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Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands during the Holocaust

Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands during the Holocaust

by Susan Zuccotti


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Susan Zuccotti narrates the life and work of Père Marie-Benoît, a courageous French Capuchin priest who risked everything to hide Jews in France and Italy during the Holocaust. Who was this extraordinary priest and how did he become adept at hiding Jews, providing them with false papers, and helping them to elude their persecutors? From monasteries first in Marseille and later in Rome, Père Marie-Benoît worked with Jewish co-conspirators to build remarkably effective Jewish-Christian rescue networks. Acting independently without Vatican support but with help from some priests, nuns, and local citizens, he and his friends persisted in their clandestine work until the Allies liberated Rome. After the conflict, Père Marie-Benoît maintained his wartime Jewish friendships and devoted the rest of his life to Jewish Christian reconciliation. Papal officials viewed both activities unfavorably until after the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), 1962-1965.

To tell this remarkable tale, in addition to her research in French and Italian archives, Zuccotti personally interviewed Père Marie-Benoît, his family, Jewish rescuers with whom he worked, and survivors who owed their lives to his network.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253008534
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/04/2013
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Susan Zuccotti is author of The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival; The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews; Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy; and Holocaust Odysseys: The Jews of Saint-Martin-Vésubie and Their Flight through France and Italy. She has taught Holocaust history at Barnard College in New York and Trinity College in Hartford.

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Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue

How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands during the Holocaust

By Susan Zuccotti

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Susan Zuccotti
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00853-4


Pierre Péteul


PIERRE PÉTEUL WAS BORN ON MARCH 30, 1895, IN THE VILLAGE of Le Bourg d'Iré, about fifty kilometers north of Angers. His father leased and operated the large local water mill of Pommeraye, which his ancestors had run since the eighteenth century. When Pierre was little more than five years old, his father, also named Pierre, gave up or lost the lease to the mill for reasons that are unclear (fig. 1). The family, which now included two more sons, René Gabriel (1896–1916) and Louis (1898–1983), moved first to nearby Segré and then to Angers. Despite this early move to the city, however, the younger Pierre seems to have been stamped by the traditions of his ancestors. Years later, as a priest, he always referred to himself proudly as Pierre Péteul "of Le Bourg d'Iré" when required to give his secular name. Others writing of him used the same description.

The departure from Le Bourg d'Iré must have been wrenching, for the Péteul family seems to have suffered from hard times in Angers. The elder Pierre's job in a factory making ecclesiastical candles brought in much less than he had earned as a miller, even while the birth of a fourth son, Joseph (1901–1982), increased the family's expenses. Whether because of economic circumstances, personal stress, or other reasons, the elder Pierre's wife (our Pierre's mother) suffered an extreme mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized for most of the rest of her life. There is no evidence of the impact of this terrible event on her oldest son, except that he continued to visit his mother's relatives as long as he and they lived. But normal family life was over.

Within a few years after his move to Angers, the elder Pierre's position had deteriorated from modestly successful village businessman to head of a family in need. Through all of these troubles, the Catholic Church offered great consolation. The elder Pierre served with enthusiasm and dedication as choirmaster in the local parish church, while his son Pierre was an eager member of the choir. Somehow the father sent Pierre and, presumably, his three younger brothers to the local Catholic school. When his sons were older, he participated in several extended retreats at a nearby monastery. All of this contributed to the younger Pierre's formation and outlook on life. The Church came to represent, for him, shelter, security, and compassion. At the same time, he remembered Le Bourg d'Iré as a warm and happy place that offered stability and continuity through its connection to the past.

A brief look at the geography and history of Angers and Le Bourg d'Iré is essential if we are to understand the formation of Pierre Péteul. Before the French Revolution, the region in which Le Bourg d'Iré and Angers were located was known as the province of Anjou. Divided by the Loire River, flowing from east to west to empty into the Atlantic Ocean fifty kilometers west of Nantes, Anjou was bordered on the west by Brittany, on the southwest by the Vendée, and on the south by Poitou. The province became part of the royal domain of France temporarily at the beginning of the thirteenth century and definitively in 1584. Its capital was Angers, a lovely medieval city on the Maine River near where it flows into the Loire from the north. Like so many cities and small towns near the Loire, Angers boasted a huge thirteenth-century fortress and château, built by King Louis IX (Saint Louis) to protect the province from enemy incursions from Brittany or Aquitaine. In the fifteenth century the château served as the brilliant court of Duke René d'Anjou, regent of Sicily and Jerusalem.

During the French Revolution most of the province of Anjou became the department of Maine-et-Loire. The department was divided into several districts. Le Bourg d'Iré, with a population of 1,265 in 1891, four years before Pierre Péteul was born, was in the district of Segré, in the department's remote northwestern corner. Equally important as far as Pierre is concerned, Le Bourg d'Iré was on the small Verzée River, which flows into the larger Oudon at Segré. The Verzée supplied the power for Pierre's father's mill.

Like most of the rest of Maine-et-Loire when Pierre was born, the area around Le Bourg d'Ire was predominantly agricultural. Wheat, corn, dairy cows, horses, and sheep were raised in gently rolling fields amply watered by meandering streams and rivers. While those same streams supplied power for water mills, there were in addition more than nine hundred windmills in the department during the nineteenth century. Pierre's father also leased and operated a windmill in Le Bourg d'Iré for a time. Millers were viewed with respect as economically indispensable businessmen in their villages, for every local family had to bring its grain to the nearest mill to be ground into flour. Bread was then baked at home. Earning a decent living, millers tended to marry their children to the offspring of other millers in order to keep the business in the family. This was true for our Pierre Péteul, whose father, Pierre (1866–1950), married Agnès Royer, daughter of the miller at nearby Le Tremblay, in 1894.

Many inhabitants of Maine-et-Loire were handicapped by isolation from the rest of France. That isolation was dramatized by the fact that, as in Brittany, women wore distinctive headgear until well into the twentieth century. The problem was not rooted in geography – in deserts, canyons, or mountain ranges – but rather in an almost nonexistent infrastructure. Angers and cities on the Loire enjoyed an obvious water route to the outside world, an advantage compounded by the arrival of the railroad in the late 1840s. The interior of the department, however, suffered from the lack of decent roads, canals, and navigable rivers. The poor quality of the roads was articulated as a major issue in March 1789 when King Louis XVI invited his countrymen to articulate their grievances in the Cahiers de Doléances for consideration by the upcoming Estates General. It remained an issue for decades afterward.

As might be expected in a traditional French agricultural community where outside influences were scarce, most of the 513,490 inhabitants of the department of Maine-et-Loire in 1906 were fervent Roman Catholics. There were only 550 Protestants and about a dozen Jews in the department at the time, and agnosticism and atheism were rare. Everyone else was Catholic, and usually highly observant. Catholics in Angers were pleased to have a Catholic university in the city, founded in 1875. Although there were 1,046 public elementary schools throughout the department at the beginning of the twentieth century, many parents, especially those from rural areas, preferred to send their children to Catholic schools. The teachers in such schools were priests, friars, and nuns who included religious subjects in the curriculum and prepared their pupils for the sacraments of First Holy Communion, Penance, and Confirmation. In Le Bourg d'Iré around 1900, an estimated nine out of ten families chose Catholic schools. The local public school eventually had to close because of a lack of pupils.

Another indication of the fervent Catholicism of residents of Maineet-Loire is the high number of religious vocations – that is, of men and women who became priests, friars, monks, and nuns. Precise statistics are elusive, but impressionistic evidence is revealing. Around 1907, when Pierre Péteul expressed his desire to attend the Catholic seminary in Angers to become a diocesan priest, he was told there was no place for him. One reason for the rejection was that after the separation of the churches from the state and the loss of state subsidies, as will be described below, the seminary could no longer afford the expense of training the high number of applicants. Pierre therefore joined the Capuchin order of priests and brothers.

A look at Pierre's family history also confirms the impression of a high number of vocations, at least within one family in Maine-et-Loire. One of Pierre's three brothers, René Gabriel, also joined a religious order, the Frères de Saint Gabriel, before he was killed on the Somme in 1916. Pierre's uncle René Péteul (1854–1886), a brother of his father, was a Cistercian priest in Canada, where he died before Pierre was born. Of the twelve other siblings of the senior Pierre and René, three more chose a religious vocation. These three – Marie-Angèle, Célestine, and Dorothée – were daughters who became nuns. There were also three nuns in the family of the younger Pierre Péteul's mother.

It was not unusual for individual French families to contribute more than one child to the Church in a single generation. Studies of the backgrounds of candidates for the priesthood elsewhere in France have indicated that religiously observant parents, trusted advisors, and good Catholic schools often influenced more than one young person in a family. According to a historian of Le Bourg d'Iré, however, the pattern was particularly prevalent in the area around that village during the end of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth.

Despite its small size, Le Bourg d'Iré, when Pierre Péteul came into the world, had a long and proud history that left an indelible imprint on its residents. Its main claim to fame, and the historical calamity known to every man, woman, and child in the village, involved its role in the armed struggle against the French Revolution in 1793 and 1794. The story began harmlessly enough. Locals were eager to petition the king for redress of grievances in 1789. Among the nineteen signers of the Cahiers de Doléances from Le Bourg d'Iré was a miller named René Péteul. The requests concerned not only dreadful roads but also obstructed rivers; inequitable land distribution; the unjust legal system; onerous feudal dues and labor service; the lack of schools, teachers, hospitals, and doctors; desperate poverty in the countryside; and high and arbitrary taxes, especially the gabelle, the heavy tax levied on the salt that was essential for the preservation of meat. Citizens also sought a greater voice in the selection of municipal and provincial representatives, especially those who determined the allocation of taxes.

Perhaps inevitably the Cahiers de Doléances raised expectations to impossible levels, and within two or three years of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, severe popular disenchantment with the new revolutionary regime set in. Although feudal dues and labor service were eliminated in August 1789, taxes seemed only to increase. Even worse, the nationwide conscription of three hundred thousand young men announced in February 1793 infuriated locals who lived in safety, far from invading armies of Prussians, Austrians, and French exiles threatening France from the east. Meanwhile, requisitions of food and livestock to feed soldiers and city folk left peasants hungrier than ever, angry, and desperate. Roads continued to deteriorate as bureaucrats struggled to organize themselves and address more urgent issues. Even the elimination of the gabelle provoked unrest in some quarters, for local peasants had long made extra money during the winter months by smuggling salt from Brittany, where it was not taxed, into Anjou, where it was, and selling it below the official price.

In highly Catholic and conservative Le Bourg d'Iré and its environs, however, all these grievances paled when compared to the issue of deteriorating Church-state relations. Tensions rose in 1789 and 1790 as the new government in Paris emancipated Protestants and Jews, eliminated tithes, nationalized large ecclesiastical properties, and abolished most religious orders. Especially in western France, a precarious situation escalated into a violent confrontation with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which decreed on July 12, 1790, among other measures, that parish priests and bishops were to be elected by parishioners, that French bishops must not act without consulting a permanent council of vicars, and that all clergy must sign an oath of loyalty to the state. Although these and other measures constituted a direct challenge to the Vatican, most prelates and priests throughout the country, bending to political realities, reluctantly signed the oath initially. In the Vendée, however, 70 percent of all parish priests refused to sign from the very beginning, even before Pope Pius VI ordered that response in the spring of 1791. In the southwestern corner of Maine-et-Loire known as the Mauges the figure was 90 percent, and in the area around Le Bourg d'Iré it was 53 percent. In Le Bourg d'Iré itself both the parish priest and the vicar refused the loyalty oath.

As these "refractory" priests went into hiding, and as parishioners refused to accept their official oath-taking, "constitutional" replacements, fanatic delegates from the revolutionary regime in Paris, began to comb the countryside, arresting thousands. Catholic dissenters, including priests, were imprisoned, deported, and often executed. As a result, large counterrevolutionary armies sprouted up in Brittany, the northern half of the Vendée, and the western corners of Maine-et-Loire, and a brutal civil war ensued. Temporarily victorious counterrevolutionary armies committed atrocities, which in turn led to massive reprisals as government troops gained the upper hand. Now revolutionary agents shot, drowned, or guillotined women, children, and the elderly; destroyed entire families; exposed severed heads and hands in public places; systematically raped women; burned fields; killed livestock; forcibly evacuated entire populations; and razed whole villages to the ground. In Nantes alone as many as ten thousand prisoners, including many women and children, were executed, often by being tied to barges and sunk in the Loire. Tens of thousands are estimated to have been killed throughout the region in bitter fighting that continued off and on for years. Many villages bear the scars of the violence to this day.

Throughout the terrible years of civil war, Le Bourg d'Iré, with a population of about one thousand, was torn apart by numerous tragedies. Just one of many was Yves Bouvier, a local boy born in 1719 and orphaned at the age of nine who nevertheless succeeded in becoming a priest. Refusing the oath of loyalty to the state in 1791, he hid with local farmers by day and roamed the countryside by night, visiting the sick and celebrating mass. Caught at the home of his brother-in-law in 1794, he was shot on the spot, but only after a soldier severed his hand with a saber as he was attempting to give absolution to his equally doomed protector. In another case, six counterrevolutionary insurgents, including a priest, were caught in the village and shot, and the couple sheltering them was imprisoned in Angers. In revenge the insurgents captured and shot five local municipal republicans who had denounced them. Reprisals on both sides soon followed. As the war evolved from regular battles to guerrilla operations in the late summer of 1794, elusive bands of insurgents attacked National Guard posts in Le Bourg d'Iré, burned the church that was being used by the republicans for storage, looted republican homes, and murdered republican officials whenever they could catch them. Altogether thirty-seven insurgents, including twenty-one women, and eleven republicans were killed in Le Bourg d'Iré during the civil war.

The name Péteul is often found in records of the conflict in Le Bourg d'Iré, always on the side of the traditionalists or insurgents. Seven people bearing that name, for example, were among the sixty-nine signers of a petition to the French minister of the interior on November 18, 1791, complaining that "three quarters of the parish [of Le Bourg d'Iré] have been deprived of the sacraments, religious instruction, and all spiritual assistance, including even the last rites, because they remain faithful to the voice of their conscience," and begging to be allowed to keep the services of their non-oath-taking priest, so long as he said nothing against the laws of the state. More tragically, forty-eight-year-old Angélique Péteul, one of the signers of the petition, was arrested in the village a year or so later, accused of helping non-oath-taking priests, and imprisoned in the seminary in Angers. Taken before a revolutionary committee, she was sentenced to death and shot. Louis Péteul, a cousin of Angélique and also a signer of the petition, was more fortunate. Louis was the miller at Pommeraye, where his great-great-grandson, our Pierre Péteul, was born a century later. Age thirty-three in 1793, Louis hid the vicar Paizot in his mill, disguising him as a miller's assistant. With other disguises, as a peasant, worker, or traveling salesman, the vicar wandered through the region, saying mass and administering the sacraments. Among those he baptized on November 9, 1795, were the four children of a René Péteul who had also signed the 1791 petition. One of the four, René's eldest child, Marie, had already been baptized by the official oath-taking priest, Père Richard, at Le Bourg d'Iré on October 19, 1791, but her parents clearly considered that baptism invalid.


Excerpted from Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue by Susan Zuccotti. Copyright © 2013 Susan Zuccotti. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1 Pierre Péteul: Family Heritage and Education
2 Pierre Péteul and the First World War
3 The Years between the Wars, 1919-1939
4 First Steps toward Jewish Rescue: Marseille, May 1940 to August 1942
5 With Joseph Bass in Marseille, August 1942 to June 1943
6 With Angelo Donati in Nice, November 1942 to June 1943
7 Père Marie-Benoît and the Donati Plan, June to September 1943
8 Early Rescue in Rome, September and October 1943
9 With Stefan Schwamm in Rome: Securing Documents for Jewish Rescue
10 With Stefan Schwamm in Rome: Securing Funds for Jewish Rescue
11 After the Liberation of Rome
12 The Final Decades

What People are Saying About This

Kevin P. Spicer

"Uncovers the story of one remarkable religious and priest during humanity's darkest time. . . . The work is extremely compelling, engaging the reader's full attention, and challenging to put down."

From the Publisher

"Gold Medal, World History category, 2014 Independent Publisher Book Awards 2014 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award, Gold Winner, History"

Michael Phayer]]>

Provides a close-up look at how rescue during the Holocaust worked. . . . To reveal in detail what happened over half a century ago constitutes an astonishing piece of sleuthing.

Kevin P. Spicer]]>

Uncovers the story of one remarkable religious and priest during humanity's darkest time. . . . The work is extremely compelling, engaging the reader's full attention, and challenging to put down.

Michael Phayer

"Provides a close-up look at how rescue during the Holocaust worked. . . . To reveal in detail what happened over half a century ago constitutes an astonishing piece of sleuthing."

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