Assisi quake disaster prompts Jewish communitys offer of aid

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Half a century after the Italian city of Assisi came to the aid of the Jews, the San Francisco Jewish community is mobilizing to return the favor.

In September, two earthquakes decimated Assisi, famous for its ancient fortresses, Roman temple and the Basilica of St. Francis — and not so well-known for its assistance to Jews during the Holocaust. Last week, several dozen more quakes measuring between 4.0 and 5.0 on the Richter scale hit the city, increasing the damage.

The devastation prompted the local Jewish community to write a letter of condolence and support, pledging the collection of donations for the relief effort. William Levada, archbishop of the San Francisco archdiocese, was to deliver the letter personally after leaving town last week to aid the earthquake victims.

In an interview shortly before his plane left, Levada said, "I just talked to the bishop of the Diocese of Assisi — the emotion I heard in his voice — and he said that 80 percent of the churches and homes have been demolished. People are now living in tents. It's still a shock to everybody."

Of the letter, he said, "I think that it is a most beautiful letter. I really think the mayor, Bishop Goretti and Father Julio, who guards the burial site of St. Francis, will be most moved. It's a gesture of solidarity between our sister cities."

The Jewish community's ties with Assisi, the birthplace of San Francisco's patron saint, date back to World War II. As the letter explains, several Assisi officials hid some 200 Jews in monasteries, convents and homes during the Holocaust. Also, according to the letter, the nuns and monks secretly operated a kosher kitchen in a convent and a clandestine school for Jewish children. They also provided false identity papers, and the mayor at that time is credited with warning Jews when Nazi raids were imminent.

"I didn't know about the assistance given to the Jews during that time — until now," the archbishop said. "It was a very heartening story and should always be remembered in continuing the ongoing relationships between people of two faiths."

Among the local Jewish leaders who helped craft and sign the letter is Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Kahn credited San Carlos resident Paul Levine with alerting the letter-writers to the Jewish-Assisi connection after the earthquake news broke. The historical account was quickly verified with the help of the Holocaust Center of Northern California.

"Assisi was a pocket of humanity which responded with extraordinary courage," Kahn said. "Their leaders led by example in the effort to protect and rescue Jews."

Besides Kahn, the letter was also signed on behalf of the Jewish community by Mark Schickman, chairman of the Jewish community relations council, Alan Rothenberg, president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Wayne Feinstein, JCF executive vice president.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco will print the letter in Sunday to Sunday, a weekly newsletter that reaches 420,000 Catholics in the Bay Area. The letter will also appear on the Archdiocese's official Web site.

"We will try our best in publicizing the letter, for I know that the Catholics here will be moved," the archbishop said. "I would like to thank everyone involved, not only to the leaders of the Jewish community, but to those who will make a contribution to the fund."