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Pére Marie-Benoit

Padre Pére Marie-Benoit
(born Pierre Peteul)

Known in Marseilles as “the Father of the Jews.”

Marseilles, France… Summer 1942 – Pére Marie-Benoit, a Capuchin monk living in southern France, urged those in his monastery to defy the deportation of foreign Jews by the Vichy government.  He and his fellow monks smuggled Jews across the border into Spain and Switzerland, and later to the Italian zone of France.  They used a printing press hidden in the monastery basement to print hundreds of false baptismal certificates and other documents.


Convents, monasteries, orphanages and other church institutions throughout occupied-Europe were some of the very few "ready-made" safe harbors that Jews could turn to when escaping Nazi raids, arrests or terror. There was "room at the inn" for refugees who found shelter and protection at these church havens that stretched from Poland to Belgium and France, Italy and the Balkans.

These religious institutions also provided sanctuary for countless Jewish children whose parents were shipped to labor or death camps. Being hidden in a convent or orphanage, the children were assured of shelter, food and access, when required, to medical attention. Their identities were usually masked with Christian names as a safeguard during Gestapo searches and interrogations.


When the Germans occupied Vichy France in November 1942, the border with Spain and Switzerland was temporarily closed.  There were approximately 30,000 Jews living in southern France at the time.  Pére Benoit traveled to Nice to meet with General Guido Lospinoso, the Italian commissioner of Jewish affairs.  He convinced the General that rescuing the 30,000 Jews was a far better course of action than transferring them to the Germans.


Pére Benoit was wary of the General’s commitment to help the Jews so he continued on to Rome to seek the aid of Pope Pious XII.  On July 13, 1943, Pére Benoit presented the Pope with a plan for transferring the 30,000 Jews to northern Italy.  Unfortunately it was never implemented; the Italian armistice came on September 8, 1943, sooner than originally anticipated.  The Germans immediately occupied northern Italy and the Italian zone of France, thereby foiling Pére Benoit's plan.  This did not, however, dampen his desire to save the Jews.


He relocated his efforts to Rome, where he was elected to the board of DELASEM, the central Jewish welfare organization in Italy.  When its Jewish president, Settimio Sorani, was arrested by the Germans, Pére Benoit was elected president.  He obtained “Letters of Protection” and other important documents from the Swiss, Romanian, Hungarian, and Spanish legations. With these documents, thousands of Jews, under assumed names, were able to circulate freely in Rome.  Pére Benoit escaped several attempts by the Gestapo to have him arrested. 


Approximately 80,000 Jews in France – about 25 percent of its pre-war population of 330,000 – were murdered in Nazi death camps, executed in French prisons, or died from starvation, exhaustion and disease in French internment camps. However, two thirds of the Jews survived, primarily due to the aid given by French men and women from all segments of society.  Some reasons cited for keeping the death figure relatively "low" (compared with Poland and Holland), was a smaller German military presence, a vague goodwill by French officials and a more vociferous church.

When the Vichy regime took over in June 1940, many Catholic prelates embraced the new administration because its Premier, Marshal Petain, spoke in theological terms of repentance and expiation of sin. And they were quiet as a church mouse when Vichy issued its anti-Jewish decrees four months later.

But their indifference took a dramatic turn in the summer of 1942, when Jules-Gerard Saliege, archbishop of Toulouse, lashed out at Vichy’s anti-Jewish measures. In his now famous pastoral letter, the archbishop said: "There is a Christian morality, there is a human morality that imposes duties and recognizes rights. . . Why does the right of sanctuary no longer exist in our churches? . . . The Jews are real men and women. . . They are our brothers, like so many others."



Pére Marie Benoit survived the war but died many years ago.

Yad Vashem named Benoit a "Righteous Among the Nations" in 1966.