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The Cardinal of the Persecuted Jews

 --  Rev. Vincent A Lapomarda, S.J.

The more one studies the role of Catholics in World War II, the more one discovers how much they did to help the Jews. In this respect, Pietro Boetto (1871-1946), the Cardinal Archbishop of Genoa, proved to be rather exceptional even though his name is not mentioned in John E Morley's controversial study, Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust (New York, 1980), which underscores the alleged failure of the Vatican at the time of the Holocaust. Who, then, is Pietro Boetto and what did he do?

Pietro Boetto was born in Vigone, Italy on 19 May 1871 and died in Genoa on 31 January 1946. This Piedmontese grew up in the Archdiocese of Turin where he studied in a minor seminary before he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus at Chieri on 1 February 1888. Ordained a priest at thirty (1901), he spent the next thirty-six years of his life actively involved in the government of the Jesuit Order.

Serving first as the rector of the Jesuit College in Genoa (1903), he became the Provincial of the Province of Turin on 1 November 1916. His involvement in the higher circles of the Jesuit Order continued when, three years later, he was appointed Visitor to Spain (1919-21). His administrative talents were so highly cherished that he bcame the Procurator General of the Order (1921), Provincial of Rome (1928) and General Assistant for Italy (1930) before he was appointed Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for Religious (1931).

So distinguished had he been as a religious leader, particularly at the Roman Curia, that Pope Pius XI created him a Cardinal Deacon on 16 December 1935. Then the same Pope promoted him to Cardinal Priest on 17 March 1938 and named him, even before the funeral of his predecessor, Cardinal Carlo Dalmazio Minoretti, Archbishop of Genoa, a position for which he was consecrated archbishop on 24 April 1938. Pope Pius XI wanted Boetto, a Jesuit of anti-Fascist sentiments, installed as soon as possible to provide leadership for the Catholic Church at a time when Adolf Hitler was making his first visit to Italy to cement his alliance with Benito Mussolini. The latter, it should be noted, was visiting Genoa for the first time as the leader of his country.

Arriving in Genoa on 3 May 1938 to assume formally his new position, Cardinal Boetto came into a station decorated with Fascist and Nazi banners in preparation for the upcoming visit of both Hitler and Mussolini. It is from this visit to Italy, against which Pius XI protested by absenting himself from Rome, that one can mark, on the one hand, the start of Italy's shameful march in the direction of anti-Semitism and, on the other hand, the opening of one of the most distinguished chapters in the history of the Archdiocese of Genoa.

Although the Jesuits had been responsible for publishing anti-Semitic views in La Civilta Cattolica in 1890, they had abandoned that position and sought to move the Roman Catholic Church in the opposite direction under the leadership of both Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII. As a member in the inner circles of church government, the new Cardinal-Archbishop of Genoa was not ignorant of these initiatives as Italy started to promulgate the new racial laws in imitation of Germany's horrible policy against the Jews.

One can understand how unjust were the Italian laws when one recalls the anti-Semitic legislation. Instances at point are: the law of 5 September 1938 restricted professors and students of Jewish background from having a role in the educational system; the law of 9 February 1939 limited the amount of property that Jews could own; and, the worst of these laws, that of 13 July 1939, determined exactly who was and was not a Jew.

What, then, was the role that Cardinal Boetto came to play in the resistance to the anti-Semitic policy of his own country?

Basically, it was one of protecting the Jews of Italy through the agency known as DELASEM, an acronym for the Italian name of the Jewish agency centered in Genoa to care for refugees, that is, "Delegazione Assistenza Emigranti Ebrei." To this agency, Cardinal Boetto gave his wholehearted support in helping Jews escape the new racial laws. These, it should be noted, were not only Italian Jews but also Jews from Germany and Poland.

Although the six thousand of the forty-five thousand Jews in Italy thought that they were safe because they had been baptized, baptism could not provide security against the racial laws, if it took place after 30 September 1938. During the two years before Italy entered the Second World War, when Jews sought him out at his residence, Cardinal Boetto did not inquire whether or not these Jews were baptized. Since the Cardinal saw that his obligation was to help anyone in need, he gave aid to a number of Jews even before the spring of 1942 when he came to learn about the horror of the death camps.

Not only did Boetto provide them with temporary shelter until the refugees could flee the country, but he even gave them the money for their flight. He had so the Vatican in his enterprise that Pope Pius XII answered his inquiry about assistance to the Jews by having Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, send money to assist the program. Thus, there is absolutely no doubt, if one reads the documents released by the Holy See, that the Vatican formally encouraged what Cardinal Boetto was doing in Genoa with his staff, especially with Don Francesco Repetto, to help the Jews.

The network, under the leadership of Cardinal Boetto, became well established and was put to good use in the coming years when it became clearer that the Jews were marked for extermination. This news came to Genoa in mid-April of 1942 when Jesuit Brother Giovanni Battista Weidinger, a member of the Archbishop's staff, introduced a special courier to Cardinal Boetto. The messenger had so stunned the archbishop with the news about the deportations of Jews taking place in Slovakia that Boetto wrote to the Vatican on April 16th. The Vatican replied that it was not unaware of the information since it had acted to have the government of Slovakia cease these deportations.

While the Vatican acted through diplomatic lines, Cardinal Boetto was more determined than ever to do all that he could to save the Jews from extermination. As he told Don Repetto who inquired about a course of action, Boetto stated immediately that it was imperative to render assistance to the Jews despite the inconvenience. This became even more evident by 8 September 1943 as the political and military situation deteriorated after the overthrow of Benito Mussolini and as the Nazis took control of the northern part of Italy.

With the Nazis replacing the Fascists, the laws against the Jews began to be enforced strictly, as evident from the roundups of the persecuted in the major Italian cities during the following October and November. In these circumstances, Cardinal Boetto vigorously assisted the clandestine operations for the Jews and even offered sanctuary to Riccardo Pacifici, the Chief Rabbi of Genoa. The latter took refuge in an apartment owned by the church not far from his own synagogue. Unfortunately, the Nazis set a trap and seized the rabbi at the Galleria Mazzini on November 3rd and deported him to Auschwitz, where he died on December 12th of 1943.

At the same time, the Nazis sought to destroy the vast network that the Cardinal and his secretary had set up. Priests were involved as couriers and were making the crucial contacts that would enable the Jews hidden in the convents, rectories, and monasteries escape to Switzerland and to other places safe from the deportations to Auschwitz. Consequently, the Gestapo went after Don Repetto, the major link between the archbishop and the scores of contacts among the laity that enabled his priests (one of them was Giacomo Lecaro, pastor of the Immaculate Conception Church in Genoa and the future Cardinal-Archbishop of Bologna) to provide not only food and shelter but also documents and money to help the refugees.

Having narrowly eluded the clutches of the Nazis on 3 July 1944, Don Repetto went into hiding while Don Carlo Salvi, another member of the archbishop's staff, carried on the work that involved a whole network of archbishops, bishops, priests and lay persons in helping the Jews. Among those collaborating with Cardinal Boetto in this work were such associates in the Italian hierarchy as Cardinals Elia Dalla Costa of Florence, Ildefonso Schuster of Milan and Maurilio Fossati of Turin. Boetto's own auxiliary and successor as archbishop, the future Cardinal Giuseppe Siri, was one who had personal knowledge of many of these activities.

Cardinal Boetto was so resourceful in his determination that he impressed even the Nazis who welcomed those inclined to denounce anyone for violations of civil law. To guard against this abuse, the archbishop threatened to excommunicate anyone who would resort to such a slanderous denunciation of others, including Jews. This action effectively stunted any initiatives that might have heightened the persecution of the Jews. Later the Nazis themselves were to cooperate with Cardinal Boetto as he sought them out with their Italian comrades and urged them to give up fighting.

With the Allies winning victory after victory in Northern Italy, the German soldiers and their associates experienced for themselves the hospitality of Cardinal Boetto as he courageously went into the fighting lines of the regions of Genoa and Liguria. During April of 1945, he had them cease their resistance and spare those heavily populated areas any further bloodshed and suffering. So effective were his achievements in this regard, for his own city and for the towns and cities of his region, that Genoa honored him as Defensor Civitatis on 8 December 1945. Later, on 31 January 1949, a monument with a statue of him was dedicated to perpetuate his memory.

But, what Pietro Boetto did for the Jews, remains, for the most part, unknown save in a few works like the biography of the Cardinal by Arnaldo Maria Lanz or Carlo Brizzolari's study on the Jews in Genoa. However, Salvatore Jona, writing in Il Nuovo Cittadino on 3 February 1946, referred to the Jesuit as "The Cardinal of the Jews" because, as Pinchas E. Lapide later pointed out (p. 134) in his book, Three Popes and the Jews (1967), the Archbishop of Genoa was responsible for saving the lives of at least 800 Jews. Jona, as a leader in DELASEM, had handed over to the Jesuit cardinal at the start of the Nazi occupation of Italy some five million lire, the equivalent of close to a million dollars today. Cardinal Boetto sent this money to the Vatican by special courier and the Pope used this, in addition to other funds, to help many Jews escape the Nazi deportations to the death camps.

Cardinal Boetto's name may not be listed among the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem in Israel where Don Repetto, his secretary, is honored. But the gratitude of so many that he saved from the Nazi persecution must certainly have warmed the heart of this "Defender of the City" of Genoa.

"The Cardinal of the Persecuted Jews," was originally published in the Annals of St. Anthony's Shrine, 1988, v.16, n..2,  pp.13-18.

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Write to: Fr. Vincent A. Lapomarda ( with comments or questions.
Last updated November 11, 2000  Copyright © 1997-2000, College of the Holy Cross