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Holocaust Survivor Honors Bridgettine Nun Who Saved His Life and Dignity

Chiara Santomiero - Aleteia - published on 01/23/15 - updated on 06/08/17

The story of Piero Piperno: rescued at age 15 by Blessed Maria Elisabetta Hesselblad

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The fact that Piero Piperno is alive today is due to a bridgettine nun who welcomed him into a convent in Rome during the dark hour of the Second World War. Yet this Holocaust survivor’s gratitude to this nun who is now ranked among the blessed is deeper still for another reason: she always respected his conscience and his religion.

Piperno offered his testimony on January 15th, during the “House of Life” award ceremony honoring the Monastery of the Order of The Most Holy Savior of St. Bridget, in Piazza Farnese in Rome. The event was sponsored by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.

“This is your home,” the current abbess of the order, Mother Tekla Famiglietti, said during the ceremony to set the elderly guest at ease. “This was my house,” Mr. Piperno replied, opening a window to the past, to the war, to the shadows of evil and to the power of good.

One Sister’s Courage

In December 1943, in Rome and the rest of Europe, the Jews were being hunted by the Nazis. Two months earlier, on October 16th, SS soldiers flooded the streets of the Portico of Octavia in the Roman ghetto and rounded up 1024 people, including more than 200 children.

Once the war had ended, only fifteen men and one woman — and none of the children — returned from the concentration camp in Auschwitz where they had been taken.

The Roman Jews who survived hid wherever and in whatever manner they could. For twelve members of the Piperno and Sed families, the frail shield that protected them against the black abyss of deportation was a little wooden door on the rear of the Church of St. Bridget in Piazza Farnese, and the courage of a little nun, Mother Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad.

The Mother Superior of the order of The Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget, who in 2000 was proclaimed blessed and acknowledged as a “righteous among the nations” in 2004, opened the doors of her monastery to the fugitives and, together with her sisters, sheltered them until June 4, 1944, when Rome was finally liberated.

She saved their lives, but she did far more. “When she received us in this house," Piero Piperno said at the ceremony, who was just 15 years old at the time, "Blessed Mother Elizabeth told us that we should follow our religious traditions. It was difficult for a representative of the Church to express themselves in this way in those days.”

In fact, the barrier between Catholics and Jews would not be overcome until the Second Vatican Council.

“But prophets always arise," Piperno continued, not hiding his emotion, "and Mother Elizabeth was prophetic in anticipating what was to come. She saved our lives, but above all, in those dark times she restored dignity to our religion.”

Light amid the darkness 

“This convent was a guiding light in the darkness of the Shoah” said Silvia Costantini, Vice President of the Wallenberg Foundation for Italy and Director of Communications and Institutional Relations for Aleteia.

The ceremony was attended by the Ambassador of Sweden in Italy, Ruth Jacoby, Israeli diplomatic representatives, members of Jewish institutions, and Mr. Leo Paserman, President of the Museum of the Shoah Foundation, and former President of Jewish Community in Rome.

“It is our moral duty," Costantini continued, "to recognize and to remember these great heroes, so that the new generations may also learn about and appreciate them.”

“Research and education are the two main activities of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, founded by Baruch Tenembaum and directed by Eduardo Eurekian. It seeks to discover untold stories of rescuers, and it strives to instill a spirit of solidarity in the hearts and minds of the younger generations”, Costantini added.

It is not without significance that the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation counts among its first members the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

“Unfortunately, Raoul Wallenber was not only a hero, but also was himself a victim," added Jesus Colina, Vice President of the Foundation for Italy and General Manager of Aleteia. "On January 17th, we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the disappearance of Raoul Wallenberg, who was abducted by the Soviets forces stationed in Budapest. Since then his fate has remained a mystery. We are honored to promote the ‘Houses of Life’ project in Rome and in Italy, as we remember the extraordinary courage of so many Italians who, like the Casa Santa Brigida, helped victims of persecution.”

Today like yesterday

Casa Santa Brigida overlooks Piazza Farnese, and stands in silent conversation with the Renaissance Farnese Palace, home of the French Embassy in Italy since 1936. Several days ago many Romans gathered here to show their solidarity following the massacre at the headquarters of the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and kosher market in Paris.

At the awards ceremony, Piperno read the simple plaque designed by the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which henceforth designates the Casa Santa Brigida as a “House of Life” and states: “At that time there was great solidarity among people. After Rome was liberated and we were able to return to life as usual, our women went back to shopping in the Campo dei Fiori marketplace. People greeted them and would say: ‘We knew that the nuns had hidden you’”.

They knew, but they did not turn them in, for in those days it was a difference between life and death. That is why there came a time when Piperno and his wife decided to change the order of their memories. “We would always talk about those who were gone, those who had not returned because of the people who had harmed us. Then we decided to change and to remember the good people, those who had helped us, those who risked their lives to save us”.

“Today like yesterday,” Piperno concluded, “we must rally around the good in order to prevent evil from overwhelming us.” And even a plaque can serve this purpose.

The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation urges you to share reliable information on other “Houses of Life” either by e-mail (irwf@irwf.org), by telephone or by contacting the various offices of the institution:

New York: 212-7373275
Jerusalem: + 972-2-6257996
Buenos Aires: + 54-11-43827872
For more information, write to:http://www.raoulwallenberg.net

Tags:
VaticanWorld War II
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