PERE MARIE-BENOIT AND JEWISH RESCUE: HOW A FRENCH PRIEST TOGETHER WITH JEWISH FRIENDS SAVED THOUSANDS DURING THE HOLOCAUST
By Susan Zuccotti
Indiana University Press, $23.49, 296 pages
This book tells the story of the efforts to rescue Jews living in France and Italy during the Nazi persecution. Though not as brutal as in Germany and Eastern Europe, the dangers these Jews faced and the large numbers deported and killed in concentration camps is equally appalling. Author Susan Zuccotti says that hiding, feeding and transporting these Jews to safe zones was done by Christians and Jews working together. She thinks this cooperation was the beginning of a healing in CatholicJewish relations that came to official fruition at the Second Vatican Council, in the document Nostrae Aetate (1965).
Ms. Zuccotti, who has taught Holocaust history at Barnard College in New York, focuses her story on a French Capuchin priest, Pere Marie-Benoit, born Pierre Peteul (1895-1990). He acted, in her opinion, as the catalyst for saving Jews — especially by providing them with forged documents to remove them from danger. Because of his work, he was officially recognized after the war by the state of Israel as a Righteous Among Nations.
This is not a hagiography. As a matter of fact, aside from Benoit's rescue operations, there is little beyond speculation as to how his love of, and interest in, the Jews developed.
The best resource we have for explaining Benoit's actions on behalf of the Jews is from the context of his formation as a priest and Scripture scholar, which enabled him to understand the importance of Judaism for Christianity. Readers will be interested in the author's assessment of the efforts of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust and the response of the Vatican during the Nazi occupation of Rome (1943-45), where at least 12,000 Jews resided. There is, in this book, little evidence of Pius' direct involvement in the rescue efforts. Benoit had only one meeting with him and had little to report about it. There is a great deal of evidence, however, of numerous churches, monasteries and private families hiding and aiding both Italian and foreign Jews.
Anyone with knowledge of Vatican-speak knows how Romanita (saying something or allowing something without directly doing so) allows a great deal to happen. Pius, especially through his personal secretary and closest adviser, Monsignor Robert Lieben, as well as Monsignor Antonio Riberi, head of the Pontifical Commission for Refugee Assistance, was assuredly apprised of the plight of the Jews and the church's efforts on their behalf. The pope, a trained diplomat, certainly realized that in some instances prudence is the better part of valor. His Christmas address in 1942 is indicative of a style used to avoid direct confrontation while enunciating principles to achieve a greater good.
Pius' position can best be summed up in his response to Monsignor Konrad von Preysing, the bishop of Berlin, who had begged him to intercede on behalf of a group of Jews affected by a new wave of deportations in Germany. The pope wrote, "We leave it to local senior clergymen to decide if, and to what degree, the danger of reprisals and oppression, as well as, perhaps, other circumstances caused by length and psychological climate of war may make restraint advisable — despite the reasons for intervention — in order to avoid greater evils. This is one of the reasons why we limit ourselves in our proclamations."
Readers will be edified by the collaboration of Benoit with Jewish rescue leaders both in France and Italy. His legacy is not about Jewish conversions, but about his love and respect for religious freedom and the dignity of all human beings. Ms. Zuccotti relates that Benoit consistently asked only that "the Jews he met and helped be good Jews."
Ms. Zuccotti writes, "He quietly challenged the Catholic obsession with converting the Jews and Christians, explaining that the determining factor in conversion was God's grace and will, not the efforts of men. He was in the forefront of Catholic theologians who argued for the reforms of Vatican II."
Benoit risked not only his life, but endured the jealousy and hostility of some members of the hierarchy and of his religious community because of his activities. Ms. Zuccotti states, "Jews and Catholics alike were aware that his superiors in the Vatican did not always share his views."
A very admirable trait, the author notes, was Benoit's desire for accuracy in describing the facts regarding the Jewish-rescue efforts. He never promoted himself and would only allow credit where it was due. Ms. Zuccotti says he strongly denied the urban legend that he retained the key to the Roman Synagogue during the Nazi occupation and reopened it for the Jews after the Allies liberated the city.
He explained, "I must say that the Italians have a vivid imagination. I never had the key to the synagogue; I was not the first to enter [after liberation]. But I was there!" He also wrote, "a letter to the editors of Israel in 1961 to refute the claim of the German Jesuit priest Robert Lieber, Pius XII's closest adviser throughout his papacy, that Delasem (the Jewish rescue organization) had received financial aid from the Vatican during the German occupation of Rome."
Should Pere Marie-Benoit's cause for canonization (sainthood) be promoted? This book gives good reason for further investigation into this possibility. He demonstrated heroic virtue. He remained loyal to the church, to his religious community and to his vocation, and to his work on behalf of humanity. Most of all, his witness was critical in moving Catholic-Jewish relations from one of suspicion to one of respect.
The Rev. Michael P. Orsi is chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla.