Magazine article Commonweal

The Missing: The Holocaust, the Church & Jewish Orphans

Magazine article Commonweal

The Missing: The Holocaust, the Church & Jewish Orphans

Article excerpt

A year ago, Catholic-Jewish relations were roiled by yet another revelation concerning the church's indifference to the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust. In the December 28, 2004, issue of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, historian Alberto Melloni announced the discovery of a document, dated October 23, 1946, communicating the Vatican's intention to retain custody of Jewish children saved by Catholics during the Holocaust.

According to an Associated Press story, the 1946 document "apparently instructed French church authorities that Jewish children baptized as Roman Catholics, for safety or other reasons, should remain within the church--even if that meant not returning them to their own families once the occupation ended."

An article in the New York Times assessed the document's tone as "cold and impersonal," noting that "it makes no mention of the horrors of the Holocaust." Within a few weeks, the story worked its way into the polemics surrounding Pius XII's alleged silence during the Holocaust. Writing in the Forward, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen charged the document with "ordering a criminal deed," and characterized the pope as "one of the most rampant would-be kidnappers of modern times." Pius's defenders, meanwhile, argued that the document had been misattributed and misinterpreted; Pius, they contended, was in fact a great benefactor of the Jews, both with respect to the children and the rest of his wartime behavior. In Rome, Peter Gumpel, the Jesuit historian designated by the Vatican to promote Pius XII's beatification, cast doubt on the document's authenticity. Over succeeding weeks, the rhetoric intensified, only further clouding the complex historical reality behind the sometimes desperate circumstances of Jewish children at the end of the war.

Gumpel's suspicions notwithstanding, there seems to be little doubt that the document discovered by Melloni is authentic. Unsigned and written in French, it comes from the Paris Nunciature, the Vatican's diplomatic representation in France, and appears to be an instruction from the Vatican's Congregation of the Holy Office on how to deal with the vexed issue of "Jewish children who, during the German occupation, were confided to Catholic institutions and families and who are now reclaimed by Jewish institutions." Investigative work by several Italian researchers has shown that the document is itself a summary of a previous Vatican communication in which the papal aide Domenico Tardini set forth the congregation's views on how to respond to an appeal by Isaac Halevi Herzog, chief rabbi of Palestine, for assistance in locating such children and restoring them to Jewish hands. "The Eminent Fathers decided that if possible there should be no response to the Grand Rabbi of Palestine," that document had declared, indicating that despite the rabbi's meeting with the pope on the matter the previous March, the status of Jewish children in Catholic custody remained a thorny issue.

The Melloni document asserts five policy points in response to Jewish demands for custody of the children: First, nothing should be put in writing--a cautionary note that reflected the disputatious, even litigious climate surrounding the issue in the autumn of 1946. Second, the initial answer to petitioners should be that the church must investigate each case on it own. Third, children who have been baptized "cannot be given to institutions that cannot assure their Christian education." Fourth, for children without parents or relatives, "it is not appropriate [il ne convient pas] that they be confided to people who have no right to them, at least up to the time when they can decide for themselves"--including children who have not been baptized. Finally, "If the children have been confided [to Catholic institutions or families] by the parents and if the parents claim them now, [then] provided that the children haven't received baptism, they can be given back. …

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