- Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands during the Holocaust by Susan Zuccotti
Susan Zuccotti’s book brings to our attention the life, work, and times of a credible believer—a Good Samaritan in an age when being such could result in a one-way passage to a death camp. She presents, with careful documentation of primary materials, the work of Père Marie-Benoît (born Pierre Pèteul, 1895–1990), the Capuchin priest credited with saving at least 2500 Jews between 1940 and 1945.
Zuccotti concisely establishes context for the priest’s wartime work by taking us from his humble origins in Le Bourg d’Iré (near Angers), his excellent education in Capuchin seminaries, and his service as a medic in World War I (receiving three citations for bravery) to his teaching assignments in France and Italy. After recounting his rescue work, the author summarizes his postwar life filled with writing, promoting Christian-Jewish friendship, and visiting the Jews he saved (his “protégés”).
What did he do to earn him the French Legion of Merit and a tree planted in the Alley of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem? Simply and extraordinarily this: from 1940 to 1945 he actively, and at great risk of losing his freedom or his life (a warrant was issued for his arrest), helped to hide Jews from their would-be exterminators. He provided false documents to disguise their Jewish identity, found shelters for them to live in Catholic institutions, supplied funding for travel and sustenance, and pointed them to escape routes into Spain and Switzerland. He did this salvific work without proselytizing or expecting conversion to Catholicism (although a handful did so).
The author makes clear that Benoît did not work alone. He received help from leaders of the Jewish communities in which he lived, most notably Joseph Bass (Marseille), Angelo Donati (Nice), and Stefan Schwamm (Rome). He was assisted by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Sion, a congregation established in 1843 specifically to [End Page 800] pray for the conversion of the Jews. Every day, Italians—police, bureaucrats, Protestant ministers, and diplomats—helped him get around fascist and SS agents.
If this work were exclusively a biography of an individual, it would not satisfy, and that is because a primary document on which she relies for knowledge of the priest’s activities—his own meticulous daybook—records most of what he did, but nothing of how he felt about what he did. Zuccotti too often repeats a mantra at key moments in the story: “Unfortunately we do not know what he thought” (p. 25), “His own thoughts are impossible to decipher” (p. 213), or “He remained an intensely private man” (p. 225).
Fortunately, this is more than a biography of a man; it is a narrative of an era and instructive about many things: the Vatican’s relationship with Hitler (and the Jews) during the war; the Church’s official “anti-Judaism” (distinguished, they claimed, from antisemitism) prior to the Second Vatican Council; the everyday heroics of Jewish rescue in Europe; the origins of Catholic-Jewish dialogue; and the role of German Catholic prelates and clergy in helping Nazis escape capture and flee to safe territory after the war.
Zuccotti is dispassionate toward, but not blind to, the lack of effort put forth by Pope Pius XII and the Vatican in aiding the rescuers. She argues that the official Vatican report on the war years (written by Pius XII’s personal secretary) takes more credit for helping Jews than it deserved.