Brave Italian Priest: Giuseppe Girotti

Holy life cut short

Giuseppe Girotti was a Catholic priest who opposed Mussolini’s fascist regime and created escape routes and safe havens for persecuted Italian Jews.

Born in Alba, Italy in 1905, Giuseppe was raised in a devout Roman Catholic family. He was baptized as an infant and received his First Communion and Confirmation at age seven. When Giuseppe was thirteen years old, he heard a sermon  from a Dominican preacher that changed his life. He felt that God called him to the priesthood, and he began studying at a Dominican convent the next year. After an extensive period of study and service, Giuseppe was ordained in 1930 and continued his study of scripture in Rome and Jerusalem. During his time in the Holy Land, Father Giuseppe developed close friendships with religious Jews there, and became a leader in interfaith outreach efforts, focusing on bridge-building with the Jewish community rather than proselytizing. 

Father Giuseppe published a scholarly work on the Book of Isaiah from the Jewish Bible in 1938 and then was hired as a theology professor at a convent of his order in Turin, Italy. When not working he volunteered at a nearby hospice. During this time, fascist Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy. He led his country into the Second World War on the Axis side in 1940, and became a loyal ally to Hitler and Nazi Germany. Father Giuseppe strongly and openly opposed Mussolini, and after the Nazis occupied his country in 1943, he began saving Italian Jews from the Holocaust. Calling Jews “Carriers of the Word of God” and “Elder brothers,” Father Giuseppe developed a system of escape routes and secure hiding places for Jews targeted by the Nazis. His deep knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture helped him connect with Jews in need. 

One of the first Italian Jews Father Giuseppe saved was an 18 year old girl named Emma Falco, who’d been his neighbor when growing up in Alba. Emma was expelled from school for being Jewish, and her father’s electrical meter factory was confiscated by the Nazis. He found a safe hiding place for Emma and her mother in a Turin convent, and provided her father with false identification papers which enabled him to escape Italy and immigrate to America. The family was reunited after the war, and Emma later married Sergio DeBenedetti, a prominent physicist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Emma and Sergio were married for 50 years, and after her beloved husband’s death, Emma endowed the Falco-DeBenedetti Career Development Professorship in Physics, which helps promising young physicists conduct their research. Generations of physicists have now benefitted from this program, and most are likely not aware of the debt they owe to the Catholic priest who saved Emma’s life. 

In 1944, Father Giuseppe was transporting a wounded Jewish resistance fighter to a safe house when he was betrayed to the Nazi authorities. He was taken to a prison in Turin while his monastic superior tried to get him released. However, the attempt failed and Father Giuseppe was transferred to another prison, then another, finally winding up at Dachau concentration camp on October 9, 1944. He was tattooed with inmate number 113355. He was imprisoned with 1000 other priests in a squalid barracks meant to hold less than 200 people. 

While incarcerated, Father Giuseppe developed a fast-growing malignancy in his leg which was diagnosed as carcinoma. He was placed in the camp’s medical center, where instead of receiving treatment he was killed with a lethal injection of gasoline a week after arriving. The brave priest was buried in a mass grave. One of his fellow inmates wrote an inscription on his now-empty bunk: “Here slept Saint Giuseppe Girotti.”

Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem honored Father Giuseppe posthumously as Righteous Among the Nations, and a tree was planted in his honor in Jerusalem.

For saving innocent lives at the cost of his own, we honor Father Giuseppe Girotti as this week’s Thursday Hero. 

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