Silent shadows draped in dark brown Franciscan robes passed by the two frescoes of the life of Isaac by Giotto in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and ascended the Romanesque tower of the upper church to look out for German forces that might crawl along the serpentine road in the valley below.
The date was Oct. 9, 1943: northern Italy had been occupied by Hitler after the overthrow of Mussolini and the hunt for Jews was in full swing.
It was also the night of Yom Kippur.
In the Basilica of Saint Francis, nuns and priests who were about to break bread with Jewish refugees seeking succour in churches, convents, living quarters of clergy and monasteries throughout Assisi, had done their best to prepare a meagre meal while respecting the dietary laws of Moses.
As the autumn lights retreated over the hill towns of Tuscany, the Jews recited silently the Kol Nidrei in a small and secret enclosure, not far from the crypt of Saint Francis. There was no Ark to be opened, no two people to take two Torah scrolls; and no cantor to storm the Heavens. But, as guests they had ample opportunity to behold the beautiful Old Testament paintings adorning the nave of the ancient church featuring in two rows a total of 32 scenes starting, among others, with Creation of the World, Isaac, Jacob and Esau and Joseph Forgives his Brothers.
While they pondered their fate on the eve of the Day of Atonement, the question as to who would be inscribed in the Book of Life became laden with foreboding. Who would live and who would die – who by fire and who by water, who by the sword and who by wild beasts? Who, indeed, by the sword and who by wild beasts? And yet, in spite of the conflicting emotions raging in their troubled souls, in the fledgling light of reticent candles, they must have discerned the colour of hope in faces of the righteous among them who were risking their own lives.
As the SS hounds roamed the hills of Tuscany in search of prey, the good people hailing from the good earth of Italy succeeded in instilling a palpable sense of optimism in the minds of the refugees who were drowning in despair only a few days before.
And they were right to hope, in the midst of hope-defying adversity, when they saw that the entire town of Assisi had been turned into a sanctuary for Jews. Jewish babies were born, old people died and received secret Jewish burials in unmarked graves, young couples married, the sick were treated, the hungry fed, the naked clothed and the frightened comforted.
But danger was the constant and faithful companion of these hapless souls.
There were close calls. By 1944, the SS had unleashed a relentless hunt in German-occupied Italy although it was by then clear that the Nazis would soon lose the war.
In February of that year, according to Peter J. Ognibene writing in Italian America about the Assisi Underground, the elaborate operation to save Jews hiding in Assisi was on the verge of collapsing. Three Jewish refugees and an Italian deserter who were running the fake documentation office were arrested. Although they were later released, thanks to the powerful intervention of church authorities, the clergy in charge of the basilica could not take the risk and told the refugees to gather their belongings and immediately follow the warden through medieval tunnels into forests and caverns.
These were the very caverns carved into mountains and secret grottoes bedazzled with subterranean lakes and waterfalls that had once sheltered St. Francis and his followers. They stayed for a week and returned when it became clear that the rescue effort had not been betrayed.
Who were these good people of the good earth? They were Msgr. Giuseppe Nicolini, the Bishop of Assisi; Col. Valentin Muller, a Catholic Wehrmacht medical doctor whose secret help saved so many lives; and Don Aldo Brunacci, the Bishop’s secretary who organized the entire underground rescue mission.
All those who prayed on Yom Kippur in 1943 in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi were inscribed in the Book of Life.