the most secure hiding place he had--the strict enclosure of the French Colettine Poor Clares. Here their baby was born and here they celebrated the Passover Seder with the nuns. How beautiful that our sisters, whose enclosure was so strict, allowed a family to live with them to save their lives!
Colettine Poor Clare Monastery
On 17th May 1944, we were horrified to learn that Don Aldo and some other members of our network were arrested. Thanks be to God, Montini was able to get them out. That was a blessing in itself. But the greatest blessing of all was simply the fact that not one of the Jews who came to Assisi was lost. By our collaborative effort and all the risks we took, we were able to save three hundred lives. And how many old printing presses could say that?
Some of those who were saved
Last summer Alakananda and Sadananda came to visit me here in the Museum of Memory, housed in the beautiful Palazzo Vallemani, where I live surrounded by false papers I printed and pictures of Bishop Nicolini, Don Aldo, Friar Niacci, Mayor Fortini, Col Müller, my owners and some of the dear ones we saved. My new friends stroked me lovingly and Sadananda took several photographs of me. Tears were sparkling in their eyes--tears of gratitude for those whom we saved and tears of sorrow for the millions who were lost. We can only hope and pray for a future when--by San Francesco's blessing--nobody will ever be killed because of their race, colour or creed.
Hear Don Aldo's testimony here.