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from issue no. 08 - 2006


The Holy Father orders…

We print the unpublished memorial of the Convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati, relative to the years of the Nazi occupation of Rome: the order of Pius XII to open the convents to the persecuted, the names of the Jews hidden there, life in the convent during those terrible years

by Pina Baglioni

The entrance to the convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati

The entrance to the convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati

«Ours wants only to be a small testimony about Pope Pius XII. Without any pretension, for goodness sake. Certainly, the amount of writings about the presumed indifference of the Pontiff and his “silences” about the Jews in the years of Nazi Fascism, pains us deeply. And so it seemed useful to make known what happened here among us more than sixty years ago».
“Here among us” is the cloistered convent of the Augustinians, part of the millenary Basilica of the Santi Quattro Coronati, on the slopes of the Coelian Hill in Rome. Sister Rita Mancini, the mother superior who has headed the monastic Augustinian community since 1977, speaks to us.
Solicited and encouraged by the International Conference “Pius XII. Testimonies, studies and new findings”, organized by 30Days on 27 April last at the Pontifical Lateran University, the cloistered nuns of the Santi Quattro got in contact with our magazine to offer their contribution: some very precious pages of the Memorial of the Augustinian religious of the Venerable Convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati. That is to say a part of the official diary of the community that has recorded since 1548 – the year in which the Augustinians took up residence in the Santi Quattro – the chronicles of monastic life.
Thanks to the Augustinian nuns of the Santi Quattro there is the possibility of opening a window on that microcosm separated from the world and suddenly called by Pius XII to open its doors, raise the grilles and allow itself to be involved, risking grave consequences, by the destinies of so many people whose lives were in danger.
«When I came here in 1977 I met Sister Emilia Umeblo», the mother superior of the Santi Quattro recounts. «At the time of the occupation she was the “external” sister, the person authorized that is, for practical purposes, to deal with the outside world. She spoke to me at length of those months and of the organizational logistics to facilitate hospitality for the Jewish refugees and many other antifascists. Among other things Sister Emilia was in constant contact with Antonello Trombadori, a Communist party leader and head of the Armed Partisan Groups in Rome and with many other opponents of Nazi Fascism. I begged Sister Emilia many times to write down all that she was telling me. But unfortunately she never wanted to do it. She is gone now and has taken her memories with her».
Luckily the pages that Sister Rita Mancini made available to 30Days remain. They have to do with a span of time that goes from the end of 1942 to 6 June 1944 and that includes therefore the Nazi occupation of Rome up to the liberation of the city on 4 June 1944.
Pius XII in Piazza San Giovanni, 13 August 1943, after the bombings of the 
San Giovanni quarter in Rome

Pius XII in Piazza San Giovanni, 13 August 1943, after the bombings of the San Giovanni quarter in Rome

«Having come to this month of November we must be ready to render services of charity in a totally unexpected manner», writes the anonymous chronicler at the end of 1943. «The Holy Father wants to save his children, the Jews also, and orders that hospitality be given to these persecuted people in the convents, and that the cloisters also must adhere to the wish of the Supreme Pontiff». The names of the guests identified by the list in the memorial follow: Viterbo, Sermoneta, Ravenna, De Benedetti, Caracciolo, Talarico… «To all the people listed above, board, as well as lodging, was also given, performing miracles for the time we were going through»; we read that «everything was rationed. Providence always intervened… for Lent the Jews also came to hear the sermons, and Mister Alberto Sermoneta helped in the church. The mother prioress had him do many things at the altar of the Most Holy prepared for Holy Thursday».
And in the middle of the storm, while the 13th century cloister was filled with hay and straw to offer bedding to all those poor people, nothing was interrupted: work and the liturgical celebrations proceed, under the paternal guidance of Monsignor Carlo Respighi, the then rector of the Basilica of Santi Quattro and Prefect of the Apostolic Ceremonies, who died in 1957. In a large area next to the garden the nuns hid no less than eleven cars, including that of Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the head of the Italian military government, who had fled from Rome the day after 8 September. And then seven mares, four cows as well…
But from what we come to know from the memorial, hospitality continued at the Santi Quattro also after the liberation: «The Secretariat of State has ordered us to host with utmost caution General Carloni who was being hunted with a death warrant». This was Mario Carloni, general of the Bersaglieri who had been head of the Monte Rosa IV Alpine Division of the Republic of Salò.
It was well known that the Roman convent was part of the tight network of Catholic institutions that lodged Jews and the politically persecuted during the Fascist occupation: it is included in the ‘Elenco delle case religiose in Roma che ospitarono ebrei’ [The list of the religious houses in Rome that hosted Jews, tr.] published in the documents section of Storia degli ebrei italiani sotto il fascismo [History of the Italian Jews under Fascism, tr.] by Renzo De Felice, first published in 1961 (Einaudi, Turin 1993, pp. 628-632), where one reads that the «Augustinian Sisters of the Santi Quattro Incoronati» had hosted 17 Jews. The list, that takes up an article in Civiltà Cattolica of 1961 written by Father Robert Leiber, is still today one of the key documents for all the successive investigations. Up to the most recent. Such as that, initiated in 2003 by the Religious Historians Coordination, on the Jews lodged in Catholic institutions in Rome between the Fall of 1943 and 4 June 1944. Sister Grazia Loparco, teacher of Church history at the Pontifical Auxilium Faculty and a member of the Coordination, made known in January 2005 to the international agency Zenit the first results of the investigation: the Jews saved in Rome within the religious institutes were, according to the lowest estimate, at least 4300.
German tanks on the streets of the center of Rome in September 1943

German tanks on the streets of the center of Rome in September 1943

Other unpublished testimonies furnished by people saved thanks to being taken in by the religious institutes were made known in the books of Antonio Gaspari, Nascosti in convento [Hidden in a convent, tr.], (Ancora, Milan 1999), and by Alessia Falifigli, Salvati dai conventi. L’aiuto della Chiesa agli ebrei di Roma durante l’occupazione nazista [Saved by the convents. The help of the Church to the Jews of Rome during the Nazi occupation, tr.], (San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo 2005). These latter studies, as all of those that for at least forty years have studied the role played by Catholics in the saving of Jews from Nazi persecutions, pose the question of whether that welcome had solely a spontaneous character, or whether there had been orders coming from the Church leaders. The answer was always substantially the same. And that is that the nature of the hospitality given by the Roman Church to the persecuted, especially the Jews, was spontaneous, not decided beforehand by the leadership of the Church, but backed and supported morally and materially by it. And in the introduction to Falifigli’s book, Andrea Riccardi, historian of Christianity at the Third University of Rome and founder of the Community of Saint Egidio, clarifies: «To get over the prohibitions of the cloister, the strict ones of the monasteries and the milder ones of the convents, a directive was needed from above». And he adds: «But everyone, without exception, has laughed at the idea that there might be some Vatican document in this regard. Who would have produced a evidence against himself of a prohibited and undercover activity? And yet all those responsible were convinced that it was the will of the Pope, that of opening the doors of their houses to the Jews and the persecuted». A judgment already expressed by the writer and journalist of Jewish origin Enzo Forcella in a book of 1999: «The assent to giving refuge was only given verbally, one understands. For the whole duration of the occupation the religious authorities kept to their ancient rule: it is always better to let things be understood than to speak, if something has to be said it is better not to leave written trace of it and, in any case, in the face of eventual challenge response must be that it was done on the personal initiatives of individual priests unbeknownst to the higher authorities». (La resistenza in convento [The Resistance in the convent, tr. ] Einaudi, Turin 1999, p. 61).
What then do the pages of the Augustinian memorial published by 30Days add? «It’s enough to read them, there is not much more to be said: our fellow sisters didn’t receive a vague invitation from the Holy See to open the convent to whoever had need of it. But an order», Sister Rita Mancini states. «The peremptory order of the Pontiff to lodge Jews and anyone else whose life was at risk because of the Nazi Fascist persecutions. Sharing everything with them, making them feel as if they were in their own home. With joy, despite the danger. If that is indifference…».
Two nuns in the cloister of the Santi Quattro in a photo from the
early ’forties

Two nuns in the cloister of the Santi Quattro in a photo from the early ’forties

The memorial is written in a lean style, sober and yet enthralling, evoking the atmosphere of those months lived dangerously within the sacred and inviolable walls of the convent, where the echo of a terrorized and suffering Rome could be heard. A Rome that in rapid succession underwent: the bombing of the San Lorenzo quarter on 19 June of 1943, with 1,400 dead, 7,000 injured and the destruction of the ancient Basilica of San Lorenzo; six days afterwards, the arrest of Mussolini by order of Vittorio Emanuele III of Savoy and the nomination of Marshal Pietro Badoglio as head of the military government; a second bombing by the Allies «even more disastrous than the first», the Roman newspapers wrote, on 13 August: the Tiburtino, Appio and Tuscolano areas were then the targets; the successive gaining of the status of “open city”, meaning demilitarized zone; then the armistice of 8 September between the Italian government and the Allied forces; the flight of Badoglio and the Savoy royal family to Brindisi; the disorientation of the Italian soldiers left routed; the wait for the Anglo-Americans, landed in Sicily since 10 July, and the arrival instead of the German tanks which occupied the heart of the city, having crushed, near Porta San Paolo, the last stand of civilians and Italian soldiers in defence of Rome. And then there was the Saturday of 16 October in the Ghetto, when, at 5 in the morning, the Nazis tore 1,023 Jews from their homes destining them the extermination camp of Auschwitz.
But «even during the period of German occupation, the Church shone on Rome», a great layman, the historian Federico Chabod, was to say to the students in the Sorbonne. It shone, Chabod continues, «in a not very different way than had happened in the 5th century. The city found itself, from one day to the next, without a government; the monarchy had fled, the government also, and the population turned its look on Saint Peter’s. One authority wanes but in Rome – a unique city in this respect – another exists: and what authority! This means that, even though in Rome there may be the military committee and organization of the Committee of National Liberation the action of the papacy is by far more important for the population and acquires greater significance daily» (Federico Chabod, L’Italia contemporanea 1918-1948 [Contemporary Italy 1918-1948, tr.] Einaudi, Turin 1993, pp.125-126).
We publish here below the memorial relative to the period of Nazi Fascist occupation in Rome. It also contains an excerpt from an article that appeared in L’Osservatore Romano.

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