The Church's Kidnapping Policy

A damning document shows the Catholic Church tried to keep some Jewish children it sheltered from returning to their families.

BY: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

This article was originally published in the January 31, 2005 edition of The New Republic. This article replaces an earlier version on Beliefnet, which Daniel Goldhagen wrote for the Forward, based on information available at the time. Reprinted with permission of the author.

The latest scandal to rock the Catholic Church, causing a storm in Italy and elsewhere, follows a familiar pattern: first the crime, then the cover-up. It concerns whether the Church kidnapped Jewish children after the Holocaust and has at its center, yet again, Pius XII, the pope that the Church appears determined to make into a saint despite his criminal role during the Holocaust and, we now learn, quite probably afterward. A Church document of October 23, 1946, recently disclosed in Corriere della Sera, contains papal orders for the French Church forbidding the return of entire classes of Jewish children entrusted to Church institutions during the Holocaust.

The authorship of the directive remains in question. It may have been written at the behest of Bishop Angelo Roncalli, Pope Pius XII's representative in France (and later Pope John XXIII) to record instructions he had received from Rome. But the document emerged from the French Catholic Church's archives, and its authenticity, after some hedging, has been acknowledged by Church officials. It forbids all Jewish children (whose parents had been slaughtered) from being returned to Jewish institutions--which would obviously be in the best position to reunite them with relatives. It also contains the following general papal principle and policy: "If the [Jewish] children have been entrusted [to the Church] by their parents, and if the parents now claim them back, they can be returned,

provided the children themselves have not been baptized

. It should be noted that this decision of the Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father" (emphasis added).

This document effectively lays out a Vatican policy of refusing to relinquish custody of various categories of Jewish children who were entrusted by their parents to Church institutions or individual Catholics for safekeeping during the Holocaust. By taking in Jewish children, these Catholics and Church bodies saved thousands of lives. But the document confirms the long-existing suspicions, grounded in postwar reports from Jewish organizations, that, however praiseworthy the Church and Catholics were for saving the lives of many Jewish children, the Church had a policy after the war of keeping Jewish children for itself. The Forward has printed the heartbreaking testimony of a man from Belgium who says the Church "took away my childhood": "With the complicity of Catholic and civil officials, my name was changed to Antoine Benoit and I went through a series of Catholic schools. At the same time, my uncle investigated about me and was told many lies, including that I had died." But his uncle persisted, finally succeeding in rescuing him after twelve years. Then there was the infamous case in France of Robert and Gerald Finaly. For eight years, the Church refused to relinquish them to their relatives (their parents were killed in Auschwitz). And, as The New York Times reported, a second French Church document has also been discovered: a letter from July 1946 to Roncalli from the grand rabbi of France and the head of the Jewish Central Consistory asking for help in retrieving 30 Jewish children. "Almost two years after the liberation of France, some Israelite children are still in non-Jewish institutions that refuse to give them back to Jewish charities." It is not known what happened to these children. Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, was similarly hidden from his parents (who survived the Holocaust and returned to Poland to claim him) by the Polish Catholic woman who had earlier saved him. Foxman now believes the woman was, through her priest, acting on the orders of the Vatican. He is convinced that "thousands" of Jews were kept by the Church after the war.

No one knows whether this is the case. But the chilling directive of Pope Pius XII points to what may have been a continental criminal conspiracy. Surely it necessitates an official and independent investigation so the truth comes to light. Surely this Church, which preaches repentance, must undertake a full program of repair toward its victims.

Now has the Church reacted? Officially, the Vatican and national Catholic churches are silent. But several unofficial defenders of the Church have weighed in: Their responses have been confused, contradictory, and uncertain. But certain patterns have emerged. They fail to express regret, much less remorse. Not a word of apology. No recognition that a Church policy of kidnapping baptized Jewish children wronged either the children or their parents--those who survived the Holocaust--and families. No repudiation of this cruel policy, no condemnation of Pius XII's imprimatur on it.

Instead they offer obfuscation and justification. The apologists try to exonerate the Church and Pius XII by saying that he and others did not understand the meaning of the Holocaust--a failure of empathy at most. The Canadian historian Michael Marrus, who has previously been indulgent of Pius XII and the Church, told the Associated Press, "What really rings true to me is the Church's failure to understand the Holocaust as a catastrophe that affected the Jewish people, as a people, and that certain consequences had to be drawn from this." Thomas Schmid, writing in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper that frequently supports the Church, wants us to believe that "the blindness of the monstrosity of the Holocaust" was so prevalent in the Church that it extended not just to Pius XII but also to Bishop Roncalli. This is diversionary nonsense dished out for the gullible. It is not that Pius XII did not understand but that he understood only too well, having overseen a Church that actively supported the general persecution of the Jews short of mass murder and that, in Slovakia, even spearheaded the Jews' deportation to their deaths.

The apologists say--without evidence--that the policy of refusing to return Jewish children to their relatives wasn't really carried out, or that what is contained in the French document is not so bad. "Certainly there was a discussion about these issues, and norms were established in the Vatican, that is true," asserted Father Peter Gumpel, the priest in charge of Pius XII's beatification process. "But they were far more explicit and far clearer and far more benign." The Church's defenders say this while misleading the public about the directive's real contents. They say, without evidence, that few Jewish children were baptized--as if diminishing the number of victims alters the criminal nature of the policy. Or they pretend that the only children at issue are ones freely baptized by Jewish parents (as if any baptisms performed by desperate parents to save their children from extermination were freely chosen), which Foxman, in any case, proves is untrue. Or--relying selectively on an ambiguous and inconclusive Vatican document of September 28, 1946 (released only because of the brewing scandal)--they claim, as William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, has, that the Vatican policy was "the very opposite" of what the French directive ordered and what the Church was clearly doing in at least some cases.

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