Father Père Marie-Benoît was a Franciscan friar and master forger who smuggled over 4000 Jews out of Nazi-occupied France.
Born Pierre Peteul in Bourg d’Ire, France in 1895, Father Benoit served in WW1 in North Africa, and was later wounded at the Battle of Verdun. He received five citations for bravery and a Cross of War.
After the war Father Benoit earned a doctorate of theology and became a respected expert on Judaism. He entered the Franciscan Capuchin Order and became a priest, taking the name Pere (Father) Marie-Benoit.
Father Benoit was sent by his order to the Capuchin monastery in Marseille. In 1940, the city was overwhelmed with thousands of French Jews desperately trying to escape from the Nazis. Father Benoit said, “We Christians claim to be spiritual children of the patriarch Abraham. This should be enough reason to exclude any kind of anti-Semitism whatsoever, anti-Semitism being an ideology which we Christians cannot in any way share and be part of.”
Father Benoit defended Jews not only in speech, but in action. He became obsessed with getting Jews out of France. The good priest transformed his monastery into the headquarters of a huge forgery operation. He set up printing equipment to crank out fake passports, baptism certificates and other documents that helped hundreds of Jewish refugees escape to Spain and Switzerland.
In November 1942, the Germans occupied Marseille, cutting off the escape route to Switzerland and Spain. Father Benoit changed tactics: he focused on the Riviera and Haute-Savoie, parts of France that were under Italian control. He traveled to Nice and persuaded Italian officials to allow Jews to cross into their zone, and not to arrest the 30,000 Jews of Nice.
Together with Angelo Donati, an Italian-Jewish banker, Father Benoit hatched a plot to transport those 30,000 Jews of Nice from Italy to North Africa by boat. However, Italian authorities refused to cooperate unless the Pope himself approved of the plan.
Undeterred, Father Marie-Benoit traveled to Rome to enlist Pope Pius XII’s support. Somehow this humble priest got an audience with the pontiff. Father Marie-Benoit explained to the Pope that collaborationist French police officers were persecuting Jews, Pius XII expressed surprise and asked, “Who could ever expect this from noble France?” He pledged his support, but unfortunately the plan fell apart when Germany occupied northern Italy and the Italian-occupied zone of France.
Determined not to give up trying to save Jews, Father Marie-Benoit tried the “Spanish part of the plan.” He received authority from the Spanish government of Francisco Franco to determine which French Jews had “Spanish blood,” which would enable them to flee to Spain. Father Benoit saved 2600 people this way. It’s not known how many – if any – of them were actually of Spanish descent.
It was no longer safe for Father Benoit to return to France, so he went back to Italy, where he was elected to the board of Delasem, a Jewish welfare organization. He later became president of the organization.
Father Benoit moved the Delasem offices to a facility owned by the Capuchin Order and once again set up his forgery operation. In early 1945, the building was raided by the Gestapo, and almost everybody working there was arrested and later executed. Miraculously, Father Benoit was able to escape and go into hiding, where he survived the war.
The Jewish community of Italy celebrated Father Benoit at a special ceremony where they “showered him with praise.” Decades later, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson honored Father Benoit in a speech, saying the French priest’s “wonderful actions should inspire the American people in the protection and preservation of the rights of citizens, irrespective of race, color, or religion.” Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem recognized Father Benoit as Righteous Among the Nations in December, 1966.
Known as Pere des Juifs (Father of the Jews), Father Benoit died in 1990. For saving thousands of Jews at great risk to himself, we honor Father Marie-Benoit as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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