ROME, JAN. 30, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The religious congregations and Catholic institutions that were committed to saving Jews from Nazi persecution in Italy, tried to respect the Jews’ faith, recalls Emanuele Pacifici.
Pacifici, who today is the Italian president of the association Friends of Yad Vashem, experienced the horror of the Holocaust as a child.
His father Riccardo, rabbi of Genoa, and his mother Wanda Abenaim died at Auschwitz. Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the death camp by Allied forces.
Emanuele and his brother Raffaele were saved by the nuns of the St. Martha Institute of Settignano, near Florence.
Emanuele has long known adversity. He once spent several years in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. In October 1982 he was wounded by a bomb that exploded in front of the synagogue of Rome.
As a child, some of his happiest memories centered around three Catholics: Sister Cornelia Cordini, Sister Esther Busnelli and Father Gaetano Tantalo. All of them have been honored by Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations.”
In an interview with ZENIT, Pacifici recounted that “in 1943, when I was 12 years old, my father was captured by the Nazis. Then, together with my mother and brother Raffaele, who was 6, we sought refuge in Florence. We were helped by the cardinal of Florence, Elia dalla Costa, who gave us a list of convents where we could hide.
“The search was not easy, because all the convents we got in touch with were full. After much searching, and when we were already desperate, Sister Esther Busnelli received us, opening the gate of the convent of the Missionary Franciscans of Carmel Square in Florence. However, the convent could only accommodate women. So my brother and I were taken to St. Martha’s convent in Settignano.”
“A few days later,” Emanuele Pacifici recalled, “the Nazis invaded Sister Esther’s convent and took my mother away, together with 80 other Jewish women. Deported to Auschwitz, none of them returned.”
“As little straws in a storm, and already orphans without knowing it, we found hospitality, understanding and affection in St. Martha’s convent,” he added.
“I remember that, every evening, before going to bed, it was the custom that every [Catholic] child kiss the crucifix that the nuns wore on their chest,” Pacifici said. “But when it was my turn, Sister Cornelia, taking care so that no one would notice, would put her fingers on the crucifix, so that I should kiss her fingers and not the crucifix.”
Pacific explained that with this gesture the nun wished to respect the child’s religious identity, without the others realizing it.
“Then she would whisper in my ear: ‘Now go to bed and, when you are under the covers, don’t forget to say your prayers!’ And this happened every day, for almost a year. For this I am very grateful to Sister Cornelia, whom I have always called ‘Mother Cornelia,'” said Pacifici.
He continued: “In 1939, during the holidays, my uncles and I befriended Father Gaetano Tantalo, the parish priest of Tagliacozzo. Father Gaetano could read and write very well in Hebrew. In 1943, my uncles, pursued by the Nazis, asked Father Gaetano for hospitality who, with the help of his sister, found a safe refuge for Pacifici’s numerous family and for the Orvieto family.”
“During nine months, they were shut-in and did not go out,” he said, emphasizing that “Father Gaetano provided for all their needs.”
“With the approach of Pesach [Jewish Passover], my uncle Enrico realized that he did not know the exact date. Father Gaetano did the calculations and discovered that the 14th of Nissan fell on April 8 of 1944. In addition, he provided the flour to make the unleavened bread and some new pots to be able to cook,” added Pacifici.
“Thus, with the Germans two steps away from us, my uncle Enrico and his family were able to begin the Seder, the ceremony of celebration of the Jewish Passover. Father Gaetano also took part in it.”
Pacifici then added: “After the priest’s death, his relatives found among his things a little box that contained a piece of unleavened bread with which he had celebrated the Jewish Passover with my uncles.”
The cause of beatification of Father Gaetano Tantalo is under way. The decree on his virtues was published in April 1995.