Yom HaShoa is Israel and the Jewish people’s day of remembrance for the Shoa, or Holocaust. It falls this year on 8th April. Its official Hebrew name means ‘Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day’, emphasising how we should remember not only the six million Jews who were killed by the Nazis, but also the heroes like those who rose up against their persecution in the Warsaw Ghetto.
There is also another group of heroes we should remember. Their actions provide a model of human decency we should all seek to emulate. An apparently disparate group from varied backgrounds, they are known as the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – special people who have been recognised for saving the lives of Jewish people. Some were diplomats or industrialists; others were peasants or nuns. Many of them risked everything to protect others, often with scant resources with which to do so. If they were caught, their fate would be the same as that of the Jews they sheltered.
As the Shoa slides out of living memory to become recent history, many worry it might be forgotten or trivialised. There is already a depressing level of ignorance of its horrors. While we read often of the dwindling number of survivors alive to share their first hand testimony, less is written about the last few living saviours. Only 193 Righteous Among the Nations are still alive today; two died just last week.
As a young child in Italy during the Second World War, my late father Cesare was saved from death by the kindness and bravery of people who didn’t know him. He and his brother were separated from their parents, who hid elsewhere. Nuns, priests, a hairdresser, the baker’s nephews, a pharmacist and plenty of others all played a part in saving their lives at risk to their own. By extension, they also indirectly saved mine, for which I am eternally grateful.
It was important to my father that his saviours should be recognised by Yad Vashem in Israel, and he submitted his testimony to ensure several of them were honoured. Now that he is gone, it is important to me to tell his story and theirs.
Cesare was born in Florence in 1938, the year the Racial Laws which limited the freedom of Jews were introduced. The son of Simone, a Rabbi and Cantor, he remained in his home until 6 November 1943, when the Germans and Fascists raided the synagogue, creating such chaos and destruction the family decided to flee.
My grandfather hid in the Convitto Ecclesiastico di San Leonardo – an ecclesiastical college, while he arranged for my father and my uncle Vittorio together with my grandmother Marcella to be hidden in the Convent of the Pie Operaie di S. Giuseppe. The Mother Superior Maria Tribbioli made the courageous decision to shelter them there along with other Jews, keeping their true identity secret even from the other nuns. Cesare and Vittorio joined the convent’s kindergarten to be looked after by the nuns, while their mother was hidden elsewhere with other Jewish women.
Cesare (top right) and Vittorio (at the bottom, eating) with fellow orphans in the orphanage
When German soldiers tried to search the convent for Jews, Madre Maria, a tiny but formidable woman, denied them entry, telling them ‘here there are only children of God’. When I met two surviving nuns who had cared for my father, they remembered him as a disciplined child who refused to make the sign of the cross. Madre Maria told them to be patient with him while he dealt with the trauma of having left his home.
Only three weeks later when a nearby convent was raided for Jews, Simone came to evacuate the family. As they fled across Florence’s Ponte alla Carraia, a fascist patrol spotted them, recognising my grandfather. He escaped on his bike, drawing the fascists away from his wife and children in pursuit. Desperate and afraid, my grandmother decided to end it all, planning to jump from the bridge with her children. Her friend Gina Frilli, passing by chance at that moment, persuaded her not to. Meanwhile, Simone had been captured by the fascists and taken to the SS headquarters, from where he managed to escape.
Aided by Monsignor Giacomo Meneghello, the secretary of the Cardinal, Simone set about finding new hiding places. With the assistance of Don Giulio Facibeni, Cesare and Vittorio were taken to the Catholic Orphanage of the Madonnina del Grappa in Montecatini. Without knowing if they would ever meet again, Simone and Marcella sent their children away to live with strangers. They told the five-year-old Cesare to recite the Hebrew ‘Shema’ silently each night, not to allow anyone to see he was circumcised, and most importantly to take care of his younger brother.
My father’s overriding memories of his nine months in the orphanage were of hunger and cold, but also of the warmth of the nuns who protected him – he told us that warmth stayed with him all his life. The Righteous Among the Nations provide us all with an example of how to bring that warmth and kindness to others, even in the face of overwhelming evil.
There were many others who helped save my family, some of whose names we will never even know. As my father once said, ‘they seemed to appear where and when you needed them, like angels’. In fact, their actions were decidedly human, actively choosing to protect their fellow man at a time when evil and indifference prevailed. When faced with the question of what our duty is as citizens of the world, each of us can choose to make a difference, just as they did. I and many others owe them a debt of honour, and on Yom HaShoa in particular I remember their heroism, hoping to pay it forward in kind.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Yad Vashem recognised Don Gulio Facibeni as Righteous Among the Nations in 1999, Maria Agnese Tribbioli in 2009 and Giacomo Meneghello in 2015