By Edward Pentin

ROME, MARCH 11, 2010 ( Italian-American Donato De Simone knows well what it's like to be a child caught up in the horrors of war.

Born in 1932 in Fossacesia, a small town on Italy's Adriatic coast, he suffered the trauma of dodging Nazis, bombs and hunger during a major battle in World War II. He saw many friends die, including his favorite teacher, killed during Italy's evacuation period in 1943. Then, having survived the war, he lost his mother who died of complications from childbirth in 1948.

"World War II threw at me everything it had in its arsenal," he says. "I survived it, but it changed me in a very fundamental way."

Now 78, he recently pulled together all those experiences and recorded them in a fascinating book called "Suffer the Children." In it, he provides a very human and readable account of those traumatic times, written because he firmly believes "a page of history not learned is bound to repeat itself."

But he doesn't overly dwell on the horrors of war; he also details the many acts of heroism that took place in Italy both within his own family and, especially, by Catholic clergy to save Jews. As in Elizabeth Bettina's book "It Happened in Italy," which I wrote about here last year, De Simone has written a testimony to those acts of selfless heroism that made Italy arguably the best place for wartime Jews to escape Nazi capture.

His recollections are also told evocatively and with good humor. He recounts, for example, the very human reaction of his grandmother when told their family would have people living upstairs in their house. "Are you crazy?" she replied. "All the men are away and we're going to have strangers living with us? Did you say no?"

"Of course I did," his mother answered. "But Msgr. [Tommaso] Tozzi [their parish priest] said: 'Pretend it's Jesus knocking at your door asking for hospitality. Will you slam the door in his face?' With that, I had no choice but sign up for two rooms. But I insisted that we would accommodate women and children only."

A week later, De Simone recounts, he rejoiced when "Jesus arrived" in the guise of "four splendid blond girls." But he detected something different and strange about them: They spoke no Italian and their blond hair wasn't like that of the girls in town. When researching his book in the 1990s, he discovered his family had given shelter to two Jewish families for seven months each, and that there were 214 refugees in his small town.

He believes they were probably refugees rescued thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Dr. Giovanni Palatucci, a police commissioner in Fiume. In 1939, Dr. Palatucci intercepted a Greek ship sailing on the Adriatic Sea with 800 Jews on board who were likely to be handed over to the Nazis. He took them to Abbazia where the local bishop, Isidor Sain, put them up in churches, convents and monasteries before transferring them to Palatucci's uncle, Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci of Campagna. All of them escaped capture and ended up in Israel after 1948. In total, Dr. Palatucci is thought to have saved 6,000 Jewish lives, but he himself died in Dachau on Feb. 10, 1945.

De Simone also includes an interesting letter from Rodolfo Grani, written in 1952 and published in an Israeli newspaper. Grani, a Fiume Jew who helped Dr. Palatucci in the 1939 rescue, gives a strong defense of Pope Pius XII who, even then, was subject to criticism from some Jews for his war record. Pius XII, he recalled, "did his best to save as many Jews as possible" and when the Nazis stepped up their campaign against Italian Jews in 1943, "he mobilized the entire clerical force of the Vatican." But more significantly, Grani says, Pius XII gave bishops Palatucci and Sain full backing in rescuing the 800 Jews from the ship in the Adriatic. De Simone believes that in those days "no cleric, from a cardinal all the way down to a campanaro, made a move without the knowledge and approval of the Pope." The Church, he said, "was up to its neck" in helping to save Jews.

"Suffer the Children" is an invaluable record of the horrors of war, which its author hopes will be most instructive to the young. Its recollections of personal heroism, which would also make a gripping Hollywood movie, are both highly uplifting and inspirational.

"Heroism is never planned," De Simone explains, "but born out of the immediate and unexpected necessity of the moment."

"I saw many a hero in those days," he recalls, " and, strangely enough, they were all Italians."

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Opposition builds

Many parents in Britain believe it's a case of "suffer the children" at the moment as new sex education legislation continues to make its way through Parliament.

I hadn't planned on returning to this issue so soon, but pro-life, family and human rights groups warn there is a real danger that the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which the government says would mandate Catholic schools to teach pupils how to procure abortions, could be passed unless a concerted campaign is now mounted against it.

Campaigners of all three monotheistic faiths and others are deeply concerned the legislation, which would also include the teaching of divorce and same-sex relationships to primary school children aged seven to 11, could be rushed through Parliament in a "clearing up" procedure before Britain's general election, expected in early May. The bill had its second reading in the House of Lords on March 8, and could go to the Lords committee stage before the end of the month.

During this week's debate in the Lords, the distinguished Catholic peer, Lord Alton of Liverpool, spoke passionately about the bill being "a wholly unacceptable assault on the rights of conscience, beliefs, the integrity of religious foundations, and the integrity of families." He added that the way the government has ignored parents' concerns on such a sensitive matter "smacks of arrogance and the worst kind of nanny state," and quoted the results of the government's own consultation in which 68% of respondents voiced opposition to such sex education in the national curriculum.

"I cannot begin to tell the Minister how much anxiety this has engendered, and not just among Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Anglicans, who as a matter of conscience believe abortion to be the taking of an innocent life," Lord Alton said.

Yet so far the bishops of England and Wales have been silent on the bill or actively supported it. The chairman of the Catholic Education Service, Bishop Malcolm McMahon, wrote a long article in the London Times last week without indicating any objection to the legislation. (Some Catholics are reportedly already discouraged after he said recently that people in same-sex civil partnerships should be able to be head teachers of Catholic schools.)

The CES's director, Oona Stannard, insists the bill is a "positive step forward" and that Catholic schools would not be compelled "to promote abortion" under the legislation (despite Ed Balls, Britain's education minister, saying recently that Catholic schools "must explain how to access abortion"). But even if Catholic school children are exempt, campaigners say other children will still be vulnerable to the promotion of lifestyles that are against the natural law.

The absence of opposition from the bishops, which some charitably think may be tactical, has led to prominent Catholics such as Lord Alton and respected priest bloggers to formally protest on behalf of the Church. It's also been noted how laudably a Protestant campaign group, Christian Concern for Our Nation, has responded to the dangers of the legislation and its problems with regards to Home Schooling.

Some Catholics have taken the matter into their own hands and set up an online petition asking the bishops to speak out. So far it has attracted nearly 2,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, Catholics and other Christians in Britain will join together in a National Day of Prayer and Fasting (organized by the pro-life movement) on Monday, March 15, to pray that the bill will be defeated. Campaigners are also urging those opposed to the bill to make their concerns known to peers and the Conservative Party, without whom the legislation cannot be rushed through parliament.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: