Padre Pére Marie-Benoit
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.
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
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.
Pére Marie Benoit survived the war but died many years ago.
Yad Vashem named Benoit a "Righteous Among the Nations" in 1966.