Righteous devotion

Capuchin friar Père Marie-Benoît used guile, courage and compassion to save Jews in the Holocaust.

France war monument 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
France war monument 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On May 10, 1940, the German Army attacked Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. On May 14, the Germans broke through the French lines at Sedan and the battle for France began.
This started a new, tragic chapter in the history of European Jewry, and it is against this backdrop that Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands During the Holocaust unfolds.
At this time, the hitherto safe Western European Jews had to run for safety. They were joined by their brothers, the Eastern European refugees who found safety in the West, but were now forced to seek new shelter.
They fled to unoccupied France, where they soon faced serious trouble, after the Vichy regime abolished their civil rights. Over 20,000 Jews were separated from their families and put to heavy labor under demeaning conditions. In August 1942, Vichy police started deporting Jews to the German-occupied zone, for transports to certain annihilation.
Jews sought safety in the Italian-occupied part of France, central Italy and Rome. But in September 1943, Germans and their Fascist collaborators started seizing all such refugees and Italian Jews as well. On December 1, 1943, all Italian Jews were arrested. In Rome, Col. Herbert Kappler, chief of the Gestapo, was ordered to liquidate all Jews. Those who fled to the north were caught by Germans under the short-lived regime of Benito Mussolini.
Two hundred years ago, Rabbi Judah Alkalai coined a phrase: “Exile is a crime.”How right he was. Jews on the run lost everything they had. They needed false documents, ration cards, food and a roof over their heads. They needed friends to emigrate, to cross the Swiss or Spanish borders. Pierre Peteul – known as Père Marie- Benoît, or Padre Maria Benedetto in the underground – became such a friend. Holocaust survivors remember how this Catholic Capuchin French priest, together with Jewish friends, saved thousands from deportation.
Susan Zuccotti, author of The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue and Survival and Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, tells us all about this courageous priest, who risked his life in Marseilles, Nice and Rome to help the unfortunates.
Recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1966, he wrote: “This tree planted in my name does not only represent me, it also represents the courageous Jews with whom I fought and without whom I would not have achieved my goal.”
Born Pierre Peteul in Le Bourg-d’Ire on March 30, 1895, a scion of a conservative, Catholic family, he wanted to become a priest. There were few Jews in his district, but with much logical inconsistency, Catholics usually blamed Jews for all the ills of modern life – and the Dreyfus Affair did not help. But Peteul belonged to the Capuchin order that suffered discrimination, and at 12 was obliged by the French laws of separation of churches to leave his family for Belgium to study. There, intense biblical study became the source of his interest in Judaism and Jews.
He was attracted to the Capuchin simple life of chastity and austerity, wearing distinctive brown habits with pointed hoods, cord belts, sandals and long beards, and helping others. During World War I he served in the French Army as a stretcher bearer and won rank and distinction for saving wounded under fire.
In 1925, he earned his doctorate in Hebrew and Greek, summa cum laude, and taught theology at the College of Saint Lawrence of Brindisi. He joined a Catholic group, Amici Israel (Friends of Israel), comprising 3,000 priests, 278 bishops and archbishops, and 18 cardinals, seeking mutual respect and dialogue between Christians and Jews. The group was banned by Pius XI in 1928, since the pope disapproved of Jewish contacts, except for conversion.
But Marie-Benoît fought anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism as evil and theologically erroneous. He perceived Jews as the Chosen People of God, creators of the Old Testament upon which both faiths are based, and among whom Jesus was born. Spiritually, he believed, all Christians are Semites.
In late May 1940, in a Capuchin monastery in Marseilles, he noted : “A completely unexpected activity was reserved for me. I had already been in contact with several Jews.” He visited the internees’ camps, brought their problems to the authorities and facilitated departures abroad. Marie-Benoît arranged for Rachel and Esther Fallmann to cross the Swiss border, but after the Swiss turned them back, he made sure they, along with their mother, were safe. He was lucky with Joseph Aelion, whom he got across to Spain.
He helped two Belgian airmen and several French officers across the Spanish border.
In mid-1943, he assisted Angelo Donati in a daring plan to transport Jewish refugees to North Africa. From September 1943, he practically ran Delasem, an Italian Jewish rescue organization. The Padre’s connections as a Catholic priest were invaluable. Marie-Benoît met Pope Pius XII in July 1943, to report on the ongoing extermination and to ask for aid. In fact, the Vatican was never enthusiastic over Marie-Benoît’s pro-Jewish activities. However, both the Capuchins and the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion assisted Marie-Benoît in his work.
In Rome, he located a small printing press, where refugees could fake documents, seals and stamps, and Hungarian identity cards – all that was needed to save some 3,000 Jews. The city was freed on Sunday, June 4, 1944, when the first Allied troops, followed by the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, entered the city. On June 8, at the first public service in the central synagogue, Marie-Benoît said he “regretted that he didn’t belong to the People of Israel, for whom he had such liking and who he tried to help with all his strength.”
In July, 1947, he participated in the International Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism in Seelisberg, Switzerland.
France made Marie-Benoît an officer of the Legion of Honor; Italy, Britain and Jewish organizations showered him with medals and rewards for his humanitarian wartime activities.
Marie-Benoît arrived in Israel aboard the Theodor Herzl on July 20, 1958, on a trip sponsored by the Jews of Rome, and spent 18 glorious days meeting friends and touring the country. Upon his return to France he taught theology and philosophy at Capuchin colleges. He died on February 5, 1990, in the Capuchin monastery at Angers, close to his birthplace.
This brave man had shown to the world how a single individual can make all the difference. Zuccotti’s well-told story – with extensive notes on every chapter – is a tribute to tolerance and better understanding between all national, religious and racial groups, a challenge to this and future generations.
One can only suggest that a large portrait of Père Marie-Benoît should hang in the planned Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance.