The Missing

The Holocaust, the Church & Jewish Orphans

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.” The document ends with the crucial phrase: “It is to be noted that this decision of the Holy Congregation has been approved by the Holy Father.”

Specialists in the subject see little that is new in the document’s view of the Catholic Church and postwar child custody. Yet the document reminds us how difficult the custody issue could be, particularly on the highly sensitive matter of baptism, which is why the Nunciature asked for instructions from the Holy See. It sheds light on the crisis of a particular historical moment, one pitting the church’s claims over all those who were baptized, against the desperation of a Jewish community decimated by the Holocaust and still in shock. The controversy over the plight of Jewish children in Catholic hands paints a mixed picture of the postwar relationship between the two religious communities: some good will, some continuing misunderstanding, and some interests still tragically at odds.

The Paris Nunciature at the time was headed by none other than Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, revered by Jews and Catholics alike as the moving force, two decades later, behind Vatican II’s historic move to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. Roncalli was sent to Paris by Pius XII in 1945 to replace the former nuncio, Valerio Valeri, who was deemed by de Gaulle to be tainted because of his association with the Vichy regime. Roncalli had shown great sympathy for the Jewish cause during the war, personally assisting Jewish refugees and intervening in favor of Jews in Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Hungary. It is he who had met with Rabbi Herzog at that time, passing along Herzog’s appeals to the Vatican to assist rescue efforts.

Roncalli understood that, for Jewish observers, there was no more dismaying issue than the fate of child survivors. From the very earliest moments of liberation, the ghastly condition in which so many Jewish children were found posed an urgent challenge. In the United States, Myriam Kubowitzki, wife of the secretary general of the World Jewish Congress and an early campaigner on behalf of the children, described a horrendous spectacle. “On all the highways and roads of Europe there are Jewish children,” she told benefactors four weeks after Germany’s surrender, “covered with rags, hungry, and accustomed to beg for food.” Jewish relief workers linked the fate of these innocents to the question of Jewish survival. “We have become very poor in Jewish children and therefore the value of every Jewish child has grown manifold for us,” declared a World Jewish Congress position paper in 1945. Gerhart Riegner, the group’s representative in Geneva, estimated there were between two and three hundred thousand Jewish child survivors in Europe, of whom seventy-five thousand were ophans.

A special anxiety surrounded the prospect of Jewish children in the hands of the church. The fear that Jewish children would be taken by their Christian neighbors was deeply rooted in Jewish folklore and flourished in the bloodstained postwar environment. In fact, the circumstances by which Jewish children had landed among Catholic families and institutions varied widely, involving various degrees of virtue and venality, of heroism and happenstance. Some children had been baptized during the war, but more often they had simply assumed Catholic identities-either with the help of their rescuers or, in some cases, without the latter even knowing. Few, if any, records were kept, and information was hard to come by. But in the desperate situation of spring and summer 1945, the idea of Jewish children in Catholic custody stoked the fearful imagination of a vulnerable and wounded people. How many Jewish children were in Catholic hands? In the confusion of postwar Europe it was impossible to answer. The World Jewish Congress was convinced that many thousands of Jewish children remained “hidden” in convents, in Christian families, and schools. “Many of these children have already been adopted by non-Jews,” wrote Gerhart Riegner, “and will thus definitively be lost for Jewry unless immediate action is taken.”

With approximately 30,000 Jewish child survivors, France was one of the main centers of attention. In June 1945, the principal children’s relief organization in France, the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, reported that there were still 1,200 children in non-Jewish families or institutions in that country. But obstacles to restitution remained. The Sisters of Notre-Dame de Sion, who had rescued some 450 Jewish children in France, had 30 children in their custody as late as January 1946. The French Catholic Church took no official position on restitution, and as French researcher Katy Hazan reports, it constructed “a wall of silence against inquiries as to the real number of Jewish children living in Catholic institutions.” Assistance from the Vatican on this matter, while promised, had never materialized.

To my knowledge, historians seeking to shed light on the still obscure question of the Vatican’s role have until now neglected an invaluable source-namely, a series of high-level appeals made to the Vatican from 1945 to 1946 by representatives of the Jewish community. One representative was Leon Kubowitzki, secretary general of the New York-based World Jewish Congress, who had taken charge of rescue initiatives in 1944. An acquaintance of Jacques Maritain and other influential Catholic figures, Kubowitzki had some experience in trying to communicate with the Vatican, using high-level contacts both in Europe and the United States (see my article, “The Ambassador and the Pope,” Commonweal, October 22, 2004). Through the Italian Jewish leader Raffaele Cantoni, he made an effort to meet with Pius XII, seeking his support for a papal denunciation of anti-Semitism and a statement on the restitution of Jewish children in Catholic custody.

The meeting took place in Rome on September 21, 1946, and hitherto unpublished details related in Kubowitzki’s diary give the flavor of the encounter. At the papal interview, Kubowitzki was joined by Franklin C. Gowen, a U.S. State Department official who remained in the background-literally, sitting in a chair behind the Jewish leader throughout. After both men had kissed the pope’s ring, Kubowitzki reports that Pius XII, speaking in imperfect English, informed him that he was “very pleased that I had come, that he knew of the sufferings of my people and had followed their fate with great love.” (In a humorous aside, Kubowitzki observed that the pope looked just like his own uncle Morris, with “extraordinarily luminous eyes and a smile of great goodness on his face.”)

According to his diary entry, written later the same day, Kubowitzki recounted to Pius XII the “great losses” suffered by the Jews, and expressed gratitude for what the church had done to help “our persecuted people.” Taking up the example of Pius XI, he then asked about a papal statement denouncing anti-Semitism. “We will consider it,” the pope promised, “certainly, most favorably, with all our love.” Continuing, Kubowitzki raised the topic of those children remaining in Catholic hands, and asked that they “be returned to the Jewish community.” The pope was “visibly surprised,” and inquired, “But are there many?” He then asked for “a memorandum on this matter,” as well as “some statistics,” and indicated a willingness to study the question. “We will give it all our attention,” he promised his visitor. Kubowitzki agreed to send Pius a report on the children in Catholic custody-a report Kubowitzki seems never to have written.

A careful reading of Kubowitzki’s account of the papal audience shows that he (and also Gowen) seem to have been star-struck by the presence of the pope, but with perhaps a bit of skepticism on Kubowitzki’s part. Remarkable, to modern readers expecting disagreement, is the cordiality of the meeting and the Jewish representative’s ingratiating tone-a reflection of a different time and place. Of special note is Kubowitzki’s apparent concession, left out of his published 1967 account of the meeting, that in requesting that the children be returned he was “not speaking of those who have been baptized with the agreement of their parents.”

With the passage of time, Kubowitzki became convinced that despite the “many complaints” he had initially received about Jewish children being “kept in monasteries without anyone coming to their rescue,” the reality was less dramatic: that “except in a few isolated and rather complex cases, the complaints all referred to individuals who had become attached to a particular child placed with them and refused to hand it back.” Such findings left him wondering, in fact, if he had been “overzealous” in his statements to the pope. As for Pius’s intentions, Kubowitzki’s diary offers a tantalizing hint of ambivalence. It reports that Pius “smiled broadly as we shook hands when parting,” then follows with a phrase later marked off within brackets and carefully stricken out, yet still faintly legible: “[but when I looked again I had the impression that there was a note of triumph or irony in his smile, but I may be mistaken.]”

The second Jewish intervention was made by Gerhart Riegner, director of the World Jewish Congress’s Geneva office, and a tireless advocate of the cause of the Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Europe. Of German background, and trained as a lawyer, Riegner followed Vatican matters closely and had appealed to the Holy See during the war through the offices of Archbishop Filippo Bernardini, the papal nuncio in Berne. In Rome late in 1945, Riegner sought out the papal aide Giovanni Battista Montini, one of Pius’s closest associates and the future Pope Paul VI, for an interview on Jewish-refugee matters. It was, he later wrote, “one of the most dramatic and unhappy meetings I have had in my life.” Alluding to estimates of up to a million and a half Jewish children lost in the Holocaust, Riegner appealed to Montini for help finding survivors-and found himself in a painful discussion about numbers. Montini simply could not believe Riegner’s estimation of Jewish losses, even when Riegner went through the totals country by country. “It isn’t possible,” Montini insisted; “they probably emigrated.” Eventually, after twenty minutes of apparently heated argument, Riegner broke through, and reported later that Montini “seemed much moved.” Yet an offer of help was not forthcoming, and while Riegner left the meeting convinced of Montini’s good faith, he remained troubled. “The reaction means that during the whole of the war, neither he nor the upper reaches of the Catholic Church understood what had happened. Even after the war, ignorance of the scope of the tragedy persisted. That’s the plain truth of the matter.”

The third appeal on behalf of the Jewish children came in March 1946 from Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog. Heavily bearded and garbed in the dress of traditionally Orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe, the Polish-born Herzog was an imposing personality, the descendant of famous rabbis and scholars, renowned for his brilliant erudition. He had come to Palestine in 1936, following a remarkable career: education at the Sorbonne and the University of London, appointment as Rabbi of Belfast, later Dublin, and finally Chief Rabbi of Ireland. Throughout the war Herzog appealed ceaselessly for assistance to Jews, working in particular with Roncalli in Istanbul on behalf of the Jews of Transnistria, using Roncalli’s good offices to relay messages to the Vatican. Immediately after the war, with his son Yaacov as aide and secretary, Herzog traveled across Europe, urging assistance to Jewish survivors and the rescue of Jewish children.

Herzog saw Pius at the Vatican on March 10, 1946. The meeting was private and continued for close to an hour, apparently in three languages: English, French, and Latin. According to Herzog’s version, the conversation began with a moment of high-level Jewish-Catholic textual analysis, based on Pius’s citation (“I will give you a new heart”) from Ezekiel in a public address a few days before. Herzog told the pope that the offering of “a new heart” involved the use of the Hebrew letter lamed to signify that a new heart was not simply handed over, but was given “in the way that one gives a present to a friend...out of participation and willingness from the receiver’s end.”

Having presumably taken the measure of each other, the two got down to business. In the account written by the Herzog’s supporters, the rabbi outlined the catastrophic impact of the Holocaust, and called on the pope “to repent for the sins of Christianity toward the people of Israel throughout the generations by getting to the heart [le-ovi ha-kurah] of the Jewish problem.” Referring to Jewish orphans still in Catholic hands, Herzog expressed heartfelt thanks for their rescue on behalf of the “nation of Israel,” noting at the same time that Jews could not reconcile themselves to the young ones remaining “cut off completely from their origins.”

Herzog sought the pope’s help for their recovery, and in particular a papal appeal to all priests to reveal the whereabouts of Jewish children in Catholic custody. According to the Jewish account, Pacelli “was moved upon hearing the enormity of the Jewish people’s disaster,” and expressed both his astonishment at the persistence of anti-Semitism and “his deep-felt participation in the sorrows of our people.” Regarding the children, the pope requested from Herzog a “detailed memorandum” on the subject, on which “he promised to deliberate with the gravity appropriate to such matters.” Herzog seems to have felt that the pope was being overly careful. “I asked him to issue a decree but he hesitated to give this to me,” he noted a few months later. “They say he is a diplomat. In this regard, it was once said of a certain rabbi that he was clever and I said: ‘a rabbi should not be clever, he should be wise.’”

Two days after the meeting, accompanied this time by the recently named chief rabbi of Rome, David Prato, Herzog returned to the Vatican to deliver the promised memorandum, in the form of a letter to the pope. “In accordance with the wish expressed by you at the conclusion of the audience which you graciously granted to me,” Herzog began, the letter set forth “my petition on behalf of the entire people of Israel.” After noting that “the Jewish people will remember eternally with profound gratitude the help rendered to so many of its suffering brethren during the Nazi persecution by the Holy See,” Herzog went on to appeal yet again for the pope’s immediate help in seeing that “these children be all restored to our people,” that they be “returned to the rock from which they were hewn.”

According to a 1947 Jewish account, on this second visit Herzog was again told that the Vatican would consider the request for a general papal appeal. The pope had promised Herzog that if the rabbi learned of Jewish children in Catholic institutions and had difficulty in removing them, he could request the Vatican’s intervention, and this would follow. “However, a condition was given,” said the report, “that the rabbi himself would investigate the incidents.” And so immediately following this visit with the pope, Herzog set out on his tour of the shattered Jewish communities, occasionally invoking the pope’s supportive statements in his efforts to persuade Catholic authorities to assist him in recovering Jewish children. According to Yaacov Herzog, the rabbi’s son and aide, thanks to their efforts and to help obtained from many quarters, including heads of government and senior cabinet ministers, the mission resulted in the rescue of a thousand children.

This is where our account returns to the document revealed by Alberto Melloni in December 2004, and to the controversy that continues today. Rabbi Herzog’s first stop was Paris, where he met with his old friend Roncalli, now the papal nuncio. “I told him everything and he promised to help,” the rabbi reported. But even Roncalli had to act cautiously, according to Herzog. “He is afraid to go out in the open currently with this matter but will make a diplomatic action through which he promised me that he would convene [the French episcopacy] and demand that they each act on the matter [of returning Jewish children] in their own regions.” Apparently, Roncalli then collected views on the matter from his episcopal colleagues, and in late August asked the Vatican’s Secretariat of State how to respond. Tardini’s reply to Roncalli in September 1946, the basis for the originally published draft memorandum for French bishops, contained those instructions, following a consultation with the Holy Office for a theological reading of what to do in particular about baptized Jewish children. Tardini began, it will be recalled, with the admonition, “The Eminent Fathers decided that if possible there should be no response to the Grand Rabbi of Palestine.”

It is only one of the ironies of this history that the laudatory passage about Pius written by Rabbi Herzog in March 1946 (“the Jewish people will remember eternally with profound gratitude the help rendered to so many of its suffering brethren...”) has been quoted again and again by the pope’s defenders to advance the cause of Pius XII as a rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust. As we have seen from Jewish accounts of this meeting, though, that sentence’s effusive expression of gratitude to the Holy See, and to Pius personally, is more aptly seen as formulaic praise prefacing Rabbi Herzog’s urgent petition for assistance from the Vatican. And the pope’s cordial but noncommittal response to Herzog must now be understood as evidence of Pius’s unwillingness to be fully forthcoming regarding the plight of the Jews, not of his exceptional efforts on their behalf.

In retrospect, the back-and-forth over Catholic custody of Jewish children appears complex, and does not lend itself to the caricatures of Pius put forward by either his critics or his defenders. For the Jews, the issue of the children was dominated by a desperate commitment to their gravely wounded people: “What destruction, what solitude, what desolation!” wrote Yaacov Herzog of his journey with his father in 1946. Operationally, though, the Jewish leaders involved in the cause were swamped, unable to ascertain just how many children were in Catholic hands, how many had been baptized, and what kind of obstacles had to be cleared for their restitution to the Jewish people. In the aftermath of an unimaginable catastrophe, it was all they could do to sound a cry of alarm about a recurring Jewish nightmare-that the Christians would take their children away.

For the Vatican, the appeals of the Jewish petitioners awakened some sympathy-belatedly, to be sure, in the case of Montini, who despite all that he had seen and heard in the preceding years, seems to have needed the forceful confrontation with Riegner to understand that there had even been a Holocaust. Jewish observers seem to have felt a real measure of good will at the highest level of the church. Yet as disclosed in Tardini’s memorandum, the Vatican had reservations about the custody claims of Jewish institutions, and notwithstanding desperate appeals from Jewish organizations, it held fast to a cautious, even grudging policy: each case should be examined on its own merits, and in the end the children could not be given to institutions “who have no right to them.” And of course, nothing was to be put in writing. No concessions were to be made on paper to a wounded people.

A full solution to the problem of Jewish children in Catholic hands was hampered by limitations that with hindsight are clear to be seen. None of the personalities involved was fully in command of the facts; nor was either side fully capable of reaching across a religious and cultural divide that had existed for centuries. As during the Holocaust itself, church officials were extremely reluctant to direct local Catholic institutions on matters having to do with Jews, and a broad appeal to local churches to assist Jewish aid workers looking for Jewish children was apparently out of the question. Such policy shortcomings point to an underlying limitation of sympathy. No church leader discussed here, not even Roncalli, was willing to step outside his traditionally prescribed sphere of authority to remind the faithful what had happened to the Jews and to assuage the continuing effects of that tragedy. Catholic authorities, knowing that many clerics and laypeople were unsympathetic to the Jewish case, were reluctant to challenge Catholics on their relationship with Jewish religious authority or the “Jewish people” on whose behalf Kubowitz, Riegner, Herzog, and other petitioners claimed to speak. As we have seen, the result was that all these petitioners, though treated courteously, left feeling that their appeals had not been fully or enthusiastically answered.

Happily, neither Tardini’s unhelpful words from Rome nor the tepid response of Pius himself tells the end of the story. During 1945 and 1946, Jewish children in Catholic hands were turned over freely to Jewish institutions, and the issue of their restitution died down after a few years, leading Nazi-hunter and historian Serge Klarsfeld to comment that the entire issue has been something of a “tempest in a teapot.” Today it seems certain that there was no campaign, at the very highest levels of the Catholic Church, to kidnap Jewish children in 1945-46. But there was precious little appreciation of what had happened to the Jewish people in the Holocaust, or of how that unimaginable event demanded a change in the church’s attitude toward the Jews. Not yet, at any rate. My own sense is that the encounter of Catholics and Jews over the custody question ultimately helped define a relationship in transition, moving from the strained apprehension of the Second World War toward the vast improvements that followed the Second Vatican Council. Though fraught with misunderstanding at the time, the contretemps over Jewish children nudged the church toward the historic moment when-two decades after the tragedy-it would publicly dedicate itself to coming to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust.

Published in the 2006-01-13 issue: 

Michael R. Marrus is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author of The Holocaust in History and, most recently, Some Measure of Justice: The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s.

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