June 5, 2009

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

Italians prove Christian love in evil times

Shirley Vogler MeisterNever before in this column have I recommended a book with both my husband’s and my approval.

I read it first. At Paul’s request, I then read it to him as he drove us to Nashville, Tenn., to visit our youngest daughter, Lisa, to support her while she ran in the mini-portion of the “Country Music Marathon.”

Despite being hospitalized a couple of days before, Lisa finished the race, proving that courage enhances strength—the very traits we found in It Happened in Italy: Untold Stories of How the People of Italy Defied the Horrors of the Holocaust (Thomas Nelson Press, www.tinyurl.com/ItalyandtheHolocaust).

After Sunday Mass at Lisa’s neighborhood parish, Christ the King Church—which bears the same name as our Indianapolis parish—we took a church bulletin for me to read on our return trip to Indianapolis after I finished reading the book to Paul.

To our surprise, the bulletin reported that the author of It Happened in Italy, Elizabeth Bettina, would present a program at that very church.

I wish I could have been there to congratulate the author for her strength of purpose and her extraordinarily positive vision while researching and traveling to gather facts for her book despite countless challenges along the way.

My husband is a history buff, and I’ve always been drawn toward history that proves human goodness.

This book elicited for me many happy tears. I learned to what extent the Italians went, not only to save their Jewish neighbors during World War II, but also to be true Christian neighbors toward Jews in the camps.

Because of a pact that Adolph Hitler made with Benito Mussolini before and during the war, Jews were sent to Italy for incarceration because Nazi concentration camps were full.

However, Italians built camps with open door policies—as normal to village life as possible. Italian guards and village residents near the camps in Campagna, Tito, Potenza and elsewhere considered the Jews their neighbors, welcoming them with hospitality and kindness.

When the Germans marched into Italy, the Italians rescued the Jews in many dangerous ways. These Italians are officially recognized as “righteous Gentiles.”

Bettina is a native New Yorker whose Catholic Italian relatives often took her to Italy, especially to Campagna.

However, she knew little about the World War II camps until she heard a lecture by Walter Wolfe, a camp survivor.

She and Wolfe became close friends, returning to Italy many times and providing amazing experiences for other American Italians. They even met often with important Catholic clergy, including the pope!

Wolfe’s friend, Vince Marmorale, regularly filmed these events and testimonies of survivors for a documentary. Together, and with others, they returned to Italy many times.

Bettina’s book contains abundant vintage and modern black and white photographs, documents, maps, listings of detainees’ names, appendices and a bibliography.

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

Local site Links: