OCEAN SPRINGS, MS (WLOX) - "I survived a lot of stuff during the seven years of war," Giovanna Bonifazio Smith told a group of Ocean Springs Middle School students Friday.
The seven years of terror for Smith began when she was only ten-years-old. It was June, 1940, during World War II. The Jewish-Italian girl was living in Tripoli, Libya. As Jews were being persecuted, her ailing mother had to find a place to hide Smith and her two year old brother Guido.
"She thought 'I'm going to beg the nuns to take them to Italy, so they'll be safe'," said Smith.
The Franciscan nuns agreed to take in Smith at their convent in Naples, Italy. There, she witnessed numerous bombings and had to hide in a dark dungeon during air raids.
"We really hated to go down there, but it was the best place to be when the bombs were too close," said Smith.
After extensive bombings in Naples, Smith and a group of girls were taken to the Alps, then she ended up in another convent in Florence, Italy. One morning, she watched in horror as German soldiers rounded up 81 Italian Jews to take them concentration camps. Smith never knew that they had been hiding in the attic of the convent.
"I watched all these people being taken and put into a truck. The soldiers kept coming in and saying to the nuns 'If we know that you have been hiding Jewish people, we're going to do this.' And I saw with my own eyes, the soldiers pointing on the floor and shooting," said Smith.
Thanks to one nun, the soldiers never discovered Giovanna's Jewish roots.
"My favorite nun was holding my hand and kept telling me 'Don't you say a word,' because they were afraid I would say 'Hey, I got a Jewish mother'," said Smith.
Smith asked to go to the restroom. That's where she found a Jewish girl trying to climb out the window.
"So she says 'Would you give me a push? Please give me a push now.' So I understood what it was all about and I helped her. I pushed her so she would get away," said Smith.
Hearing a true story from a Holocaust survivor gave the Ocean Springs 7th graders a face to the war and its atrocities.
"It was really interesting like how she could have survived all this after all she's been through and stuff," said Addison Wade.
"It's one thing to hear it from a book. But in person, for her to tell us that, it's quite cool," said Thomas Davis.
Smith's life is now a biography titled "Giovanna: Angels in Hell." It was written by her daughter. Smith, now 79, enjoys sharing her personal story with children.
"So they will know what happened and that it will not happen again," said Smith. "You cannot do that and get away with it."
Smith and her Air Force husband lived all over the world before settling in Biloxi in 1968. They have six children.