Seventy-five years after he helped a group of over 1,000 Jews fleeing Italian-occupied France, 98-year-old Jewish-Italian Enzo Cavaglion was honored in his hometown of Cuneo on Sunday.
Cavaglion was presented with the Jewish Rescuers Citation by B’nai Brith World Center-Jerusalem and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jews who Rescued Fellow Jews During the Holocaust at his residence, surrounded by family and friends.
He still lives in the same village from which he helped organize the 1943 rescue effort.
“Enzo was really moved by the award,” said Alan Schneider, director of B’nai Brith World Center-Jerusalem, who attended the presentation.
“He’s 98 years old — frail in body, but his mind is sharp, and it was an opportunity for him to remember those awful days when he assisted these 1,000 Jews who escaped over the Maritime Alps from France into Italy,” Schneider said.
The Jewish Rescuers Citation was established in 2011 to help correct the common misconception that Jews didn’t significantly help rescue other Jews during the Holocaust.
To date, nearly 200 heroes who operated in Germany, France, Hungary, Greece, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Holland, Italy, Ukraine, Latvia and Austria have been awarded the citation.
“For decades there’s been a focus on non-Jewish rescuers, such as the recognition as Righteous Among the Nations — an outstanding program spearheaded by Yad Vashem,” said Schneider.
“But there is also a huge focus on it by European countries who want to showcase their rescuers, and they often have a much broader expression of this than Yad Vashem,” he said. “All of this has helped to create a brand of righteous among the nations, and now all these decades later, we’re trying to play catch up and recognize Jews who went beyond the call of duty and put themselves in even greater danger in Germany and allied countries.”
Schneider says that thousands of Jews in France joined resistance groups that saved fellow Jews – particularly Jewish children, and that these groups were highly successful in helping preserve the future of French Jewry in the face of genocide.
Perhaps most famous among partisans dedicated to rescuing Jews are the group led by the four Bielski brothers, Tuvia, Zus, Asael, and Aron, who safeguarded 1,236 Jews in the forest inside present-day Belarus. The group is the subject of the 2008 Hollywood film “Defiance,” starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber.
Like the Bielski brothers, Cavaglion and his own brother Riccardo simultaneously fought the Nazis and worked to save Jewish lives, something Schneider says was unusual.
“In many cases you couldn’t do both — saving Jews and fighting Nazis, so a lot of resistance movements had to choose between fighting and rescue,” he said.
The Cavaglion brothers were founding members of the Italia Libera partisan group, which they established on September 12, 1943, the day that Cuneo was occupied by the German First SS Panzer division.
At the same time, more than 1,000 Jews living in the remote Italian-occupied French Alpine village of Saint-Martin-Vesubie fled to Cuneo across the Maritime Alps in the face of German invasion – only to find Nazis combing the area. About 300 of the group were captured and sent to Auschwitz.
The brothers helped the remaining 700 find shelter among a sympathetic peasant population in the surrounding mountain villages, and raided local municipal offices, stealing documents with which they forged paperwork for the fugitive Jews.
Cavaglion was awarded the Jewish Rescuers Citation for putting aside his own well-being as he and his family were also hunted by the Nazis, and helping the hundreds of fleeing Jews find asylum.
The Holocaust survivor was moved to tears when he was presented with the honor.
“This is the first recognition that he had from a Jewish organization for endangering himself,” said Schneider. “Beyond that he was already in danger for being a Jew in an area where the Nazis were roaming, he put himself in the line of fire and put himself in danger to rescue these Jews.”