On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica

Article translated from the l’Osservatore Romano Monday-Tuesday 3-4 February 2014, p. 4. article by Giovanni Preziosi translated by Fr. Vincent Courtney ESB (csr) The Hermits of Saint Bruno at St. Mary’s Hermitage.

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the fascist raid on the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls at the Piazzale San Paolo in Rome.

San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

Not even their Osservatore Romano, Vatican issued ID card would save them.

After having brought to a successful conclusion the blitz within the extraterritorial complex of Basilica of Saint Mary Major, between 3-4 February, 1944. Under favourable darkness of the night, a Special Service of the police department of the Republic of Salò, directed by Lieutenant Pietro Koch, with a complement of one hundred men placed at his disposal by the new Fascist commissioner of Rome Pietro Caruso, utterly ignoring and without the slightest regard to the agreements enshrined within the Lateran Pact of 1929 and the extraterritorial buildings under the protection of the Holy See, Koch and his men through subterfuge entered into the Benedictine monastery of Saint Paul outside the Walls. The authentic deus ex machina of this operation had also been a former Vallombrosan Benedictine friar, having recently been suspended a divinis [which forbids the person from using authority of their Holy Orders] expressly for joining the Banda Koch (which soon became a by-word for cruelty and violence), was the twenty-eight year old Alfredo Epaminonda Troya also known as Don Ildefonso Troya —better known within the espionage confraternity of the time where he used the pseudonym of Elio Desi — with a subtle cunning, Troya had lured the unsuspecting doorkeeper Friar Vittorino into a trap, who, after a few moments of hesitation, yielding to his insistence, had opened the main entrance gate of the abbey.

Monastery of Saint Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill

The raid has been described in great detail by the chronicler of the Camaldolese monastery of Saint Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill: «The notorious commissioner of Rome Caruso with his band of bravacci [braggarts] (…) manages to cross over the threshold of the monastery and commences a night of terror for the hermit-monk’s within the walls of this monastery. Cutting all of the telephone wires thus removing all means of communication with the outside world; He and his men keeps all of the monks locked in a room with machine guns aimed at their chests for close to 12 hours while they search and rummage and pillage throughout. The monks are insulted by the inappropriate manner the monastery of the order was entered and looted by these so called officers. (…) The newspapers give voice about the events and maliciously gossip about it at length, narrating deeds and facts, giving an utterly false account of the true events. A cri de cœur rises up against the Holy See, whom in their extraterritorial and religious houses both men and items reclaimed from the German looters.»

Maj. Gen. Adriano Monti
Lt. Maurizio Giglio Murdered March 24 1944 (aged 23)

Koch’s men stealthily sneaked into the monastery, and literally turned all the hermit-monk’s cells and the apartments of the novices’ upside down. Then, under the threat of death, having loaded weapons pointed at them, Koch arrested as many as 67 people, mostly draft evaders and Jews who had arrived in dribs and drabs since the day the armistice had begun, among whom most notably was Airforce Major General Adriano Monti the Commanding Officer Sicily Air Command, whom had been surprised wearing a cassock, which had been immortalised in a photo taken by the fascists with a camera seized from an American Office of Strategic Services liaison agent, lieutenant Maurizio Giglio, whom had infiltrated Koch’s special service division. Giglio was later captured on March 17, 1944. After a final interrogation suffered on the night of 23 March, on the following 24 morning Giglio, exhausted and unable to stand up, was transported to the Regina Coeli prison. From there, Giglio was taken on a stretcher to the Fosse Ardeatine, where he was murdered, together with the other 334 martyrs, on March 24, 1944.. Among those arrested on this day were nine officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the army, fugitive police officers, carabinieri and nine Jews.

[The Fosse Ardeatine Massacre was a mass killing of 335 civilians and political prisoners carried out in Rome on 24 March 1944 by the German Nazi occupation troops during the Second World War. I wanted to share the poignant words of the memorial found at the Ardeatine:

Wayfarers thirsty for liberty – we were rounded up at random – in the street and in jail – as a reprisal cast in en masse – slaughtered and walled within these pits – italians, do not curse – mothers, brides, do not weep – children, carry with pride – the memory – of the holocaust of your fathers – if our slaughter – will have had a purpose beyond revenge – it is to enshrine the right of human existence – against the crime of murder. We were slaughtered in this place because – we fought against internal tyranny – for freedom and against the foreigner – for the independence of the homeland – we dreamt a free, just – and democratic italy. may our sacrifice and our blood – sow the seed and act as warning for – generations to come. Here we were slaughtered – victims of a horrendous sacrifice – may our sacrifice give rise to a better homeland – and to lasting peace among the peoples.

Out of the depths, I cry to you, o lord. De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine, Domine; –יהוה קראתיך ממעמקים המעלות שיר

Psalm 130 (NCB)
Pope Pius XII

The fascist press could not resist but to use such a glorious opportunity of using the photograph for propaganda purposes, and launched a harsh attack upon the Holy See and against Pius XII a barrage of insulting remarks, labelled with unflattering epithets because, in their opinion, Pius was allowing  this to happen and therefore “these actions mark [you] as a traitor” against the people of Italy. The fascists also got their hands on nine Jews, including the brothers Arturo and Umberto Soliani who, being surprised and the Nazi-fascist bullies arrival as they were asleep in their monastic cells, tried in vain to free themselves, but during the struggle they were savagely beaten up to the point that the next day, when family members received their clothing, they could not fail but noticed that their pyjamas were saturate in their blood.

As soon as Italy had entered the war, the Soliani’s had rushed to the capital city together with their children — four-year-old Alessandro and one-year-old Angelo — and their spouses Lina and Elvira Terracina, who were being hunted by the police commissioner of Brescia Manlio Candrilli [who distinguished himself particularly for his ruthlessness in hunting Jews], who he had been on their case from the day that they had opened a costume jewellery, leather goods and gift items shop called “Alla bomboniera” in corso Zanardelli 7, of the Gardone Riviera area of Brescia. Arturo and Umberto had managed to find refuge at the Abbey of San Paolo, while Lina and Elvira, with their respective children, were given refuge and hid inside a monastery of nuns, the Sisters of Good and Perpetual Help in Via Merulana [whom hid 133 jewish women and children helping them evade the Shoah]. Unfortunately, every precaution, in the end, proved to be in vain; even the identity cards issued to Arturo and Umberto as soon as they arrived in the Benedictine monastery from the Holy See, with the Vatican emblem, which certified that they were both journalists employed by the Osservatore Romano were absolutely useless as they were ignored.

Don Pier Luigi Occelli Partisan Priest

The seriousness of the incident, with the clear violation of the right of extraterritoriality sanctioned by the Lateran Pacts, obviously aroused the indignation of the Holy See which, as soon as it was made aware of the affair by the parish priest of Gesù Buon Pastore, Don Pier Luigi Occelli, the Resistance chaplain, immediately began to protest most vigorously to the competent Italian and German authorities, and without hesitation publishing a detailed background of the events in the Osservatore Romano on February 10, thus countering the article that appeared a few days earlier in the fascist newspaper “La Tribuna”. The denial of the Nazis though, was not enough to placate the irritation of the Vatican hierarchy, so much so that through the Apostolic nuncio in Bern, Monsignor Bernardini, Don Giustino Pancino was instructed to immediately urge Mussolini to take the appropriate measures and resolve the problem.

Abbey of San Paolo

As soon as Lina and Elvira learned what had happened at the Abbey of San Paolo, fearing for the fate of their loved ones, and not wanting to give up, so much so that the latter, although she was in the last months of pregnancy, defied fate, and tried absolutely everything possible, even risking her own life by going personally, first of all, to the director of the Roman prison of Regina Coeli Donato Carretta — whom just a few days earlier had favoured the daring escape made by Sandro Pertini and Giuseppe Saragat, both anti-fascists members of the Socialist Party and future presidents of the Italian Republic — Carretta immediately showed himself indulgent, revealing the possibility of freeing her husband and her brother-in-law backed by a hefty reward that would have allowed him to flee to Switzerland and away from prying eyes so as not to suffer the foreseeable retaliation from the Nazi-fascists. The promise was a tempting one, but where could she have raised such a large sum. And time was beginning to run out?

Sandro Pertini and Giuseppe Saragat

At that point all she had left as a last playing card was to contact the commissioner Pietro Caruso directly. Most certainly Elvira was not lacking courage, so much so that, without too much thought, she rushed to the police station asking to be received by Caruso whom, without hearing her out, ordered her to leave that place immediately otherwise he would have had her arrested because she was a Jew, adding that she had to thank the creature she was carrying in her womb or that he would make provisions to that effect. Unfortunately there was nothing more she could do. Every attempt to save the two men wrecked miserably and with it so also did the hope of ever being able to embrace them again one day.

In fact, together with the other Jews captured at the basilica of San Paolo, towards the middle of February, they were first transferred to Verona, then to the Fossoli transit camp and from there, on May 16, 1944, aboard Convoy № 46, to Auschwitz. from where they would never return.

Prayer

Almighty God of Our Fathers, we remember the six million people carried out in pogroms and mass shootings; by a policy of extermination through labor in concentration camps; and in gas chambers and gas vans in German extermination camps. These innocents were killed, drowned, burned alive, tortured, beaten and some froze to death. Because of one man, a whole nation was crucified, while the world looked on in silence. In our hearts, their sacred memory will last forever and ever. Amen. God of Our Fathers, let the ashes of the children incinerated in Auschwitz, the rivers of blood spilled, be a warning to all of humanity that hatred is destructive, that violence is contagious, while man has an unlimited capacity toward cruelty. Almighty God, fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: “They will beat their swords into plowshares … One nation will not lift up a sword against another, nor will they ever again be trained for war.” Amen.


Please, always have the courage not to remain silent when you witness wrongdoing being perpetrated, speak out unceasingly against oppression, hate, use of force, or any other forms of injustice. Remember you could be next at the receiving end of injustice. God calls every single one of us to be peacemakers; God calls us to heal our world which is broken, and within a deep unanimity of the spirit, to work for a world in which justice flourishes, where peace thrives and becomes the norm (Psalm 72:7). Peace is not something that simply materialises from above; peace must be created and maintained by us, being built and maintained by those people who beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4), choosing to spend money for a sustainable and peaceful future rather than on the war machine.

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