THE JEWS HIDDEN IN THE CONVENTS
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We print the unpublished memorial of the Convent of the Santi Quattro Coronati, relative to the years of the Nazi occupation of Rome: the order of Pius XII to open the convents to the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
“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
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
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
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.