The town of Assisi in central Italy is remembered primarily as the City of St. Francis. The city’s spiritual legacy is revered since he profoundly changed the world with his message of peace, his concern for the poor, and his love for all creation. St. Francis found much joy in living the Gospel, and showing others how to do so.
The year 2009 marked the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Franciscan brotherhood. Today Franciscans continue to share the message of God’s love and to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ as St. Francis did in the 13th century. In the introduction to his biography of St. Francis, Omer Englebert wrote, “Francis is one of those men of whom humanity will always be proud.”
Seven centuries later three other men in Assisi during the Second World War led their city to continue his legacy with their concern for others. The clergy and citizens of Assisi saved more than 200 Jews during the German occupation of their city. The manner in which they saved these lives borders on the miraculous. It makes some wonder if St. Francis interceded on their behalf.
German troops occupied Assisi on Sept. 8, 1943, as Allied troops fought their way up the Italian peninsula. In spite of the German occupation, several hundred Jewish refugees sought refuge in the city. They were apparently drawn to the city by the legacy of St. Francis, and later attributed their safety to him. The Assisians bravely sheltered and hid these refugees at great personal risk. By the end of the occupation, not one of the refugees had been betrayed to the Germans.
Three men, Monsignor Giuseppe Nicolini (the bishop of Assisi), Colonel Valentin Müller (German commander, physician, and a devout Catholic) and Don Aldo Brunacci (the bishop’s secretary) are known as the heroes of Assisi because they were instrumental in the success of this endeavour.
Bishop Nicolini and Colonel Müller had Assisi declared a “hospital city” by various political manoeuvrings. This designation made Assisi a demilitarized city exempt from fighting. The city subsequently did not suffer the tragic fate of the Benedictine Monastery Monte Cassino. In addition, Nicolini at the Vatican’s request, set about to establish an underground network to help save the Jews who had fled to the city.
The bishop formed a Committee of Assistance with the local citizens. He tasked his secretary, Don Aldo Brunacci, who was the third hero of Assisi, with creating this network. They provided counterfeit identity cards, allowing the refugees to live as though they were local citizens. At one time, the immigrant population of Jews and other refugees was as large as this town of 5,000.
The bishop’s humanitarian efforts never wavered during these clandestine activities. Some felt he should show more “moderation,” but he never gave in to these dangers and risks. He hid in his basement all of the materials that identified the refugees as Jews. These materials included money, liturgical vestments and sacred texts. To do this, he used his own stone masonry skills. With the help of his secretary, he walled in the area thus hiding everything from view.
These belongings were returned to the refugees after the liberation. The clergy and citizens made no attempts to convert the Jews to Catholicism during their stay in Assisi. This intent was to save the people who were desperately seeking safety from Nazi persecution.
The appointment of Colonel Valentin Müller as military commander of Assisi served the citizens well because he repeatedly intervened against the SS and Gestapo who tried ruthless tactics against the Assisians. When the German troops began retreating from the advancing Allies, Müller feared these retreating forces would occupy the city. Although German Marshal Kesselring assured the doctor this would not happen, Müller stationed himself and other guards to ensure they would not enter Assisi.
When all of the other German forces had fled Italy, Müller and his division left Italy, too. Word went out from the citizens of Assisi that he should have safe passage for what he had done to help them during the German occupation. The colonel and his family were welcomed as visitors in Assisi after the war ended.
On Dec. 11, 1977, Dino Tomassini, the Bishop of Assisi, received the Medal of the Righteous Gentile on behalf of Nicolini from the State of Israel for saving the Jews. The award to Nicolini was given posthumously. Father Brunacci also received the award for his dedicated efforts.
St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York awarded Don Aldo Brunacci the National Gaudete Medal on March 23, 2004, in recognition for his exemplifying the spirit of St. Francis and inspiring others. The words on the medal read: For service to God and humanity in the Franciscan spirit of compassions and sacrifice, faith and humility, hope and joy. He was also an honoured guest at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Brunacci contributed many of his recollections to the book Three Heroes of Assisi in World War II: Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini, Colonel Valentin Muller, Don Aldo Brunacci because of his desire to “publish all the documents in my possession regarding the events in question . . . because only the truth deserves to be known.”
Don Aldo Brunacci died on Feb. 1, 2007. He was not a Franciscan, but a diocesan priest who was “a Franciscan at heart.” When asked why he risked his life for a couple of hundred Jews, he replied, “It is what the Gospel asks a Christian to do.” These actions affirmed the message of St. Francis as they did what the Gospel asked them to do.
Smith has 500 publications in the areas of fiction and non-fiction for children, curriculum materials for children and adults, general interest, inspirational and technical articles, book reviews, test materials, and poetry. She is an instructor for the Institute of Children's Literature in Huntsville, AL.