As a child in the 1940s and ’50s, Maria Parisi Vickers imagined placing a lid on the mountains that hugged the town of Campagna, Italy to stop the rain.
Those mountains made the rural town, which only had one road, difficult to enter and leave and, therefore, easy to police. During World War II, just before Vickers was born, the town became the location of an internment camp holding hundreds of Jewish people.
But there was an understanding that, even though those Jews were imprisoned, they were at least safe.
Vickers, now 72 and living in Philadelphia, has gone on a lifelong journey to piece together and understand the story of the Jews who lived in her hometown during the Holocaust. For her, the Israel trip she went on with The Philadelphia Orchestra in June and, in particular, the day she spent at Yad Vashem, represented that journey’s culmination.
“It was the last piece of the mosaic that I needed to put in place,” Vickers said.
Vickers grew up hearing stories of strangers in Campagna: an old man with a white beard, a professor who taught Greek and, most of all, the doctors who were able to provide the townspeople with a level of medical care they had never experienced before. In these stories, the strangers came, lent their skills to the community and then went away.
It was years later that she discovered these strangers were Jewish and that people in her hometown had saved them from the Nazis.
She moved to the United States when she was 10 but continued to make occasional trips to Campagna. During those trips, she started learning a little more about the town’s Holocaust history. Then, one day in 1998, she came across a book about Jews in Campagna in an Italian bookshop, which told her the whole story.
Two convents housed hundreds of Jews in Campagna during World War II. Because it was difficult to leave the town without anyone noticing, they were given free access in and around the community.
They were helped by Bishop Giuseppe Maria Palatucci; his nephew, Commissioner Giovanni Palatucci, who is recognized as a “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem (Palatucci’s role in helping the Jews in Campagna has come under scholarly dispute since this decision in 1990, but he remains on the list); and Police Chief Mariano Acone.
When Italy signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943, German soldiers came to Campagna intending to reclaim the Jewish people living there and bring them to Germany.
But when they reached the convents, they found no one there.
Police authorities, the bishop and political officials had led the Jews into the mountains, while the locals feigned ignorance about where they had gone.
“[The bishop] welcomed [the Jewish people], and when he saw them in the streets, he would welcome them as brothers,” Vickers said. “He made an example to his priests and to his flock, the population there, that they should be treated with respect and in brotherhood. He would have them as guests in his home and things like that. The situation is, yes, this was an internment camp, but Italians are well-known for doing things their own way.”
When Vickers finished reading the book, she called her mother to inquire if the strangers she had heard stories about growing up were Jewish. Her mother said yes, and Vickers asked why her mother had never told her that before.
“Siamo tutti creature di Dio,” her mother said.
“We are all creatures of God.”
Because of this personal story, Vickers had always wanted to go to Israel.
In June, she finally had the chance. A regular attendee of The Philadelphia Orchestra’s concerts, Vickers learned of the opportunity to go to Israel with the Orchestra and decided to take it.
At the trip’s orientation, she shared the story of Campagna’s Jews with Rachel Gross, director of planned giving and endowments at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who staffed the trip.
Gross wanted to try to incorporate this story into the trip. Specifically, she had hoped the group could go to Palatucci’s plaque at Yad Vashem, where Vickers could share the story with the group, but it wasn’t feasible.
Instead, Gross asked Vickers to share the story on one bus (the group went on two) on the way to Yad Vashem and the other bus on the way back.
“People were very moved,” Gross said. “It was a different point of view than what people are used to hearing.”
For the group’s visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museumr prepared written material on Palatucci, and Gross asked Vickers to be a part of the ceremony there.
At the ceremony, she read a passage from the diary of Donia Rosen, a Ukrainian Jew who escaped World War II.
“Yad Vashem is a wonderful monument,” Vickers said, “to some of the good that was done in the midst of those horrors.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729