“The De Merode Institute was a refuge and a safe house [casa di vita] for innocent people persecuted by the Nazis. In honour of those who maintained here the values of solidarity and civic courage”. This is the statement of the plaque recently presented by the Wallenberg Foundation, among the 300 plaques it has awarded throughout Europe. It is a precious memorial, and it gave a strong message to the many children who were present at the unveiling ceremony. Around forty people were saved through the college, children hidden among the pupils, but also adults disguised in the religious habit. This is recalled by Gianni Polgar, who was 7 years old at the time. “I arrived with my brother at the end of October, 1943. They gave me a new name. Once a week in the parlour, I used to meet my “auntie Annetta”, which is what I had to call my mother. To disguise us better, the Brothers organised first communions and confirmations. I am wholely grateful to those who did the work to obtain this recognition for the De Merode Institute for having allowed a boy to live a normal life in such a tragic period.” Another fellow pupil Fausto Zabban recalls, “My brother could not remember his assumed name, and he was not allowed to say his real one”. A picture of daily heroism emerges from the text of Dennis Walters, who hid with his father in the college under a false name. It recalls their fear of the searches, the wisdom and broad-mindedness of the Community and of its Director Brother Sigismondo Barbano, who later left the Congregation and is remembered by his two sons. During the ceremony, Ruth Dureghello, President of the Hebrew Community in Rome declared, “It is important to remember these things, because we all know the danger there is in indifference and that the search for scapegoats can always return”. Brother Alessandro Cacciotti, Director of the De Merode Institute said, “We must have the courage to side with those who are weak and defenceless”, and Brother Robert Schieler, Superior General, concluded, “May their witness inspire us all to become instruments of peace”.
AVVENIRE, 15 February 2017