A simple ceremony was held on Sunday 16 February during which the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation (IRWF) presented the plaque that identifies the Teresian Association as a “House of life”. This was in recognition of the shelter given to members of the Jewish community during the nine months that Rome was occupied by the Nazis.
Resistance and determination
Some knowledge of the complex history of this particular episode of the World War is needed in order to understand the significance of this gesture of welcome made by five young women from the TA, Ana Mª López, Milagro Nadal, Mª Luisa González del Pino, Matilde Marín and Mariana Martín.
Rome, autumn 1943. The city was under Nazi siege. There was a climate of fear. Laws, decrees, etc., were promulgated that went against dignity, security and life. Even before the destruction of the Jewish ghetto by the Nazi-fascist militia, Jewish people asked to be sheltered in the house. They were entire families. These young women did not hesitate. In the face of adversity and injustice they chose to act. They did not worry about the danger of losing their lives, a punishment that the Nazi authorities imposed on those who hid people in their homes. They acted because "it is what God wants". There were 11 children among the people taken in.
The Jews, especially, and also the military and police who did not obey orders when the king, government and military commanders abandoned the city to its fate, all suffered cruel persecution in Rome. The Nazi occupation was a period of hunger, fear, suffering and resistance for the civilian population.
Their resistance led to solidarity and determination in the face of the enemy. "The Romans”, writes Anna Doria, “thus rescued Italy from the shame of a king who fled like a sea captain who is the first to abandon a sinking ship”.
On the basis of a diary
The event was attended by Gregoria Ruiz from the TA general council representing the TA president, by Paola Palagi, sector director of the Association in Italy, and by Elena Colitto Castelli and Silvia Costantini, representatives of the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.
There were several interventions given. One was by Anna Doria, author of the book Oggi sono venuti i tedeschi (Today the Germans have come), which tells the story of these five women and their daily experiences as learned from the diaries they kept of the house activities. She read some excerpts from the diary and briefly described what they experienced in number 8 via Gaeta during those months.
Grazia Loparco, a religious sister of the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians and lecturer in Church History at the Pontifical Auxilium Faculty of Educational Sciences, presented a summary of her research on the Jews that were saved in religious houses and others, over 4,500 of the 12,000 who were believed to be living in Rome at the time of the destruction of the ghetto, although the figures could not be confirmed. Different Catholic groups collaborated in saving people who were in hiding by making false documents, providing food, etc.
Massimo Finzi, a counsellor for the memory of the Shoah and member of the Jewish Community in Rome, also gave his testimony. He is one of the children saved by being taken in as a “grandson” by an elderly couple. Finally, Paola Massiah gave her testimony as the daughter of a family welcomed into the TA house, and then a message from Paolo de Carolis was read as he could not attend due to illness. He was one of the children who lived for 9 months in the house.The interventions included the songs “I was simply an instrument” and “Thanks to life” sung by the singer-songwriter Elia Fleta accompanied on the flute by Marco Martinelli.
A hymn to life
The representatives of the Wallenberg Foundation emphasised that their work is to maintain the memory and “to spread, through research and recognition, the values that make these stories of generosity possible, and to celebrate the memory of the goodness and courage of these unknown heroes. Each house that we celebrate is a hymn to life. This plaque will remind passers-by that this opposition to Nazi-fascism has made a difference. It reminds us that each of us can contribute to the common good”. This was emphasised by Elena Colitto Castelli.
Silvia Costantini also noted that the five young Spanish women were foreigners in the city of Rome, just beginning to get to know the city and the Italian language. They had also recently suffered the loss of the founder at the beginning of the Spanish civil war. Communications with Spain were suspended and, in fact, they were helped from Chile. Not only did they courageously welcome refugees and eat with them, as was noted, but together with the people of Rome, they endured many difficulties including numerous bombings near their house. “Surely without knowing it, they were part of the resistance to Nazi-fascism and exposed themselves to the death penalty for hosting persecuted people. They are an example for us and above all for the younger generations”, she concluded.
A blessing from Poveda
We know, for our part, that no attitude is improvised. A few months before his death, on 14 March 1936, Pedro Poveda wrote to María Luisa González del Pino, and to three other companions already present in Rome since 1934:
“At a time when everything is sad news, your letters are a comfort to us. You take every opportunity to give us some pleasant news, and I do not have to tell you, because you know, how much we enjoy your work with these young women. What silent but fruitful work you are doing, and what secure foundations you are laying for our beloved Association in Rome. Everything, moreover, is according to the Teresian spirit.
Your empathy and so much charity and humility is an incredible strength. The echoes of your holiness are the best trumpets of your teaching. Your leaders bless you, approve your performance and live in the certainty that God is pleased with your work. Follow this path and have full confidence in our Lord”. Pedro Poveda Pedro Poveda, Escritos espirituales. Nº 123, pg. 386.
This was undoubtedly the sure foundation that sustained this small group.
Bearers of peace
The event concluded with the unveiling of the plaque of recognition placed at the entrance of the house. As Paola Palagi remarked, this recognition is not only a reminder of a past event, but a current experience. The historical moment we are living in is one in which every day brings further signs of anti-Semitism and of racial hatred, and where values such as respect, acceptance, solidarity and freedom are being stifled by acts of intolerance, violence, indifference and insensitivity. This must move us to be bearers of fellowship and of hope. It is possible to live in a world of justice, truth and peace.
Teresian Association in Italy, TA Historical Archive and TA Information Departament.
Translation: TA Translation Team.