On February 5, 1990, Father Marie Benoit, a Capuchin Franciscan monk who committed himself to saving Jews during the Holocaust, and is credited with helping thousands escape murder at the hands of the Germans, died, at the age of 94.
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He was born Pierre Peteul in Bourg d’Ire, in western France, on March 30, 1895. At the age of 12, he traveled to Belgium to study at a Capuchin Catholic seminary, returning at the start of World War I, in 1914, to serve in the French army. Peteul was a soldier for four years, much of that time as a stretcher-bearer, and he survived the battle of Verdun.
Following the war, he completed a doctorate in theology at Rome’s Gregorian University, and was ordained in 1923. He remained in Rome as a teacher of novice priests until the start of World War II, when he moved to Marseille. There, after the Nazi occupation of northern France, Pere Marie Benoit, as he was now known, began thinking about how he could help the thousands of Jewish refugees who poured into the Free Zone. Although he never talked publicly in any depth about what drove him to risk his life again and again to save Jews, Benoit did say at one point that “We Christians claim to be spiritual children of the patriarch Abraham.”
In the basement of the Capuchin monastery in Marseille, he set up a forging operation, by which he oversaw the fabrication of passports, baptismal certificates and other relevant documents that could be used by Jews who wanted to travel to neutral Switzerland or Spain. After the Germans occupied the Vichy Free Zone, in late 1942, Benoit moved his focus of activity to the French Riviera, then under Italian occupation. In Nice, he met with Guido Lospinoso, Fascist Italy’s commissioner of Jewish affairs, convincing him, despite German protests, to allow Jews to continue to pass into the Italian Zone. Some 30,000 now found themselves in the area around Nice.
Benoit, working with a Jewish banker, Angelo Donati, began working on a plan to spirit Jews across the Mediterranean from the Italian Zone to North Africa. In July 1943, he went to Rome to enlist the help of Pope Pius XII. The pope expressed surprise when the priest told him that France was deporting Jews, reportedly exclaiming, “Who could ever expect this from noble France?” Nonetheless, he promised to help, but once the Germans occupied northern Italy and the Riviera, this plan too became inoperable.
Benoit then negotiated with the Spanish government to allow for the repatriation of Jews of Spanish descent to that country, and in that way saved some 2,600 Jews. He then went into hiding from the Germans in Rome, where, working closely with members of the Jewish community, he became a key person in the local office of the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants, which was hosted by the Capuchin order.
Delasem (the Italian acronym for the group) helped prepare false papers for hundreds of Jews before being raided by the Gestapo in 1944. All its members but Benoit were arrested and executed; he went into hiding, emerging only after liberation, in June 1944.
On December 1, 1966, Father Benoit was named a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. He is remembered not only for his heroism and courage, but also for his personal modesty and kindness. Furthermore, despite the thousands of Jews who received refuge and assistance from him, he never tried to convert any. In fact, he urged them to be good Jews. As Susan Zuccotti described Benoit in a 2013 biography: “He quietly challenged the Catholic obsession with converting the Jews and Christians, explaining that the determining factor in conversion was God’s grace and will, not the efforts of men.”