San Gioacchino: Walled-In in the Church

The attic of the San Gioacchino church in Rome served as a hiding place for seven months.

Many people were at risk once German troops occupied Rome in 1943. Soldiers in the Italian army were under threat of being brought to Germany to perform forced labor. Jews as well as political dissidents were persecuted. Thousands found refuge in churches. The San Gioacchino church was among the churches that took in refugees. Some men hid in the attic, and helpers from the congregation looked after them. The German occupiers soon started searching churches for people in hiding. Together, the helpers and those in hiding decided to wall up the door to the attic.

The extremely close quarters made life difficult for those walled in. Food and other supplies were passed through a window at night. Those in hiding were also brought in and out through the window. Some stayed there for only a few days, whereas others stayed for months.

Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand
San Gioacchino
Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand/Braun Engels Gestaltung Ulm
Rome, Prati district

Delayed Persecution

Italy had been allied with the German Reich and was a relatively safe country for Jews to live in up to 1943. Although they did suffer increasing marginalization once the anti-Jewish laws were passed in 1938, they were not deported to German extermination camps. This situation changed suddenly in the fall of 1943. On September 8, Italy surrendered to the Allied forces. A short time later, German troops invaded Italy. Jews were then defense-less. The first deportations began later that month.

Istituto di Storia Contemporanea, Ferrara
Children from a Jewish school
Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica, Mailand
Anti-Semitic slogans
Private
Drawing

Refuge under the Church Roof

In late October of 1943, several men suffering persecution let themselves be walled in under the roof of the San Gioacchino church. Their helpers carried food in and waste out through a rose window at night. For those in hiding, this window was the only means of entering or leaving the attic. Letters and messages were passed through a small hole in the vault. Ten to fifteen men hid in this attic simultaneously; almost forty in total hid here, including Italian soldiers who had deserted and eight Jews.

Parocchia di San Gioacchino in Prati, Rom
Hiding place
Parocchia di San Gioacchino in Prati, Rom, Foto: Georg Engels
Found items

“In the afternoon the whole community gathered in consultation to decide on certain sensitive matters.“

Encoded entry in the church chronicles of San Gioacchino dated October 24, 1943.

On this day the clerics and other helpers decided to move the men who had previously been quartered in other rooms to a hiding place in the attic.

Parocchia di San Gioacchino in Prati, Rom
Members of the congregation
Parocchia di San Gioacchino in Prati, Rom
Father Antonio Dressino
Yad Vashem Archives, Jerusalem, 898/4
Sister Marguerite Bernes
Private
Arrigo Finzi
Parocchia di San Gioacchino in Prati, Rom
Leopoldo Moscati

The “Air Division”

Alluding to the location of the hiding place under the church roof, the network of helpers called themselves the “Air Division of San Gioacchino.” The French nun Marguerite Bernes, the engineer Pietro Lestini, and his daughter Giuliana looked after those in hiding, with the support of Father Antonio Dressino.

In late May of 1944, Dressino feared that the hiding place had been discovered. The wall was torn down and those in hiding found new places to stay until Rome was liberated on June 4, 1944.

Famiglia Christiana, Rom, Foto: Giancarlo Giuliani
Belated reunion
Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, Foto: Sara Berger
Gable
Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand, Foto: Sara Berger
Interior view