It’s the start of a new day in Assisi. A chorus of church bells echoes off the well-scrubbed streets. Flowers overflow from the window boxes, cascading down pink stone walls. The Piazza del Commune, the town’s small historic center, is already beginning to fill with the day’s visitors.
If Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, then Assisi is a close second. And it owes it all to its favorite son, St. Francis, Italy’s larger-than-life patron saint. His “enchanting nature,” as Pope John XXIII put it, “seems to hover in the air,” attracting thousands of pilgrims and tourists every year. But during the Nazi occupation, which ended sixty years ago in June, Assisi attracted thousands of desperate refugees. For some it was life-saving.
I’m sitting at an outdoor café in the piazza with one of those refugees, Graziella Viterbi, a Jewish grandmother with a mane of short white hair and bright, engaging eyes. She orders Coca-Colas for both of us and with a thoughtful smile tells me, “Assisi’s been my home for fifty-six years.”
“My family name is from the town of Viterbo near Rome,” she says. “We have been in Rome before Christ, or perhaps arrived when Titus destroyed the Temple.” As she speaks, I can’t help but imagine her as a girl in the innocent days before the war.
Graziella arrived in Assisi in October 1943, shortly after Italy’s sudden surrender to the Americans and the Brits. Already...