Cesare Sacerdoti, top right, and his brother, Vittorio, bottom row, eating, are pictured in an undated photo at an orphanage during the Holocaust in Germany. Vittorio is sitting on the knee of a visiting chaplain. (CNS photo)
By Mark Pattison Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling but so, too, are those “righteous Gentiles” who saved Jews who were almost certain to perish, according to the son of one such survivor.
“On my father’s side, he and his parents and his brother all survived in Italy because of the kindness and bravery and human decency of the people who saved then,” said Jonathan Sacerdoti, a London-based writer and broadcast journalist, in an April 9 phone interview with Catholic News Service.
Three of those who protected Sacerdoti’s father, uncle and grandparents have been recognized by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, as Righteous Among the Nations. They include the mother superior of a convent who took in the boys, ages 5 and 3, in 1943, and their mother; and two priests who arranged for new hiding places in Italy when the Nazis got too close for comfort.
“It was a traumatic experience, but one that saved them,” Sacerdoti told CNS. He wrote an essay, “How should we honor the ‘angels’ of the Holocaust when they’re gone?” for Spectator magazine. The article was posted April 8, recognized in Israel as Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Sacerdoti’s father, Cesare, was the son of an Italian rabbi. “This emphasis he put on these people is as good people. These are people they should all try to emulate,” Jonathan Sacerdoti said of his father.
“My father had an exceptional memory in life,” he added. “He remembered everything, remembered enormous amounts of that experience,” Jonathan Sacerdoti said, recalling that his father would speak often of his experiences in hiding under the sister’s protection. The mother superior, Maria Agnese Tribbioli, the convent’s founder, did not tell even the other sisters that the new children in their care were Jews.
Cesare Sacerdoti, who married an English woman and settled in Great Britain, returned to Italy about 11 years ago with his son to visit the places where he had been hidden. While there, they tracked down a couple of the nuns who had been in the convent during the war.
“They remembered the same stories my father told me about his time in the convent,” Jonathan Sacerdoti told CNS. In one instance, little Cesare refused to make the sign of the cross. The mother superior brushed aside the obstinacy, saying the boy was traumatized after having been forced to leave his home.
Another story a nun corroborated: Seeing the priest in the sanctuary of the convent chapel in his vestments must have reminded Cesare’s 3-year-old brother of the robes his rabbi father would have worn in the synagogue, for he cried out, “Papa! Papa!” It was a case of mistaken identity.
Cesare’s mother knew two hairdressers. One was named Licia. “Her husband was a policeman who told the family to run away at the right moment and go into hiding,” Jonathan Sacerdoti said. “Another hairdresser friend of my grandmother’s was called Margo. She hid my grandfather in their home. The pharmacist gave money every month to Margo, who couldn’t afford to keep him” based on her meager hairdresser income.
All of Cesare’s rescuers, Jonathan Sacerdoti said, had died by the time of that visit. Cesare Sacerdoti died in 2019.
But Jonathan Sacerdoti, using his journalist’s training, recorded interviews with his father about his experiences as a Jewish child during the war. “I have them on tape — literally, on tape. So I have that for the next generation — and future generations, I guess. He was pleased to tell the stories, I would say, the last 10 or 20 years. He seemed reinvigorated, reenergized to tell the story more,” he told CNS. “We knew his gratitude to the people who saved him.”
Others helped the Sacerdoti family although their names are lost to history. These include the people who ran an orphanage where the Sacerdoti boys lived for several months when they could no longer stay at the convent.
“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,” Jonathan Sacerdoti wrote in his essay.
“As my father once said, ‘They seemed to appear where and when you needed them, like angels,’” Jonathan Sacerdoti wrote in the Spectator. “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.”
Jonathan Sacerdoti also wrote the number of surviving Righteous Among the Nations has shrunk to 193, as two died during Holy Week.
“They weren’t Jews, but whatever their backgrounds — nuns or priests in my father’s case, peasants in Eastern Europe or Poland, or teachers or industrialist in the famous case of Oskar Schindler,” Sacerdoti told CNS, “even (the recently deceased) Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh; his mother was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations for saving people she knew.”