In the end, there were 74 children—Jewish kids, from the ages of 6 to 18, who in 1942 and 1943 fled from Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia as their parents disappeared into the Nazis’ concentration camps. With borders closing all over Europe, a Zionist organization smuggled them into northern Italy, to the village of Nonantola, built around a Benedictine monastery. Though Fascist Italy was not a haven, it was as safe as could be found. Their refuge was a large empty house, the Villa Emma, rented for them on the edge of town.
Their story stands out as a singular moment of reason and humanity in the savage history of the Holocaust, an example of the values that Pope Benedict XVI today identifies as the Christian heart of Europe, and one that the priests in the village expect he will acknowledge in the next few months. It is a tale of courage, of rare integrity in the face of fear and oppression—but most important, it is a shared tale. From the start, empathetic townspeople brought food for the children of Villa Emma. They were supposed to keep to the house, for fear of prying (and potentially traitorous) eyes. But, being kids, they of course did not, and soon were making friends in the neighborhood, so much so that within months they had more or less been adopted by the village.