NEW YORK (ChurchMilitant.com) - A noted researcher is disputing assertions made by historian David I. Kertzer in Atlantic Monthly magazine that Pope Pius XII and Vatican officials conspired to prevent Jewish children from being reunited with their families in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
In an extensive interview with Church Militant, historian William Doino Jr. — a principal contributor to the scholarly The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII and frequent contributor to several online publications — disputed Kertzer's claims, saying that the Brown University scholar failed to put the documents he cites into context, while also neglecting to mention important facts revealed by Vatican documentation and Jewish sources.
Leftists and others have long asserted that the Catholic Church and Pius XII were indifferent or complicit with Nazi genocide. While in the years after World War II Pius XII was celebrated by Jewish religious figures and even Israeli premier Golda Meir for saving Jews, the Soviets and global Left sought to smear him.
For example, the German Marxist Rolf Hochhuth released in the 1963 his play The Deputy, which sought to portray Pius XII as Hitler's collaborator in the Holocaust. In Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism, former Romanian spymaster Ion Mihai Pacepa revealed the Soviet Union's continued efforts to smear the pope and the Catholic Church because of their opposition to communism.
Kertzer is the author of several books about the history of popes and Jewish/Catholic relations, including The Popes Against the Jews. In his Aug. 27 piece in The Atlantic, Kertzer wrote: "What was not known at the time — and what, in fact, could not be known until the opening, earlier this year, of the Vatican archives covering the papacy of Pius XII — is the central role that the Vatican and the pope himself played in the kidnapping drama."
He was referring to the story of Robert and Gerald Finaly, who had been born to Austrian Jewish parents, Fritz and Anni, in France during the war but were left in the care of a Catholic woman, Antoinette Brun, in 1944. Just days later, the couple joined the millions murdered by National Socialist Germany. Robert was 3 years old at the time while Gerald was 2.
According to Kertzer, "The Vatican helped direct efforts by local Church authorities to resist French court rulings and to keep the boys hidden, while at the same time carefully concealing the role that Rome was playing behind the scenes."
Kertzer also wrote that documents in the Vatican Library underscore long-disputed claims that Pius XII had decided "not to speak out in protest after the Germans rounded up and deported Rome's Jews in 1943," claiming that memoranda he found was "steeped in anti-Semitic language."
"The silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust has long engendered bitter debates about the Roman Catholic Church and Jews," he wrote.
Kertzer also sought to implicate French cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier.
In the Church Militant interview, Doino praised Kertzer's previous scholarship, mentioning his book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The book recounts the controversy over the seizing of 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara by officials of the Papal States in 1857 because he had been supposedly baptized by a servant working for his Jewish parents.
Because the law of the Papal States barred Jews from raising Christian children, the boy was taken to live in a monastery. Opprobrium was heaped on the pope of the time and the Vatican. In his Atlantic piece, Kertzer claims the Finaly case was not unlike Mortara's. Mortara himself would go on to become a priest who sought to convert his people to the Catholic faith.
Doino said that Kertzer's Atlantic article "misrepresents and also cites material out of context from just a small part of the Vatican archives [thousands of pages of which were released in March for just four days], and it presents a lop-sided view of the pope."
Doino was also critical of various media outlets, such as The New York Times, which repeat Kertzer's charges without quoting contrary views offered by other scholars. In a previous interview with Church Militant, Doino said that Jewish historians, unlike disaffected Catholics, know their history better and are more just in their assessments of Pius XII and his legacy.
Doino also pointed out how unusual it is for the Vatican's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, to issue a rebuttal of an article like Kertzer's.
On Sept. 3, the newspaper published an article by Professor Matteo Luigi Napolitano of Italy's Molise University, who wrote that the situation of Jewish orphans in Europe was more complex than what Kertzer represented, especially if Jewish sources are closely examined. The archives of the pontificate of Pius XII were opened to scholars earlier this year for just four days in February before being closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, Napolitano also pointed out, thus giving researchers scant time to examine essential materials.
In Kertzer's account, the surviving Finaly relatives found out in early 1945 that the two boys were alive and soon asked guardian Brun to release them to their custody. In 1948, they were baptized, thus adding a religious element to the controversy.
When Brun refused to release them, a custody battle ensued that ultimately went to the French Supreme Court. At issue was the dead parents' wish that the boys should remain in France, and whether the boys wished to stay with Brun, who they seldom saw. When civil courts decided in favor of the Finaly relatives, a Catholic priest and a nun helped Brun to sequester the boys and take them to a religious institution near the Spanish border. Brun, the priest, and the nun were jailed because of their failure to cooperate with civil authorities.
Despite Kertzer's assertions that a document from Grenoble, France, seemed to approve of Antoinette Brun's refusal to give up the Finaly boys, Napolitano's article indicates that Jewish sources document that the archbishop of Lyons, the bishop of Grenoble, and Churchmen in Spain cooperated with civil authorities to find the boys.
One of the Jewish sources not cited by Kertzer appears in the monograph titled "The Vatican and the Custody of Jewish Child Survivors after the Holocaust" by Michael R. Marrus, which is stored on the website of Habricha, the organization that assisted Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to emigrate to Palestine. The organization was then under British control — before the establishment of modern Israel.
Marrus noted that Rabbi Herzog met with Pius XII in 1946 to discuss "the problem of orphaned Jewish children in former German-occupied countries, who have been moved for safekeeping to Catholic institutions." As a result of his intervention, Marrus noted, the Vatican "acted to facilitate the return of the youngsters to the jurisdiction of the Jewish communities in the respective countries."
In the interview with Church Militant, Doino referred to an article in the January-February 2005 issue of Inside the Vatican, which he co-authored with Professor Ronald Rychlak of the University of Mississippi. Based on firsthand accounts and primary documents, they disproved a claim that Pius XII refused to return baptized Jewish children to their surviving family members after World War II. For example, according to Doino and Rychlak, Pius XII told a Polish Catholic woman to return a baptized Jewish child to its father, telling her it "was her duty as a Catholic not only to give back the child, but to do it with good will and in friendship."
According to Doino, Pius XII also approved of an agreement between the chief rabbi of Paris and Cdl. Pierre-Marie Gerlier of Lyons that Jewish children would be returned to their relatives even while they would be allowed to choose which religion to practice. Napolitano also wrote that an Israeli diplomat of the time said that there was no conflict whatsoever between the Church and civil authorities over the return of the children.
Also, a July 23, 1945 article by the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) noted that "The Catholic clergy has no intention of holding onto the Jewish children [whom] its members helped to rescue during the German occupation," according to noted resistance leader and head of the resistance welfare organization, Fr. Chailley. JTA reported that the priest affirmed to a resistance audience, "anti-Semitism is incompatible with Christianity," and added that despite rumors, "There is no question of our sequestrating them as has been hinted recently." Representatives of the U.S. and British embassies attended.
Via email, Doino commented these reports prove "the clear and unequivocal position of the Holy See, established by Pius XII ... that every Jewish child rescued by Catholics during the Holocaust, baptized or not, was to be returned to their relatives and not cruelly and immorally kept apart from them ... ."
Moreover, Doino wrote, "[t]he small number of cases, such as the Finaly affair, involved renegade and disobedient Catholics" and that Fr. Chailley's "strong condemnation of anti-Semitism" disproves the notion that Catholics did not understand the "gravity and evil of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism" even though there were indeed Christians "guilty of those grave sins, as there still are today, sadly."
Doino wrote that "those speaking on behalf of the Church were fighting" anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, while "strongly defending the fundamental dignity and human rights of our Jewish brothers and sisters — including Pius XII." In the Church Militant interview, Doino characterized Antoinette Brun, the Finaly brothers' guardian, as a "renegade Catholic" who defied Church and government authorities. She reportedly said that she "didn't give a fig" for the pope.
Professors Rychlak and Limore Yagil of Sorbonne University are among other respected scholars who have labeled as false the assertions that Pius XII did nothing to preserve European Jews.
Joining them were renowned Jewish historian Sir Martin Gilbert — the most notable biographer of Winston Churchill — and Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide. Gilbert, an expert on the Holocaust and author of The Righteous: the Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust and Never Again: A History of the Holocaust, wrote that the test for Pius XII "was when the Gestapo came to Rome in 1943 to round up the Jews."
Defending the pope, Gilbert recalled in interviews with Doino, "And the Catholic Church, on his [the pope's] direct authority, immediately dispersed as many Jews as they could." Gilbert thanked Pius XII for, in his words, saving at least 5,000 Jews of Rome and inspiring papal diplomats [such as the future Pope John XXIII], bishops, clergy, religious and all Catholic faithful to preserve "hundreds of thousands of Jews."
A Jewish historian, Michael Tagliacozzo, recounted in a Zenit news agency article in 2000 that not only was he one of the Jews saved because of the pope's orders to Catholic institutions to rescue endangered members of his community, he praised the pope and condemned the "nonsense" written about him.
In addition, Rabbi David G. Dalin, the author of The Myth of Hitler's Pope, argued that Pius XII should be declared a "righteous gentile" — an honor bestowed by Israel's Yad Vashem memorial of the Holocaust. Currently, the pope is being considered for sainthood by the Vatican.