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Postwar Catholics, Jewish Children, and a Rush to Judgment
Pope Pius XII never told Catholic groups to keep 'hidden' Jewish children from their families after World War II.
Ronald J. Rychlak
When it comes to criticizing Pope Pius XII (or, frankly, almost any aspect of the Catholic Church), some people can barely contain themselves. So it was with the newest “discovery” that appeared to cast a bad light on the Catholic Church during the World War II era. The New York Times and many other publications reported the finding of a French document, purportedly authorized by the Vatican, saying that church authorities should not return "hidden" Jewish children to their families after the war if they had been baptized. Long before any serious study could take place, critics were in the press explaining how this document proved that Pius was indeed an evil man.
First, to set the stage: During World War II, many Jewish people sought refuge in the homes of Christians. Pope Pius XII threw open all of the buildings under his charge in Rome and set the example, encouraging Catholics to shelter Jews from the Nazis. All across occupied Europe, Jewish families hid in Catholic homes. Some Jewish children were placed with Catholic institutions. Many of their parents did not survive the war.
While the children had to “pass” as Catholics, outward appearances were usually sufficient to deceive the Nazis. Canon 750 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which was supplemented during World War II by orders from the Holy See and the French bishops, made clear that hidden Jewish children were not to be baptized without parental consent. In fact, classes were often established to let the Jewish children study their own religion—for example, in the basement of a convent where the children were staying. Nevertheless, some Catholics did indeed baptize the children—perhaps out of their own faith conviction, or as an effort to further deceive the Nazis. This complicated the post-war question about what to do with children whose parents had been killed by the Nazis. While the numbers vary widely, it could be estimated that around 10,000-20,000 were orphaned and were in the custody of Catholic institutions or families in France. A small percentage had been baptized.
Enter the new discovery: On December 28, 2004 an Italian professor from Bologna named Alberto Melloni published an article in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera entitled "Pius XII to Nuncio Roncalli: Do Not Return the Jewish Children." The article cited a document that Melloni claimed to have received from an unidentified archive in France. This document [read it], dated October 23, 1946, was said to be “a disposition of the Holy Office” (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s former name), and it purportedly contained Pope Pius XII’s directives to his representative in France—Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII—on how to handle the Jewish children, especially any who had been baptized by their Catholic rescuers.
According to Melloni, the letter said: “Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that cannot ensure their Christian education.” Also according to Melloni, the letter said that children whose families survived the Holocaust should be returned, “as long as they had not been baptized.” The clear implication was that baptized Jewish children should not be returned to their families. Melloni quoted the letter as saying: “It should be noted that this decision taken by the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father.”
But was this document authentic? The New York Times reported that the letter was made available to it “on the condition that the source would not be disclosed.” This, in and of itself, should have set off alarms on the heels of the recent CBS memo scandal. Moreover, the letter was not signed, not on Vatican letterhead, and Vatican officials immediately noted that the words used were not typical for directives from the Vatican. Importantly, the letter was in French, not in Italian as it would have been had this actually been an instruction from the Pope to his nuncio.
During and after the war, Archbishop Roncalli certainly never acted in a way that Melloni’s report said he was instructed to act. In fact, he has been repeatedly praised for all he did to assist Jewish refugees. When he was thanked for having saved so many Jewish lives during the war, he gave all credit to Pius XII (whom, according to his private papers, he “venerated and loved").
To its credit, The New York Times at least mentioned that Melloni’s report had been questioned. Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, a Vatican historian who recently completed an eight-volume study of Pius XII’s life, was quoted as saying: “There is something fishy here.” He understood at once that the document did not come from the Vatican.
Like any good historian, Fr. Gumpel undertook an investigation to discover exactly what was behind Melloni’s report. More on that in a moment. Let us first see how the would-be historians reacted.
Daniel Goldhagen, author of the sharply critical book "A Moral Reckoning," in the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera and in the Forward called for the establishment of an international commission to investigate the Catholic Church’s handling of Jewish children. He used the new memo to call Pius XII an “anti-Semitic pope” who was “one of the most rampant would-be-kidnappers of modern times.”
Regarding Melloni’s unsigned letter, Goldhagen argued that it “reveals that the pope’s and the church’s policy was, in effect, to kidnap Jewish children, perhaps by the thousands....Its plain purpose was to implement a plan that would cruelly victimize the Jews a second time by depriving these bodily and spiritually wounded survivors of the Nazi hell of their own children.” He concluded by telling the Church of today that it “should cease efforts to canonize Pius XII."
Other critics, like Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, similarly blame Pius XII for “kidnapping” Jewish children. Revelations from journalists and historians in France now reveal, however, that the critics of Pope Pius XII rushed to judgment.
Melloni’s article was based on a bad translation (perhaps an intentional fraud) of instructions that were sent from Msgr. Domenico Tardini, a top Vatican official, to leaders of the Church in France. Giving Melloni the benefit of the doubt, the document may have been fabricated by a Catholic who, in 1946, wanted to keep their Jewish child. Alternatively, Melloni may have fabricated it. We do know his version was not from the Vatican. The instructions dealt with Jewish children who had been entrusted to the Church for safekeeping and with inquiries about them from outside organizations.
Melloni did not identify the archive from which his document came, but Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli was able to track down the original Italian instructions [read English text] in the Centre National des Archives de l’Eglise de France.
The amazing thing is that the instructions are almost exactly the opposite of Melloni’s account, which was so enthusiastically embraced by the papal critics. Nowhere do they suggest that Jewish children should be kept from their families—precisely the opposite!
The instructions said that if institutions (not families) wanted to take those children who had been entrusted to the Church, each case had to be examined individually. Some such institutions may have been trying to take the children to Palestine, to help populate the new Jewish homeland.
Indeed, there was special concern about baptized children. In some cases, their parents had requested baptism, perhaps because they thought that would best protect the children. In those cases, the Church would breach its obligation to the parents if it turned the children over to the wrong organization. In other cases, when Catholic rescuers had baptized Jewish children without consent of the Jewish parents, the Church was still concerned about turning the children over to organizations that were not associated with the children’s family.
As for the rest of the children, the instructions provided: “also those children who were not baptized and who no longer have living relatives, having been entrusted to the Church, which has taken them under its care, as long as they are not able to decide for themselves, they cannot be abandoned by the Church or delivered to parties who have no right to them.” There were very few facilities fit for children in Palestine or war-torn Europe.
The document made clear that these instructions related solely to institutions, most likely Jewish humanitarian organizations wanting to relocate orphaned children to Jewish homes after the war: “Things would be different if the children were requested by their relatives.” This qualification changes the entire meaning of the instructions; these instructions did not relate to children being sought by their parents or other relatives. This is completely different from what the initial news reports led people to believe.
Archbishop Loris Capovilla, secretary to Nuncio Roncalli during and after the war, explained the need for close scrutiny of organizations: “It was then natural to screen the situations case by case, paying the highest attention to those who knocked on the door to reclaim the children: What should those [Catholic] families have done? Give the children raised together with their own to those who first presented themselves? The Church did nothing other than to counsel a rule of prudence, and to watch over the protection of the little ones.” Archbishop Capovilla said that he was not aware of any case in which a Jewish child was impeded from re-entering his or her natural family.
These Vatican instructions regarding the return of Jewish children were prompted by a meeting between the Pope and Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Palestine in March 1946. In a surviving letter sent at that time, the rabbi expressed his profound thanks for the “thousands of children who were hidden in Catholic institutions.” Herzog noted that Pius XII “has worked to banish anti-Semitism in many countries” and concluded with an invocation: “God willing, may history remember that when everything was dark for our people, His Holiness lit a light of hope for them.”
The Palestine Post (March 31, 1946) reported that Rabbi Herzog “told of his audience with the Pope, who had received him on a Sunday early in March. Their conversation...was mainly on the subject of the 8,000 Jewish children in Poland, France, Belgium and Holland who were [being] brought up in monasteries and by Christian families. He had the Vatican’s promise of help to bring those children back into the Jewish fold.”
The Pope must have come through on that promise, because Rabbi Herzog continued to praise his conduct toward the Jewish community throughout the Pope’s life. As Dr. Leon Kubowitzky, of the World Jewish Congress, said in 1964: “I can state now that I hardly know of a single case where Catholic institutions refused to return Jewish children.”
There are very few cases (seven, based on my latest information) where a petition from a Catholic parent who did not want to return Jewish children to their natural parents made its way to the Pope. Each time, Pius instructed that the children should be returned to their families.
Consider the case of the Polish Catholic woman Leokadia Jaromirska, who was later honored as a Righteous Gentile. She sought the Pope’s permission to keep the little girl whom she was raising as a Catholic even though the Jewish father had returned. In his book "Avenue of the Righteous" (1980), author Peter Hellman reports that Jaromirska “was instructed by the Pope to return the child to its father.” The Pope explained that it “was her duty as a Catholic not only to give back the child, but do it with good will and in friendship.”
The European press has now fully exposed the falsehood of Melloni’s account. In a front-page story entitled "The real document of Pius XII and the Jewish children," the Italian newspaper Il Giornale compared the text of the original document to Melloni's claims and vindicated Pope Pius XII. A different article in that same issue, entitled "The Hasty Scoop of Professor Melloni," chastised Melloni for publishing an incomplete document. The paper Il Foglio explained: “Now it is no longer a case of Pius XII. It is no longer a case of Roncalli. It is now a case of Melloni.” Jewish historian Michael Tagliacozzo, a leading authority on (and survivor of) the 1943 Nazi roundup of Roman Jews, wrote in the Italian newspaper Avvenire: “Pius XII kidnapper of children? But let us be done with such foolishness!” Tagliacozzo confirmed that Jewish children were “returned to their parents as soon as possible.”
Had the American critics actually investigated this story (or even if they had waited just a few weeks while others did), they would not have embarrassed themselves. The critics’ rush to judgment probably got them headlines that are denied to true scholars. By drawing hasty conclusions, they have once again smeared a good man—Pope Pius XII—and the Catholic Church.
Ronald J. Rychlak is a Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi, author of Hitler, the War and the Pope (2000), and a contributor to The Pius War (2004).