In Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French Priest Together with Jewish Friends Saved Thousands During the Holocaust, historian Susan Zuccotti rescues a heroic figure from obscurity.

How did you first learn about Père Marie-Benoît?

I discovered Marie-Benoît in the course of my research for my first book, The Italians and the Holocaust, published in 1987. It is not possible to study the rescue of Jews in Rome during the German occupation without encountering him. He also played an important role in my other three books about the Vatican and Jewish refugees in France—he was active in Marseille.

What about him was uniquely French?

Marie-Benoît was intensely patriotic, even though he grew up during a time when the French government treated Catholic institutions harshly. He loved Paris—especially for its gardens, churches, and musical concerts. He loved the little village where he was born, and always signed his name “Père Marie-Benoît du Bourg d’Iré.” He remained close to his brothers in Angers and their families, and took most of his vacations there or elsewhere in France.

What was the hardest thing to research?

Marie-Benoît’s motivation. It was not hard to learn what he did, but it was difficult to understand why he did it—apart from the fact that what he did was the right and decent thing to do, and he was a decent man. Because I am an historian rather than a psychologist, I tried to avoid speculation and stick to the facts. There was a small movement in the 1920s among well-educated priests, especially in France, that questioned the traditional anti-Semitic teachings of the Catholic Church and sought greater understanding and tolerance between Jews and Christians. Marie-Benoît joined an organization that reflected its concerns before it was dissolved by Pope Pius XI in 1928.

What surprised you the most?

I was overjoyed to discover in the archives in his monastery in Paris a collection of letters that the not-yet ordained Marie-Benoît wrote to his mentor and teacher, an older Capuchin priest, during his service at the front during the First World War. The letters revealed as much about his personality as anything else I ever saw. I was also surprised to discover the strength of Marie-Benoît’s friendships with a few young Jewish men with personalities very much like his: bright, adventurous, courageous, creative, imaginative, contemptuous of complacency and self-satisfaction, and self-sacrificing without thought of reward or recognition. I learned that Marie-Benoît dedicated the rest of his long life to Jewish-Christian reconciliation. I had no idea at the outset that he had done that.