Glimpse at How Religious Houses Helped the Jews
Research Presented on Wartime Efforts in Rome

ROME, SEPT. 18, 2006 ( Research presented in Rome reflects the role played by women's religious houses following the invitation of the Holy See and rescuing thousands of Jews from Nazi deportations.

Shelters were improvised everywhere, in lofts, in storage rooms under stairs, hidden behind blind doors or cupboards, subterranean galleries, ancient Roman doors used as escape routes: all this as soon as the alert sounded -- according to agreed signs, such as the convent bells -- that a Nazi inspection was approaching.

They are examples of some of the strategies devised by the nuns of Rome to shelter thousands of persecuted Jews during World War II.

Documented historical research revealing this reality was carried out by Sister Grazia Lopaco of the pontifical Faculty Auxilium of Rome, and presented Friday in the context of the congress of the Italian Association of Church History Professors entitled "Women in the Church in Italy."

At that difficult time, women's religious houses in Rome numbered 475, and belonged to 274 institutes. Men religious had 270 communities belonging to 146 institutes.

The available documentation referred to 200 communities, 133 of which were feminine. The latter received 4,300 Jews, but there is still uncertainty over the figure, according to the research.

Open doors

"The Holy See encouraged the reception of Jews and the majority of religious houses opened wide their doors in the face of this absurd injustice" of Nazi persecution, according to Sister Grazia's research. "The Italian government even accused them of hiding Jews and deserters in the name of a 'misunderstood charity.'"

Adapting to the emergency, the religious communities modified their rhythm of life, living quarters and customs.

For example, the classrooms were transformed into dormitories at night, new tasks and occupations were devised for those being sheltered; and a 24-hour system of vigilance was set up. "And many and beautiful friendships were born," noted the woman religious.

The Jews, also children, were hidden or mixed in with other people, if necessary, giving them false identities.

"Some women dressed as religious or postulants, others were passed off as patients, educators or poor people," Sister Grazia observed.

In such a context, moreover, many Jews had to learn Catholic prayers, sacred gestures and songs.

"It was a very rapid entry into an altogether foreign world," said Sister Grazia. There were cases of pressure for conversions, but also attitudes of real respect, favoring their religious practices. "There were no cases recorded of forced baptisms," she clarified.

Sister Grazia confirmed that "some wealthy Jews paid according to their possibilities, others contributed a small pension, others were taken in for free."

In this picture "there was no lack of shadows, but the majority of testimonies does not cast doubts on the positive dimension of the experience," the woman religious said. "Many returned to express their gratitude years later."