A Jewish man whose family was sheltered by Catholic religious sisters during the 1943 Nazi deportation of Jews in Rome has said he is grateful for the time he spent in safety with them as a young boy.
“These were unforgettable experiences which lasted many months,” Roberto Piperno said in the Oct. 16, 2012 issue of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano.
“During my time spent at the monastery, which was well-kept by the kind, smiling and helpful sisters, I do not have a sad memory in terms of human relationships.”
He said the sisters’ sympathy for him as a five-year-old child “made even the condition of imprisonment and fear more tolerable.”
Piperno’s story adds to the historical record of the Catholic Church’s response to Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II.
On Oct. 16, 1943 Nazi forces with the S.S. Einsatzgruppen rounded up residents of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto for deportation.
Some Jews escaped by taking refuge in various religious institutions. Piperno and his family hid in the home of Clelia and Alberto Ragionieri, whom the Israeli Holocaust memorial commission Yad Vashem awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 2004.
The failure of Allied troops to advance on Rome prompted the family to move in December to not endanger their hosts.
“My father had frequent contact with the Vatican for reasons of his work as a textile merchant and the friend with whom we stayed was a good Catholic,” Piperno said.
Piperno and his mother, sister, and grandmothers moved to the monastery of the Bethlehem Sisters in Sabazio square. His father and grandfather went to the Basilica of St. John, where the rest of the family joined them. However, they changed their plans when a Nazi raid on the Basilica of St. Paul took away many people who had taken refuge there.
The father and grandfather returned to a family friend’s home, while Piperno and the women of his family returned to the monastery. A member of the Ragionieri family supplied the refugees with false documents at the request of the monastery’s mother superior Sr. Evelina Foligno.
The family took on a “dual personality” in both their identity and behavior. They played the role of displaced Catholic Neapolitans and attended church in the monastery every Sunday.
Piperno said he especially remembered a young nun named Rita who was “always affectionate and sympathetic” and was the only person with whom he went out from the monastery.
He said he is “still grateful” for the nuns’ “sympathetic attitude” that made his frightening situation better.
Accusations that the Catholic Church did not do enough to halt the Nazi persecution have sometimes targeted Pope Pius XII. The wartime Pope’s accusers have said he was not vocal enough in speaking out against the injustices against Jews. His defenders note the precarious situation of the Church, the fear of retaliation against the Church and against Jews, and the Pope’s condemnation of ethnic persecution in statements like his 1942 Christmas Eve radio address.
Pius XII’s defenders also point to the pontiff’s many behind-the-scenes actions to assist Jewish refugees, including sheltering them in Church-owned properties.
Pinchas Lapide, the late Jewish historian and Israeli diplomat, has said the direct actions of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican saved as many as 897,000 Jewish lives during the war.