ROME – Odoardo Focherini, whom Yad Vashem honored as a Righteous among the Nations in 1969, was beatified on Saturday by the Roman Catholic Church in Carpi, his hometown in the province of Modena in northern Italy.
Focherini is the first Righteous Gentile to be sent on the road to sainthood, the first Catholic to be named a blessed martyr for losing his life in order to save Jews during the Nazi era.
His beatification process began in 1996 when the Carpi Catholic Diocese presented an official document.
Pope Benedict XVI signed the decree attesting to Focherini’s martyrdom on May 10, 2012.
Strong positive reactions have begun pouring in from representatives of world Jewry.
Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, offered “homage with deference and deep feeling.”
“Odoardo Focherini was a person of the highest values and principles. An extraordinary commitment, paid at the price of his life... His courage, his ideals, his love for life will not be forgotten. His memory will continue to be a source of inspiration, also for future generations,” Gattegna said.
The American Jewish Committee issued a statement in Rome saying it was “deeply moved.”
“Odoardo Focherini acted selflessly in accordance with the highest moral principles shared by our two fraternal religions,” it said. “This act will create yet another bond between Christians and Jews, further enriching our deepening dialogue. May the recognition and memory of Odoardo Focherini’s profound faith and humanity be a blessing to all the world’s peoples.”
Focherini’s extraordinary acts have been remembered and honored through the years. In 1955, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities presented his family with a gold medal in his memory, for having “applied himself as an activist, tirelessly, for a long period, to help Jews and in particular to save those who were being persecuted.”
In 1969, Focherini and Father Dante Sala, the parish priest of San Martino Spino near Mirandola who sustained Focherini’s frenetic activity in helping Jews cross over to Switzerland, were inscribed in Yad Vashem’s Album of the Righteous among Nations. In 2007, the Italian Republic commemorated his devotion and sacrifice with a Gold Medal for Civil Merit.
Father Giangiuseppe Califano, the postulator (the person who guides a cause for beatification or canonization through the Church’s judicial processes) of Focherini’s Cause for Beatification, said that Focherini “was martyred by the Nazis in odium fidei,” that is, he was murdered out of “hatred for the faith,” for giving witness by risking his life to save persecuted Jews.
Focherini is described as having been happily married and a loving father of seven who was a devoted Catholic activist whose path led to martyrdom because he followed his conscience and his faith.
He worked first as an insurance agent and then as a journalist for the Bologna-based L’Avvenire d’Italia newspaper.
Focherini (known as “Odo”) began building a clandestine network, producing false documents and escorting more than a hundred Jewish refugees across the Italian border into Switzerland, when the archbishop of Genoa, Cardinal Pietro Boetta, asked the editor-in-chief of L’Avvenire d’Italia, Raimondo Manzini, to help some Polish Jews to escape from Genoa.
Manzini entrusted Focherini with this delicate and dangerous task. The word of possible salvation quickly spread among Jewish refugees.
Focherini continued to save as many lives as he could with the help of Sala.
On March 11, 1944, after delivering his last false documents to Enrico Donati, a Jewish refugee in the Hospital of Carpi, Focherini was arrested by Italian Fascists and submitted to interrogation regarding a letter in which he wrote that he was helping Jews “not for profit, but out of pure Christian charity.”
This served as his death warrant.
From a prison in Bologna he was brought to the Fossoli concentration camp in Carpi, then to the Gries camp in Bolzano, and finally deported to the Flossenburg concentration camp in Germany.
He died at a subsidiary camp of Flossenburg in Hersbruck on December 27, 1944, at the age of 37, from blood poisoning caused by a leg wound.
A Catholic partisan friend, Teresio Olivetti, also interned at Hersbruck, had been hidden and saved by Focherini when the Nazis were seeking victims for a reprisal following a partisan attack in which 10 Germans were killed.
Olivetti conveyed Focherini’s last words: “I declare I am dying in the purest apostolic Roman Catholic faith and in full submission to the will of God, offering my life as holocaust for my diocese, for Catholic Action [a lay group], for the pope and for the return of peace to this world.”
Olivetti, who was later beatified, died in Hersbruck on January 17, 1945, after a guard beat him.
Focherini managed to send 166 letters to his family from his imprisonment, published as a book in 1994.
The motivation for his commitment to saving Jews is expressed in a sentence now painted on a banner hung in the Memorial Museum and Monument for Racial and Political Deportees in Carpi.
He is said to have confided this thought to his brotherin– law who visited him in prison: “If you had seen, as I have seen in this prison, how Jews are treated here, your only regrets would be not to have saved more of them.”