BENOÎT, PIERRE-MARIE°


BENOÎT, PIERRE-MARIE° (1895–1990), French priest and Righteous Among the Nations. Born Pierre Péteul, in Bourg d'Iré (Marne-et-Loire), France, to a family of flour millers, Benoît entered the Capuchin-Franciscan order in 1913. After a tour of duty in the French army during World War I, where he was wounded, he took up theological studies, earning a doctorate in theology and teaching at the Capuchin college in Rome. With Italy's entry into World War II in June 1940, he was sent back to France, and took up residence at the Capuchin convent in Marseilles, at 51 Croix-de-Regnier Street. This eventually became a beehive of activity to help Jews in flight to acquire lodgings, identity documents, and baptismal certificates as well as aid in crossing to Switzerland or Spain. In this he was coopted by local Jewish and non-Jewish religious and lay leaders. After the German occupation of the Vichy zone, in November 1942, Benoît traveled regularly to Nice, then under Italian occupation. There the Jewish-Italian banker Angelo Donati introduced Benoît to Guido Lospinoso, the newly appointed Italian commissioner for Jewish affairs, who agreed to Benoît's request to be allowed to continue his rescue activity of Jews. Fearing a German takeover of the Italian zone, Donati and Benoît devised a plan to remove the approximately 30,000 Jews there to Italy proper, and for this Benoît went to Rome to make arrangements. In an audience with Pope Pius XII, on July 16, 1943, Benoît requested the Vatican's intercession with the Italian government to facilitate the transfer plan. In addition, he asked the Vatican for aid in obtaining news of French Jews deported to Germany and improvement of the situation of Jews in French detention camps as well as intervention with Spain to allow the repatriation of Jews claiming Spanish ancestry. It is not known if the Vatican acted on these requests. In the meantime, with the overthrow of Mussolini, on July 25, 1943, the transfer plan was amended to move the Jews by ships to North African havens. The new Italian government of Marshal Badoglio was prepared to provide four ships and requisition trucks, and the U.S.-based Joint to underwrite the cost of this large-scale operation. Benoît also received support for this undertaking from Francis Osborne and Myron Taylor, the British and American diplomatic representatives to the Vatican. Italy's surrender to the Allies, however, on September 8, 1943, and the immediate occupation of Italy and its zone in France by the Germans scuttled this rescue operation. Benoît, now under the name of Padre Benedetto, worked closely with Delasem (Delegazione per l'Assistenza dei Emigranti Ebrei), originally created to deal with facilitating Jewish emigration, and presently occupied with helping Jews in hiding. Elected to Delasem's executive board, when its president Settimio Sorani was arrested, Benoît replaced him as head. At first, Delasem's activities were centered in the Capuchin offices, on 159 Via Sicilia; then, for security reasons, it moved it operations from place to place. It dealt mainly with obtaining various forms of forged documents, food, ration cards, and residencies for the thousands of Jews in Rome, many of whom had fled there from other regions in Italy, and originating in various countries. Benoît, together with his Jewish aide Stefan Schwamm, also solicited the aid of the Swiss legation, as well as the Romanian and Hungarian legations, countries allied to Nazi Germany, in obtaining various documents, including "letters of protection." Financing came from from Delasem funds, the Joint, and Genoa-based Cardinal Pietro Boetto. It is estimated that as many as 4,000 Jews benefited from Benoît's aid. As his fame spead among Jewish refugees, many sought out the "Father of the Jews." Benoît escaped several attempts to arrest him, and he eventually went into hiding for about a month, and returned to Rome to witness the city's liberation on June 4, 1944. Afterwards, Benoît was hailed by the Italian Jewish community. In 1966, Yad Vashem awarded him the title of Righeous Among the Nations. In 1978, he wrote: "What I did for the Jewish people, what I did to merit being called 'Father of the Jews' is but an infinitesimal contribution of what should have been done to prevent this most heinous and satanic slaughter of some six million Jews, which will undoubtedly remain mankind's foulest disgrace – a shame affecting all those who participated or allowed it to happen.… It is by divine providence that the Jewish people wishes to live and fulfill its divine goals – first, for its own good, then, for the good of all humanity."

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Yad Vashem Archives M31–201; P.-M. Benoît, "Résumé de mon activité en faveur des Juifs persécutés (1940–1944)," in: Livre d'Or des Congregations Françaises, 19391945 (1948); S. Zuccotti, Under His Very Window (2000), index; F. Leboucher, Incredible Mission, (1969); M. Paldiel, The Path of the Righteous (1993), 56–59; J. Rorty, "Father Benoît, Ambassador to the Jews," in: Commentary, 2 (Dec. 1946), 6; I. Gutman (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Righteous Among the Nations: France (2003), 68–70.

[Mordecai Paldiel (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.