Text size

Italian Jews and Holocaust survivors are rushing to aid communities that sheltered them during World War II and were hit by last week's devastating earthquake.

A delegation of some 20 elderly survivors and their descendants, as well as Jewish community leaders, roamed the shattered countryside of central Italy on Monday, looking for their one-time saviors, now living in tent camps.

They offered everything from gym shoes to summer camps for children.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for these people," said Alberto Di Consiglio, whose parents were sheltered in the small hamlet of Fossa during the war. "We have to help them."

More than 100 tent cities have been built around L'Aquila and the 26 towns and villages affected by the 6.3-magnitude quake, which struck central Italy on April 6. The temblor killed 294 people and displaced another 55,000.

In the chaos of the relief efforts, Jews who had been sheltered in the area during the war lost touch with their one-time saviors, many of whom are simple farmers with no cell phones.

At least five Jewish families, including around 30 people, took shelter in the small mountainside hamlets of Fossa and Casentino between mid-1943 until the arrival of the Allies a year later, survivors said.

In one tent, Di Consiglio managed to find Nello De Bernardinis, 74, the son of the couple who sheltered Di Consiglio's father and eight other relatives during the war.

"It was a great emotion, it's so painful that such righteous people should suffer like this and live in a tent," Di Consiglio said.

De Bernardinis said he was fine for the moment and greatly appreciated the gesture of the Jewish community to check in on him and his family. He said, though, that it would be useful to have help during harvest time, and Di Consiglio promised his whole family would come.

Riccardo Pacifici, the head of Rome's Jewish community, said he was working to get recognition from Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial for people like De Bernardinis and others who sheltered Roman Jews. The memorial bestows a special honor on those who saved Jews during World War II.

Irena Steinfeldt, director of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem, said the museum was not familiar with the stories of Fossa and Casentino. She urged the Jewish families to come forward so the people who saved them could be recognized.

"We have not heard these stories, and we want to hear these stories," Steinfeldt said. "There are still people who haven't approached us and haven't spoken, and I would be happy if the families contacted Yad Vashem and told us," she said.

Other stories of Jews being saved in the same area were recorded, she said, usually involving Jews who fled from Rome to nearby villages. In one town, Tagliacozzo Alto, a priest named Don Gaetano Tantalo took in the Orvieto family in the spring of 1944, even preparing a traditional Passover meal for them, she said. He was recognized by Yad Vashem in 1978.