Father Pierre-Marie Benoît was a French national who until 1940 lived in the Capuchin monastery in Rome. When war between France and Italy was clearly inevitable, he returned to his homeland and moved into the Capuchin monastery in Marseilles. The Jewish laws enacted by the Vichy government set in motion a tumultuous and active chapter in Father Benoît's life. Out of a profound commitment to humanitarian values, Father Benoît pledged himself to protecting Jewish refugees.
Utilizing his ties with passeurs (border guides), the French underground, and other religious organizations-Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish-Father Benoît procured false papers and hiding places and smuggled some refugees into Spain or Switzerland. His reputation as a man who spared no effort to save Jews spread far and wide. The waiting room in his monastery teemed with people at all times, and the printing press in the monastery's basement printed thousands of false baptismal certificates for distribution to Jews.
When, in November 1942, southern France was occupied and the Swiss and Spanish borders became harder to cross, Father Benoît began to organize the transfer of Jews to the Italian occupation zone. He met in Nice with Guido Lospinoso, the Italian commissioner of Jewish affairs, whom Mussolini had sent at the Germans' insistence. Father Benoît persuaded Lospinoso to refrain from action against the 30,000 Jews who lived in Nice and the vicinity (the original purpose of his trip).
In April 1943, he met with Pope Pius XII and presented a plan to transfer Jews in Nice to North Africa via Italy. This plan was foiled when the Germans occupied northern Italy and the Italian-occupied zone of France. When the Gestapo discovered Father Benoît's activities, he was forced to move to Rome.
Although he himself was now a refugee, he persevered in his rescue efforts with even greater fervor. Father Benoît was elected to the board of Delasem (Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei), the main Jewish welfare organization in Italy and when the Jewish president was arrested, Father Benoît was named the acting president. The organization's meetings were held at the Capuchin college in Rome. Father Benoît contacted the Swiss, Romanian, Hungarian, and Spanish embassies, and obtained important asylum documents which enabled Jews to circulate freely under false names. Father Benoît also extracted numerous ration cards from the police on the pretext that they were meant for non-Jewish refugees.
Very many Jews owe their lives to Father Benoît and regard him as the man who saved them from the crematoria. When Rome was liberated in June 1944, the Jewish community held an official synagogue ceremony in honor of Father Benoît and showered him with praise. Years later, U. S. President Lyndon Johnson delivered a moving speech in which he said that Father Benoît's wonderful actions should inspire the American people in the protection and preservation of the rights of citizens, irrespective of race, color or religion.
On April 26, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Father Pierre-Marie Benoît as Righteous among the Nations.
Sources: Yad Vashem