Thursday, December 17, 2015

Becoming the Magi

My trip to Valdieri began on September 8, 1943 – long before I was born – when General Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that Italian Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio had agreed to an armistice with the Allies. Until that day, my father, Albert, along with his parents, Solomon and Esther, his brother Alter, his two sisters Mariette and Bella, and over 1000 Jewish refugees were grateful prisoners in the village of Saint-Martain-Vesubie in the Alps above Nice. There, the Italian Army was effectively shielding them from deportation by the Germans and the French.

On the following day, the Italian commander – who two months earlier had been the guest of honor at the wedding of my uncle Alter to his childhood sweetheart and former underground commander Sidi Templer – informed the Jews of Saint Martain that they could flee or follow the retreating Italian army to safety in Italy. My father, his family, like hundreds of others, followed the Italians on foot to the Col de Cerise and from there to the Italian village of Valdieri. Sadly, as Dr. Susan Zuccotti recounts in her book Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of Saint-Martain-Vesubie and Their Flight through France and Italy, what awaited them in Italy was deportation to Auschwitz by the German forces that had been sent to capture the retreating Italian soldiers and to restore Mussolini to power.

On September 18, 1943, German forces under the command of SS Captain Müller rounded up nearly 350 Jewish refugees sheltered in Valdieri. My grandfather, like many others, chose to decline the German army’s invitation to present themselves “on pain of death for themselves and all who helped them” (Zuccotti, p. 125). They fled back into the mountains. As winter approached, the surviving Jews were aided by selfless Italians from the area around Valdieri, as well as from Borgo San Dalmazzo and Cuneo. These rescuers, many of whom were working for a network established by a twenty-three-year-old priest named Francesco Brondello, risked their lives to hide and feed the hunted Jews. Among those brave people, but acting on his own, was Don Antonio Borsotto, the parish priest of the tiny hamlet of Andonno.

Antonio Borsotto
Father Borsotto knew the dangers. In September 1943, a priest in nearby Boves, Don Giuseppe Bernardi, had reportedly been doused with gasoline and burned alive for allegedly aiding partisans. But Father Borsotto was no stranger to danger. He had returned to the parish of Andonno in 1943, after serving on the Eastern Front as chaplain to the Second Alpini Regiment “Cuneense”. Of the 5,206 men of Father Borsotto’s regiment, only he and another 207 survived the battle of Stalingrad. Yet Father Borsotto did not hesitate. He offered to hide my father’s family in a room adjoining his church. He had already done so before when he had hidden another Jewish family. As my father later learned, Father Borsotto had hidden my father’s uncle Isaac and aunt Stella along with their two children, and my father’s cousin Velvel, in that same room. They had not felt safe in a small village where they feared their presence could too easily be discovered. They chose to move on to the anonymity of the larger town of Borgo San Dalmazzo, where they were promptly arrested and deported to Drancy, and from there to their deaths in Auschwitz.

My father’s family stayed in the room in safety until Christmas Eve 1943, when there was an knock at the door. They expected to see German soldiers when they opened the door. Instead, they met Italian peasants bearing gifts of food, blankets, warm clothing and firewood. And that is where the story of Antonio Borsotto’s extraordinary faith and courage truly begins.

On that Christmas Eve, Father Borsotto delivered an unusual sermon to the people of Andonno. He began by telling them about the persecution of the Holy Family by the Romans. He recounted the story of the birth of Jesus in a manger, and told of the visit of the Magi bearing gifts. And then he informed the people of Andonno that he and others were hiding persecuted Jews. “Tonight” he concluded, “you can be the Magi.”

Some might say that Father Borsotto was reckless. By revealing his secret, Antonio Borsotto risked death, and in that extraordinary act of faith, he urged all of the people of Andonno to become his accomplices. In that moment of revelation, Father Borsotto taught that the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ places real demands upon anyone who identifies as a Christian. In his call to action, Father Borsotto instructed his flock to love the stranger, free the oppressed and feed the homeless. He asked them to join with him in saving the world – to live in Christ even at the cost of their lives.

Four years ago, I began gathering the evidence needed to petition the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem to recognize Father Borsotto as Righteous
Canon Antonio Borsotto
among the Nations. I gathered testimony from my aunts Mariette Tisser and Sidi Sharon. Yad Vashem put me in touch with Elena Fallo, a researcher at
L'Istituto storico della Resistenza e della Società contemporanea in Cuneo. Elena interviewed the ninety-three-year-old Father Francesco Brondello. Father Brondello knew Father Borsotto, but he had not been aware of Father Borsotto’s help to Jews. That was not surprising. Father Brondello rarely spoke of his own efforts. He felt that what he had done was only normal. As he said to Elena Fallo, “It is the teaching of God.” Father Borsotto, too, had not discussed his work. When I spoke to his nieces and nephews about it, they said that although they had been very close to their uncle, he had never mentioned it.

Elena also referred me to Father Luca Lanave, a young priest who had written a thesis about the clergy in the province of Cuneo during the Second World War. In New York, I met with historian Dr. Susan Zuccotti.

Thanks to Elena Fallo, Luca Lanave and Susan Zuccotti, and the moral support and inspiration of my dear friend Archbishop Dr. Richard Clarke (Church of Ireland), I was able to compile a dossier verifying the facts related in the testimony of my aunts and recorded in my father’s memoir, Walking to Valdieri, which he completed on the night he died. I submitted the material and waited. My petition was approved. Sara Ghiladi of the Israeli Consulate in Rome called to tell me that the mayor of Valdieri, Emanuel Parracone, was planning a ceremony to award the medal and certificate to Father Borsotto’s family. I was asked to attend.

And so, my journey to Valdieri came to an end. Valerio, a police officer from Valdieri, picked me up at my hotel in Turin, and drove me and Sara Ghiladi to the Valdieri city hall. Over a hundred people, among them Luca Lanave, the mayors of the neighboring towns, members of the local press, and the students of the Valdieri elementary school, filled the hall. I spoke with Father Borsotto’s family in a mixture of broken Italian and halting French, gave them a letter written by my Aunt Mariette – the last surviving member of the hidden family – an album of family pictures prepared by her daughter, Susan, and a copy of my father’s memoir. An elderly woman sitting at the front said, “I brought food to a Jewish family. Did your family have a little girl named Bella?” I showed her pictures of my late Aunt Bella and of her sons and grandchildren. “And what about Susannah?” she asked. It took me a moment to remember that “Susannah” was my late Aunt Sidi’s nom de guerre. I turned to the pictures of her, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Finally, I was called upon to speak. As the mayor of Valdieri held a microphone to my lips, I began with the opening words of the opera Pagliacci: “Signore, Signori, scusatemi.” – Ladies and gentlemen, excuse me. I continued: “Canto in Italiano, ma non parlo Italiano” – I sing in Italian but I do not speak Italian – and then I relied upon my knowledge of Italian opera to hesitatingly read a statement that had been translated for me into Italian:

“Vorrei ringraziare tutti voi per essere venuti oggi ad onorare Padre Antonio Borsotto … Padre Borsotto diede una lezione di fede: egli rischiò la propria vita non solo per salvare la mia famiglia ma il mondo intero.” [I would like to thank all of you for coming today to honor Father Antonio Borsotto … Father Borsotto taught a lesson in faith. He risked his life not only to save my family but to save the entire world.]

Finally, Don Antonio Borsotto’s name is inscribed on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, joining the ranks of Father Francesco Repetto, Father Francesco Brondello, Father Raimondo Viale, Mother General Maddelena Cei, Mother Superior Benedetta Vespignani and Sister Marta Folcia who have also been recognized as Righteous among the Nations for their roles in aiding Jewish refugees from Saint-Martain-Vesubie. It is a small, inadequate but important tribute to Father Borsotto and to the people who answered his call to be the Magi, knowing that what he was saying to them on that Christmas Eve of 1943 was: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:40].

Avinoam Sharon

Rabbi Avinoam Sharon is a doctoral student in Talmud and Jewish Law at The Jewish Theological Seminary's Gershon Kekst Graduate School and a graduate fellow in the Cardozo School of Law's Consortium in Jewish Studies and Legal Theory