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Martha Counihan, O.S.U. Authors Jetta’s Story about Ursuline Charism during WWII

August 20, 2018
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CNR Archivist and Associate Professor Sr. Martha Counihan has authored Jetta’s Story, a new book that recounts the story of Jetta, a Jewish teenager who fled Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia to Mussolini’s Italy, only to find that she and her family faced the Nazi round-up of all Jews living in the country.  After imploring the Vatican for help, Jetta and her sister were taken in by a group of compassionate Ursuline nuns.  

The book came about as a result of Sr. Martha’s discovery in the CNR archives of the diary of an Ursuline nun living in Rome during WWII. On sabbatical in 2010, Sr. Martha traveled to Rome, spending several months in the archives of the Ursulines of the Roman Union Generalate where she uncovered more details of Jetta’s story and those of her Ursuline protectors, who risked deportation or death for following their faith and sheltering those, like Jetta, who sought refuge in their care.  

In 2002, the State of Israel’s Yad Vashem “Righteous Among the Nations” award was given to Ursuline Mother Marie Xavier Marteau for her courage in protecting the Jews in her charge during WWII. Mother Colette Lignon, then prioress general, accepted the award “in the name of all Ursulines,” who showed extraordinary strength and compassion in providing sanctuary to Jews and others hiding from the Nazis. Jetta was present at that ceremony to share her story.

In 2009, Sr. Martha finally met and interviewed Jetta, then in her early 80s.  

“It was a pretty stupid thing I did’ were Jetta’s first words to me about her rash decision to seek help in the Vatican as a 16-year-old Jewish girl alone in Rome,” said Sr. Martha. “I chose ‘A Stupid Idea’ as the title of the book’s first chapter.”

Now 92, Jetta lives in Westchester with her husband.  She and Sr. Martha remain close friends.

“The dedication, using the Ursuline motto Serviam, came from my desire that the book be read by secondary and high school students worldwide. A footnoted and scholarly book could end up as a dust collector. Young adults can learn a lot by reading about other young people their age who face seemingly impossible challenges and who are helped by the kindness of strangers,” said Sr. Martha. “I loved researching and writing this book!”

“Sister Martha’s wonderful book is a testimony to the ability of the human spirit to not succumb to tyranny and to the invaluable necessity of people brave enough to place themselves at mortal risk to do what is just,” said CNR President Dr. William Latimer. "It’s a must read that is truly inspirational.”

Sr. Martha has also authored numerous publications on the history of The College of New Rochelle, the Ursulines of the Eastern Province, and Leland Castle. Her master’s thesis on Leland Castle led to its being placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.