FOSSA, Italy – More than 65 years after villagers provided shelter to Italian Jews fleeing from the Nazis, a group of those who evaded capture rushed to repay that sacrifice in rural communities hard-hit by an earthquake last week.
A delegation of around 20 elderly Jews and their descendants — as well as community leaders — made their way to makeshift camps in the area around the mountain city of L'Aquila on Monday, peering into tents in a bid to find their saviors.
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 hamlets of Fossa and Casentino during the war. "We have to help them."
Click here for photos.
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, damaging or destroying up to 15,000 buildings. Most of the homeless could spend weeks or months in tents as authorities have so far examined only 1,000 buildings, and declared 30 percent of those uninhabitable.
In the chaos of the relief efforts, Jews who had been sheltered in the area during the war lost touch with villagers, many of whom are simple farmers with no cell phones.
At least five Jewish families, around 30 people, took shelter in the small mountainside villages of Fossa and Casentino in mid-1943, when German forces began to take direct control of central and northern Italy. They remained there until the arrival of the Allies a year later.
In October 1943, a few weeks after the families left their native Rome, Nazi troops swept in on the capital's Old Ghetto neighborhood deporting more than 2,000 Jews. Only a handful survived the death camps.
The runaways initially hid in Fossa, about 10 miles (16 kilometers) from L'Aquila, but were forced to flee to the nearby village of Casentino when warned the Germans had learned of their presence.
"We left at night, it was winter and the snow was up to here," Emma Di Segni said, gesturing to her waist. "We stayed in a ruined house until a woman took us in."
Though they had fake documents and posed as refugees fleeing Allied bombings, their hosts knew who they were and were aware they could be executed if caught sheltering Jews, Di Segni said.
"They knew what they risked, but they never said anything," she recalled.
Di Segni is in contact with descendants of her saviors now living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but she came to the tent camp set up outside Casentino to look for their next-door neighbors.
Officials provided a cell phone number for the family, who were out for the day. Di Segni cried into the phone as she made sure everyone was safe and invited them to stay at her home in Rome.
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's so painful that such righteous people should suffer like this and live in a tent," Di Consiglio said. He reminisced how his aunt was born in the barn of the De Bernardinis and was baptized in the church to avoid suspicion from authorities.
With aftershocks still hitting the area Monday, Casentino was off-limits, but locals and visitors pointed out the now crumbled-church and the other ruined buildings in the village.
"Those were difficult times, like today," said De Bernardinis. "The Germans were always looking for Jews and we did what we could."
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 small community, said that the capital's Jews, which number less than 15,000, were already collecting money and clothing for all quake victims, but wanted to do more especially for communities that had helped during the war.
Luigi Calvisi, the mayor of Fossa — which lost five people to the quake and was heavily damaged — asked for sneakers for children. Holding talks with Pacifici in the tent camp where more than half of Fossa's 700 residents live, he also welcomed offers of specialized assistance for the elderly and a vacation for the young at a summer camp in Tuscany.
Pacifici said he would also work 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.
"We want to hear these stories," Steinfeldt said. "I would be happy if the families contacted Yad Vashem and told us."
Other stories of Jews being saved in the same area were recorded, she said, usually involving Jews who fled from Rome to nearby villages.
The aid brought by saved Jews to the quake zone came in parallel with help from Germany, which has offered to rebuild the church of Onna, a village that was nearly flattened by the temblor. The hamlet was the site of a massacre of civilians by German troops in 1944, but a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stressed that the event was not the reason the place had been chosen.