Home > Archives > 01/02 - 2005 > Pius XII, Roncalli and the Jewish children. The facts and the prejudices
from issue no. 01/02 - 2005

Pius XII, Roncalli and the Jewish children. The facts and the prejudices

In the debate opened by Corriere della Sera on the question of the Jewish children taken in by Catholic institutions and families and asked back by Jewish organizations at the end of the war, there have been attacks against Pope Pacelli and his successor John XXIII. But unpublished documents have also emerged that enable an objective reconstruction of the “case”.

by Gianni Valente

Pius XII

Pius XII

The historical/media controversy which has blown up on the issue of the Vatican directives about how to respond to the Jewish organizations and religious authorities which, after the war, demanded the return of Jewish children entrusted to Catholic institutions during the Nazi persecution, is a strange case from various viewpoints. And yet anyone coolly reviewing the whole corpus of articles and declarations on the case can track one by one bits of documentation that help towards an at least partial reconstruction of the unfolding of a complex historical event. Pieces of a mosaic not yet complete, hidden by the smoke screen of enigmatic editorial attitudes, squabbling between academic/cultural factions, preconceived resentment towards the two figures of Pius XII and John XXIII. Scattered elements that it is worth tracing and putting together, if one wants to essay an objective judgment on the whole business.

The article in Corriere della Sera
On 28 December, in a frontpage article with a misleading title and subheading (Pius XII ordered: do not give back the Jewish children: The future Pope Roncalli disobeyed) Alberto Melloni, professor of contemporary history at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, leaked in Corriere della Sera an unpublished document, dated 23 October 1946, taken from the apparatus criticus of the second tome of the book Anni di Francia. Agende del nunzio Roncalli 1945-1948 [The French years. Diaries of Nuncio Roncalli 1945-1948], to be published at the end of 2005, edited by the French historian Etienne Fouillox on behalf of the Institute of Religious Sciences in Bologna. According to Melloni, the document reveals that in 1946 «directives drawn up by the Holy Office and approved by Pius XII» were sent to Angelo Roncalli, then nuncio in Paris, regarding the cases of Jewish children saved in Catholic homes and institutions, whose return and reuniting with their religious community of origin was being sought with insistence in those years by personages and organizations of the Jewish world. The document, translated into Italian from the original French, was published in a box, with the comment that the unpublished version was taken from the National Center of the Archives of the Church of France. In the article, the instructions contained in the document and presented as «horrendous orders» given to Nuncio Roncalli are summarized as follows: «You must not give written replies to the Jewish authorities and must specify that the Church will evaluate case by case; the baptized children can only be given to institutions that will guarantee their Christian education; the children who “no longer have parents” should not be returned and the parents who turn out to have survived can have them back only if they were not baptized».
In the debate sparked off by the article, while the polemics flared up in every direction (attacks on the figures of Pius XII and John XXIII, historical dissertations on cases of enforced baptisms, petty personal vendettas between scholars and journalists), other interesting unpublished documents came to light. These progressive inputs allowed the text published in Il Corriere to be seen as a concluding segment in a much longer and more organic documentary sequence. This in turn has to do only with the French part of a more general event that involves the complex of relations between the Holy See, the Catholic Church and the Jewish world in the years following the Shoah and close in time to the founding of the State of Israel. At a time when Jewish figures, institutions and agencies were involved all over Europe in searching for Jewish children, especially orphans, who had survived extermination, with the intention of transferring them to the land of Israel. A story that can be put back together by aligning the published documents counter to the chronological order of their publication.

From the documents to the facts
Everything begins with the letter that the Chief Rabbi of Palestine Isaac Herzog sent to Pope Pius XII on 12 March 1946. In the letter, published in its entirety and commented on by Andrea Tornielli in Il Giornale on 19 January last, the Rabbi restated in written form the petition already submitted to the Pope during a previous audience. After expressing gratitude to Pope Pacelli, Herzog outlined his request about the Jewish children who had found refuge in Catholic institutions and families, and who had remained orphans because of the Shoah: «I have come to Rome», Herzog writes among other things, «to ask Your support so that all these children be returned to their people». The Rabbi notes that «in all the countries involved appropriate Jewish organizations are already available, that have the means to take charge of the children». He cites the case of Poland in particular, where «it is believed that at least three thousand children are still in Catholic institutions and in the private homes of Catholic families». The Holy Office was directed to deal with the question, and already by 27 March 1946 had drawn up an ad hoc document, submitted for the approval of the Pope the following day. Matteo Luigi Napolitano, professor of the History of Church-State relations at the University of Urbino and learned director of the www.vaticanfiles.net site referred to the document, though without providing the text of it, which lies still unpublished in the Vatican archives, in the meticulous reconstruction he published in Avvenire on 18 January. In the same piece Napolitano quotes amply from a dispatch from the nuncio in Paris, Roncalli, to the Secretariat of State at the end of August 1946, which is essential for grasping the shape and developments that the delicate question was taking in those same months in France. In the dispatch the nuncio reported that he too had received pleas from the Chief Rabbi of France, Isaiah Schwartz, that the Holy See favor the return of Jewish children lodged with Catholic families and institutions asked for by Jewish bodies. Roncalli also reported information gathered in this regard by Cardinal Suhard, archbishop of Paris, and included the letters received in relation to it from Emile-Maurice Guerry, coadjutor to the archbishop of Cambrai, and from Cardinal Pierre Gerlier, archbishop of Lyons and president of the French bishops. The opinions and requests formulated on the case by the French prelates were outlined, on the basis of unpublished documents held in the archives of the Secretariat of State, by the Jesuit Giovanni Sale in the valuable reconstruction of the whole business published in issue 3711 of Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit magazine whose proofs are corrected in the Vatican. All the French prelates showed themselves willing to fulfill the requests of the Jews, foreseeing the possibility of violent reaction otherwise. Gerlier noted that «the gratitude which was often attested to us for the help given to these poor little ones would just as likely be thrown back in resentment, which could foment deplorable polemics». He also told the nuncio that the French bishops had ordered that Jewish children who had been given refuge in the convents not be baptized. But in excess of zeal some nuns had disobeyed the orders, baptizing the little guests and thereby creating «a very difficult theological problem». It was precisely in relation to these controversial cases that the French bishops were seeking the view of the Vatican. Guerry, for his part, considered it opportune to follow «the general rule of returning the children of Jewish origin to the Jewish communities». And with regard to the Jewish children who had been baptized, despite the wise prohibitions of the hierarchy, he suggested asking the Pope that they should be «dispensed from ecclesiastical law». That is, from the canonical norms relating «to the conviction, deeply rooted in the Church, that spiritual realities are the most important, because pertaining to eternal life, and must therefore always be safeguarded and defended, so that a child who had received baptism must be assured of a Christian education. Something that can happen only if the persons who have care of it are Christians» (G. Sale). In this connection, Guerry called to mind the case of an Israeli girl converted to Catholicism, who was permitted by order of Pius XII to reunite herself with her family of origin, which was opposed to the conversion. Faced with the solicitations of the French bishops, «and without going into the merits of the question raised (even though he seemed to share the opinion of Guerry and Gerlier), Nuncio Roncalli in his turn asked for precise instructions from the Vatican» (Napolitano). His letter with the enclosures reached the Vatican on 5 September 1946.
Angelo Roncalli, apostolic nuncio to Paris

Angelo Roncalli, apostolic nuncio to Paris

The request coming from the nunciature in Paris and to the Secretariat of State, set going in the Vatican the usual procedures and requests for decision with the relative transfer of documents from one department to another. According to Napolitano’s mentioned reconstruction , in mid September of 1946 «a note with the norms of conduct for the case» was sent from the Holy Office to the Secretariat of State. It restated the contents of the pronouncement already worked out on 27 March in reply to the request made to the Pope by Rabbi Herzog. On the basis of this note a dispatch was prepared by the Secretariat of State, which the Vatican “Foreign Minister” Domenico Tardini sent to Paris, to Nuncio Roncalli, on 28 September 1946. This dispatch, written in Italian and reported in a note in the article in Civiltà Cattolica, is the document that actually left Rome. In it the instructions already prepared by the Holy Office on the question were «copied word for word» by Tardini so that the nuncio to Paris could make them known to the French bishops. The nunciature in Paris prepared a summary of this “Tardini dispatch” (published by Tornielli in Il Giornale 11 February last) in which the whole body of instructions that had come from the Holy See were reported word for word. Whereas in the final reckoning the typescript of twenty lines in French published by Melloni turns out to be a further, non-literal, reproduction of these Vatican directions, a note, it too prepared by the nunciature, for the use of the French bishops. The Vatican dispatch represents therefore the “matrix” of the note prepared in French in the nunciature. So much so that in the National Center of the Archives of the Church of France, indicated by Tornielli as the source of origin also for the abstract of the “Tardini dispatch” published by him, the two documents are kept in the same file, in position 7 CE of the archive of the secretariat of the French episcopacy, along with a third sheet with the draft of the abstract.
On both documents (the abstract of the dispatch sent from Rome and the further note edited by the nunciature) the same annotation written by hand in French appears: «Document communiqué le 30/4/47 a S. Em. Le C.al Gerlier». An indication that perhaps the two joined documents were materially consigned to the president of the French bishops, only several months after the arrival of the instructions from Rome.

An open point
A collation of the two texts (the abstract of the dispatch from the Secretariat of State and the note drawn up by the nunciature, reproduced in synoptic form in the two boxes on page 51) confirms that both are directions for the responses to be given to the requests from Jewish religious figures or institutions. That, and not the response to eventual requests from the families of the Jewish children, is the purpose proper to both. The note mentions in opening the «institutions juives» that were requesting the return of Jewish children cared for in Catholic families and institutions during the Nazi occupation. The abstract of the dispatch sent by the Vatican cites even the «request of the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem», to whom «the most eminent Fathers» of the Holy Office had replied already in the cited session of March 27. The general criteria themselves established on that occasion by the Holy Office are re-proposed both in the Vatican dispatch and in the note prepared by the nunciature, as instructions to which the French bishops should adhere in responding to the Jewish requests. The texts of the two documents reproduce in different words and formulas the same instructions. It is suggested that the requests of Jewish origin not be responded to in writing to avoid the responses being instrumentalized. In eventual responses it was necessary to maintain firmly that the Church intended to asesess the requests case by case; that children who were baptized could not be entrusted to «institutions that cannot guarantee their Christian education» and that also the non-baptized, who had been entrusted to the Church and no longer had relatives, could not be handed over to anyone – person or institution – who had no right to them.
Only in the parentheses about the attitude to take towards eventual requests coming from the families of the children is there a difference between the two documents that leaves the way open to various hypotheses. The note drafted by the nunciature, at point five, clarifies that children requested by relatives should be returned to them, «provided that they have not been baptized». The dispatch sent from the Vatican, reproduced in abstract by the nunciature itself, after excluding the return of children to institutions that do not have the right, closes the series of instructions with a generic formula («it would be another thing if the children were requested by relatives»), a formula that, even if it refers to the “difference” with which the requests coming from the families, as opposed to those coming from institutions, should be treated, nevertheless avoids entering into the merits of the case and doesn’t offer definite instructions in regard.
During the media arguments, specifically on the difference between the two documents, the note prepared by the nunciature was defined as a «considerably imperfect summary» (Napolitano) of the instructions coming from the Holy Office. In fact, the note from the nunciature states the possibility of returning only unbaptized children to families, with an indirect formulation that seems to exclude the possible return to relatives of baptized children. At the same time, not even the Tardini dispatch contains the clear instruction to return the children to relatives who ask for them, when baptized in the meantime. According to Father Sale, on this point the Vatican instructions and the note from the nunciature maintained an intentional margin of vagueness. A kind of studied reticence that, avoiding entering into clear contradiction with canonical norms and doctrines about the obligations that bind the Church with regard to the baptized, opened the way for concrete solutions that took into account the anomalous situation in which those baptisms were administered. An ambiguity through which it was in some way intended «to leave to the bishops a certain freedom of choice in such a controversial matter» (G. Sale). It remains a fact that it was precisely in the case of baptized Jewish children that the French bishops had asked for precise instructions. Details useful for clarifying this delicate point may perhaps come from the comparison with the pronouncement formulated on the question by the Holy Office already in March 1946, and not yet published.

Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, and Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyons, with General Petain (first on the left)

Cardinal Suhard, Archbishop of Paris, and Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyons, with General Petain (first on the left)

The facts and prejudices
As Cardinal Camillo Ruini has recognized, the choral publication of the archive documents has enabled «precise and adequate replies» to be given to the «old polemics, far removed from historical truth and uselessly factious» which have overlain the historiographic dispute from the beginning. The height of factiousness was soon reached with the article by the polemicist Daniel Goldhagen published in Corriere della Sera on 4 January, in which Pius XII was denigrated as an abductor of Jewish children and head «of a Church that spread a fierce anti-semitism right when the Jews were being exterminated». When it then emerged that the document initially published in Il Corriere was a note drawn up by the nunciature in Paris, through a grotesque par condicio of slander, more or less veiled accusations of anti-Semitism were directed at the person in charge, the future Good Pope. The headline of an article in Il Giornale on 5 January last curtly stated «The “horrendous” document was written by Roncalli»,. While on the same day in Corriere della Sera insinuations were made about the presumed sympathies for Hitler’s Germany nurtured by the then Vatican diplomat.
Despite the united efforts of the detractors, both individual figures of Pacelli and Roncalli emerge perhaps even more creditably, caught in the chiaroscuro of the concrete historical events brought to light by recent historical and media investigations. As in the episode in Rome involving a Jewish woman who in 1944 requested baptism for herself and her two children, in the convent of the Franciscan missionary sisters on the Balduina where they were being lodged. At the end of the war, the woman left the convent of the Franciscans leaving her two children there. She presented herself again at the gate of the institution in November 1947, accompanied by representatives of a Jewish organization, and asked to have her children back, saying that she had repented and wanted to take them back to their community of origin. Within forty-eight hours the case was submitted directly to Pius XII, who ordered the immediate return of the children to the mother. An episode fundamental for an understanding of the individual sensibility of Pope Pacelli who, when he became involved personally in such a delicate concrete case, though recognizing the canonical norms relating to the rights that the Church acquires over every believer in virtue of baptism validly administered, did not take refuge in a mechanical reference to the ecclesiastical norms, to which he also remained faithful, but resolves the situation by using the good sense that was in him a simple reflection of the sensus fidei. The same good sense, the same flexible realism in the face of the controversial circumstances of life to which usually, in those early post-war years, bishops, priests, nuns, individual faithful gave witness all over Europe, where the overwhelming majority of controversial cases was resolved without after effects.
Nuncio Roncalli, in this context, is not an exception. In those years the prelate from Begamo confronted the burning issues that came his way «with studied slowness» (Melloni). He took his time in the face of political pressures that demanded the purging of the French bishops accused of collaborationism with the Vichy regime. He tended not to heighten differences, to wait until the controversial questions were smoothed away by time, in so far as possible. He seems to have moved with the same defusing wisdom in the thorny problem of the Jewish children. He gathered information from the French bishops and showed that he shared their prudential inclination not to reject the Jewish requests. He passed on to them as a simple intermediary the instructions from the Vatican, without publicly showing any sign of impatience or critical detachment. Also in his still unpublished diaries, going from the advance extracts given in Il Giornale on 23 January by Andrea Tornielli, he mad no reference to the problem of the return of Jewish children kept in the convents. The only hint appears on 20 February 1953, when he went on his farewell visit to the French president Vincent Auriol, who spoke to him about the Finaly affaire. This was the most famous of all the disputed cases. The protagonists were the two children of a couple slaughtered in the camps, who were entrusted by their parents to the directress of a Catholic kindergarten in Grenoble. After the war, when the aunts and uncles asked for their return, the woman resisted, and had them flee after they were baptised to Franco’s Spain. Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo himself, secretary of the Holy Office, intervened in the affair with a letter of 23 January 1953, advising that the requests of the family be resisted in so far as «the Church has the indefeasible duty of defending the free choice of these children who belong to it by baptism». Finally, the matter was settled, thanks to the mediations of Cardinal Gerlier and the Chief Rabbi of Paris, Jacob Kaplan, with the transferal of the Finaly brothers to Israel. The president wanted to talk to the nuncio about this burning topical issue at their farewell meeting. But Roncalli changed the subject («He spoke to me about the Finaly affair, to which I showed I attached no importance …»). He knew that for one Finaly case that ended in a brawl, there were many more, the great majority, in France also, that had in the meantime somehow found a solution.
After the hurricane of the war, and in the face of the scalding and uncontrollable jumble of feelings, of pain, of wounded affections, of exasperated identity crises that marked the aftermath of the war, Pacelli and Roncalli, each with his own character and history, flexibility and limits, appear as like-minded witnesses and interpreters of an ecclesial modus agendi, of a sensibility – the same as that expressed in those very years in the Secretariat of State by Tardini and Montini – that undoubtedly deserve to be examined in freedom by the historians. Clearly already then, well before the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, they showed that they nursed no regret for the times of imposed conversion and for baptism administered by force.

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