We Italians. . . are born actors,"" Padre Rufino Niccacci grinned, recalling for Ramati how he hoodwinked the occupying Germans and transformed Assist into a wartime sanctuary for Jews. In normal times only 5000 people inhabited the birthplace of St. Francis, but it is ringed by 20 or more monasteries and convents. There, with the collusion of the local bishop and cardinal, Niccacci hid hundreds of Jewish refugees, many disguised as nuns and monks. A born diplomat--con artist is more like it--Padre Niccacci at one point had the resident German commander eating from the palm of his hand; he even borrowed a German military truck and armed escort to conduct some stranded ""Christian pilgrims"" south to Abruzzi. As Niccacci tells the story, the whole town was more or less in on the conspiracy including the atheist printer who turned out truly elegant false identity papers and the local cycling champ who made deliveries. . . There are some bad moments when the suspicious SS arrests Niccacci and some of his charges, but a well-placed Italian fix gets them released in time to forge the all-important document declaring Assisi an ""open city,"" thus sparing it from military ravages. Heroism and sly peasant humor make Niccacci a very simpatico padre, and the word ""heartwarming"" was coined for books exactly like this.