Of the thousands of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied lands who found shelter in Catholic institutions during the Holocaust, many were baptized by the priests or nuns who saved them and who risked their lives in doing so.
But these good deeds often turned sinister, even criminal, when church officials balked at giving the children back to their families after the war. Survivors’ efforts to retrieve their children were often met with resistance and hostility. Jewish children were secretly moved from one address to another to thwart discovery by their family.
The story of Robert and Gerald Finaly, two brothers at the heart of one of the most famous struggles to reclaim Jewish children from the church, illuminated for the world this widespread travesty.
Born in the Nazi-Vichy zone of France, the toddlers were entrusted in 1943 to a Christian neighbor by their parents, shortly before the Finalys were rounded up with other Jews and deported to Auschwitz, never to return. The neighbor, in turn, brought them to a Catholic orphanage for safekeeping.
At the war’s end, instead of honoring the doomed parents’ wishes and turning the boys over to their relatives, church officials claimed that since they had been baptized, they must be raised in the Christian faith.
In medieval Europe until well into the 19th Century, the church was powerful enough to carry out abductions of Jewish children with impunity. Church officials tore children from their parents’ homes and converted them to Christianity without a pang of conscience, insisting the children had been baptized and therefore “belonged to the church.”
The notorious case of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year old Jewish child from Bologna, Italy abducted in 1858 by church authorities, adopted by Pope Pius IX and eventually ordained as a priest, is an example of some of the worst excesses of church corruption.
But in 20th century France where the laws of the state prevailed, a crime of this sort was called by its rightful name—kidnapping—and was harshly punished.
The Catholic church did not surrender easily to the civil freedoms and values of the new age. For six years, church officials dodged and circumvented the law, shunting the Finaly brothers from one hiding place to another as Moshe Keller, representing the children’s Israeli relatives, waged a relentless custody battle in the French courts.
Keller’s parents and siblings had been murdered by the French Vichy government; he and his wife had survived by a miracle. Although he hadn’t known the Finaly family, he felt a personal connection to the case.
He saw in the church’s refusal to loosen their grip on little Robert and Gerald Finaly an extension of the same evil forces in Catholic France that had supported the Vichy regime, wiping out members of his family along with tens of thousands of Jews.
Bringing the brothers back to the Jewish people meant tearing down an edifice of lies constructed by headmistress Brun, working hand-in-hand with church officials.
Brun had civil authorities convinced of a string of deceptions. She claimed the boys had formed a deep attachment to her as a surrogate mother, and severing that bond would produce psychological harm. Buying into this touching fiction, the media lauded her as a true heroine, turning her into a celebrity.
A turning point in the case came when the brothers, during a forced appearance in court , unexpectedly shattered many of Brun’s lies in a few brief exchanges with the judge.
“How much time do you boys spend with Mademoiselle Brun during the week?” the judge questioned Robert, who was about 10 at the time. The boy looked blank.
“Did you understand my question?” the judge asked. “How often are you and your brother together with Miss Brun?”
“Oh…about once a year,” he answered politely.
The judge peered at the boy as if he hadn’t heard straight.
“What did you say?”
“About once a year.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you see Mademoiselle Brun… the headmistress…sitting right here in court…. you see her about once a year?
“Yes, your honor.”
With the children’s testimony, other fantastic lies began to unravel.
The boys knew they had been circumcised. That great act of faith carried out by their parents who knew only too well the act could endanger them, ultimately discredited Brun’s claims that the couple had requested their sons be baptized.
Brun had further testified that no one had contacted her about the children until five years after the war, when “ungrateful” relatives of the boys from New Zealand had begun a custody battle in court. When receipts from multiple certified letters that the New Zealand aunts had sent Brun even before the war ended, inquiring about their nephews and trying to arrange for their transfer to New Zealand, were produced in court, Brun’s fate was sealed.
As the edifice of lies crumbled, the tide of public opinion in France began to shift, with leading political commentators excoriating the Catholic church for asserting its “higher authority” over the laws of the state.
An open letter in the nation’s leading paper, Le Monde, demanded, “What can be the meaning of this flagrant attack on our laws? Of these allusions to the rights of the Church over baptized children? Over “higher considerations” that violate the legal code?
“Is it not time for us to recall that the law is the sole authority in France, that no church has legal powers?” the article went on. “This has been the case for over a hundred and fifty years. One would think that there could no longer be any question about it. The Finaly case proves that the contrary is true, and this is why it is a serious affair.”
In 1953, France’s supreme court ordered the children to be turned over to their relatives. No further appeals were allowed. When this order was ignored and the brothers remained hidden, arrests were carried out, beginning with headmistress Brun and extending to the priests who had smuggled the boys over the French border into Switzerland and later, Spain.
The Vatican watched the case closely. It was only a matter of time before high-ranking church officials would also be arrested.
Facing prosecution for kidnapping, the Church hierarchy finally capitulated.
“An agreement was negotiated between my parents and church officials, whereby my parents [Yehudit and Moshe Rosner], would drop their kidnapping charges against the church, once the boys were transferred to their custody,” writes Miriam Lavah, an Israeli cousin of the Finaly brothers, in her memoir.
It took another few months and the intervention of Pope Pius until the agreement was implemented.
“On June 26th, 1953, the boys were handed over to the Spanish government and were brought to the French border,” writes Lavah. “Exactly one month later, on July 26th, under a veil of secrecy, an El Al airplane took off from Paris, carrying my parents and my cousins Robert and Gerald Finaly.
“The flight was free, courtesy of the airlines,” Lavah’s memoir continues. “The entire Israel celebrated with us when the boys came home. In Gedera, all the schoolchildren lined the streets and received them with bouquets of flowers. An endless stream of gifts poured in, including a ping-pong table, a two seat garden swing, bicycles, you name it.”
“The boys’ adjustment to Israel was not easy,” she recalls. Eleven and twelve years old at the time, they had been indoctrinated during the most formative years about the “evil” Jews. It took many years of family love, patience and warmth to break through the emotional barriers that had been erected around their souls.
Lavah describes their first Sukkos. “We all went to Ein HaNatziv… a religious French- speaking kibbutz north of Haifa. In the beit kenesset during the chag, Reuven (Robert) took out his camera, one of the many presents he’d been given in Israel, and began to film the service. One of the members told him that it was forbidden to use a camera on yom tov. His answer, part defiant, part mischievous, came quickly: “But I’m still a little bit Christian!”
Despite some difficult moments along the way, the boys slowly adapted.
“Since those early years, Reuven and Gadi have become an inseparable part of our family, the Jewish people and Israel,” wrote Lavah. “They grew up with us as brothers, got married and raised families, and now have children and grandchildren.”
Reuven today is a senior physician at Soroka Teaching Hospital in Beersheva; Gadi is a retired army reserve officer and a pensioner of Bezek telephone company.”
‘I Was Being Groomed for the Priesthood’
Fifty years after he arrived in Israel as a 12-year old, Reuven gave an interview about his years in the church, reprinted in History vs. Apologetics: The Holocaust, the Third Reich and the Catholic Church (David Cymet). An excerpt from that interview follows below.
Q: Mr. Finaly, do you actually remember the baptism ceremony you went through as a child?
A: Yes. I was six years old at the time. I remember being in the kindergarten orphanage of the Notre Dame de Sion under Miss Brun, the headmistress; we—my brother and I—and four other children. Obviously, we didn’t object to being baptized since we trusted the nuns and the Christian teachings.
Q: How did you reach the point where you learned of the efforts being taken to rescue you?
A: By 1948, we had been warned. We were never left long in one school. We were told frightening stories that the Jews wanted to take us to Eretz Yisroel and put us to work at hard labor, like paving the streets. “You’ll be put in an orphanage,” they told us. “You’ll have to crush heavy stones and pave roads!”
Q: Do you know if other Jewish children you were with returned to Judaism as you did?
A: From the children in our group, I believe we were the only ones who managed to return to Judaism. This was of course thanks to the intensive efforts of our relatives… It’s almost certain that if I would have remained there, I’d have been ordained as a young priest. I was already being groomed for that.
Childhood Survivors Connect After 30 Years
Although Reuven may have forgotten or may not have known at the time of the interview, he and Gadi were not the only Jews from the Grenoble orphanage to find their way back to their people.
In a rare twist of fate, Gadi met up many years later with another Jewish orphan from that dark era. A French UN officer had purchased a house in Grenoble which had previously been the city’s municipal nursery (run by Miss Brun during the war). In the cellar, he found an old wooden chest marked with the engraved monogram, “F.F.”
The chest contained photographs and documents of the Finaly family.
“It had been stolen from the Finaly’s apartment when it was clear the parents were never coming back,” writes Miriam Lavah.
The new owner of the house handed the chest over to his Jewish friend, Guy, who served in the IDF on the Lebanon-Israel border. One day, holding the case, Guy rang the doorbell of Gadi and Ilana Finaly’s home in Kiryat Hayim.
Gadi opened the door. He looked from Guy to the faded wooden case in his hands, and back to Guy. Long-ago memories stirred in both as they stared at each other in wonder. Wordlessly they embraced, too moved to speak.
Thirty years had passed since they had last been together… frightened Jewish orphans hiding from the Nazis in the Catholic kindergarten in Grenoble after their parents had disappeared. So much had happened, so much loss and sorrow… so many strange twists and turns of fate. They would spend many hours that day, sharing their incredible odysseys…
Sometime later, the photographs in the wooden chest Guy had returned would lead the Finalys to discover branches of their family who had survived the war and settled in Hungary. ”Until then,” wrote Miriam Lavah, “we knew nothing of them. We didn’t even know some of them existed.”
The Smoking Gun
The Finaly case is emblematic of the many hurdles and obstacles thrown in the path of survivors and relatives seeking to retrieve Jewish children from Catholic institutions at the war’s end. It seemed obvious that the church preferred not to relinquish the children. But allegations that the church was in effect stealing Jewish children seemed far-fetched to many.
With the discovery that year, by Italian historian Alberto Melloni, of a post-war letter from the archives of the French Roman Catholic Church to Cardinal Angelo Roncalli in France, the shocking truth finally emerged.
The October 1946 letter, leaked to the NY Times, instructed Roncalli on how to deal with Jewish children hidden in Catholic churches.
Roncalli had demonstrated compassion for Jews during the war, aiding many in escaping by providing identity papers, baptism and immigration certificates, as well as visas, many of them forged. He also helped gain asylum for Jews in neutral countries, many times working with Rav Isaac Halevi Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Palestine under the British Mandate.
After the war, Roncalli sought to reunite Jewish children hidden in Catholic institutions during the Holocaust with their parents and relatives. The letter from the Vatican ordered him to cease all activities aimed at returning Jewish children to their roots.
“Those children who have been baptized cannot be entrusted to institutions that are unable to ensure a Christian education,” the letter exhorted, assuring its recipient that it had been approved by the “Holy Father (Pius XII).
“Now we have a smoking gun: this chilling document,” writes Daniel Goldhagen, author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and A Moral Reckoning. It reveals that the Pope’s policy was, in effect, to kidnap Jewish children, perhaps by the thousands. It exhibits Pius XII’s callousness in implementing a plan that would victimize the Jews a second time by depriving survivors of the Nazi hell of their own children.”
“The directive reveals a total lack of empathy for the survivors of Nazi extermination,” writes the NY Times. “It shows the very icy attitude of the Catholic Church.”
Stonewall The Rabbis
The “smoking gun” document is actually a summary of a previous Vatican communications, say researchers, that instructed church officials to stonewall requests from the Chief Rabbi of Palestine for help in locating Jewish survivor children and restoring them to Jewish hands.
“The Eminent Father decided that…there should be no response to the Chief Rabbi of Palestine,” the document declared.
The pope himself set an example of how to treat Jewish pleas for help.
Rav Herzog had penned a letter beseeching the pope’s assistance in retrieving Jewish children from the church. The letter was requested by Pope Pius himself, following his meeting with the rov at the Vatican in a March 1946 meeting.
“Need I stress how important these children are for Judaism and the Jewish people?” the rov wrote. “We have lost in the holocaust some million and two hundred thousand children…To our tragically diminished people, every one of them is akin to a thousand. The parents of these children are dead, and it falls to me to plead for them before Your Holiness…”
The pope, following his own directive, ignored the memo.
Urgent requests to other church leaders by Jewish activists and rabbis were similarly stonewalled. In July 1945, the Conseil Superieur de L’enfance Juive, a federation of Jewish welfare organizations in France appealed to the French papal nuncio for help. They received no response.
According to journalist Andrea Tornielli, there were probably more secret baptisms in France than in any other country. The sisters of Notre-Dame de Sion, who had rescued some 450 Jewish children, maintained custody of thirty as late as January 1946.
“Almost two years after the liberation of France, some Jewish children are still in non-Jewish institutions that refuse to give them back to Jewish organizations,” declared another letter to the French papal nuncio in 1946, signed by then Chief Rabbi of France Yaakov Kaplan together with other prominent Jews. It added, “We are in advance, grateful for your help.”
Rabbi Kaplan’s letter, too, evoked no response.
“The Catholic church in France built a wall of silence against inquiries about the true number of Jewish children living in Catholic institutions,” confirms French researcher Katy Hazan.
Never Too Late
“The church is an institution that faithfully preserves one thing above all else: baptisms,” historian Goldhagen noted, after the secret Vatican document prohibiting the return of Jewish children to their parents came to light.
“There might still be thousands of Jews who survived but do not really know who they are because they were never told their origins and their birthright. They have the right to be told.”
He called on the Vatican “to establish an independent commission of experts, led by a person of international stature,” to determine the identities of Jewish children whom the church did not return and the role that Pius XII, cardinals and bishops played.”
Not everyone with an unknown Jewish identity would welcome its discovery. Such a revelation might complicate many things in one’s life. Nevertheless, with the expected re-opening of the Vatican’s Holocaust archive in the near future, some of the “lost children of the Holocaust” might ultimately come home.
‘Rescue Children, Inc.’
Despite the immense obstacles, Rabbi Herzog felt driven by the need to redeem Jewish orphans and bring them back to their heritage. Vast sums of money were needed to accomplish this which he did not have at his disposal.
From Israel, he began a tireless letter writing campaign, reaching out to rabbis, Jewish organizations and Jewish officials around the world, but mainly in Britain where he had extensive contacts, and in the United States.
His letters pleaded for support for the redemption of these Jewish child survivors. His son, Yaacov, handled this extensive correspondence and accompanied his father on many of his travels. The two left for France in May, 1946 where they first met with Holocaust survivors, including from their own family.
The rov then met various Jewish community leaders and rabbis such as Rabbi Chizkiahu Mishkowski, an askon deeply involved in removing Jewish children from non–Jewish homes. Mishkowski introduced Rav Herzog to leaders of the European-wide OSE [Oeuvre de Secour aux Enfants Association] as well as groups operating under Agudath Israel of America and supported by Vaad Hatzala.
He also reached out to Chabad Lubavitch and to the Beis Din of London under the leadership of Dayan Grunfeld. Both organizations were heavily involved in redeeming Jewish children.
Rav Herzog personally met with Pere Chayet, head of the French government agency for war victims, who claimed that between 700 – 2,000 Jewish war orphans then resided in France. Chayet promised the rov that he would provide him with a complete list of the Jewish children.
The rov offered Chayet a sizable sum of money for expenses, and promised additional funds would be made available when needed.
Soliciting Heads of State
Accompanied by the Chief Rabbi of France, Rav Herzog was introduced to Felix Gouin, then chairman of the French Provisional Government. He implored Gouin to grant 5,000 French transit entry visas for Polish and other Jewish orphans.
Gouin managed to convince the French government to grant the request. These visas became vitally important later, as they were used to prove to non-Jewish foster parents reluctant to give up Jewish orphans that official arrangements had already been made for the children.
The rov was also granted an audience with the Prince Regent Charles of Belgium, while Rabbi Mishkowski was pleading the cause of Jewish orphans with church officials and lower-ranking members of the government. Their combined efforts bore fruit and they obtained Belgian entry visas for 250 Jewish children then in Poland.
Armed with both the French and Belgian visas, Rav Herzog and his group felt they were better equipped to pry open the door of Catholic institutions and foster homes to redeem Jewish children.
Later, at a conference with askonim and leaders in Paris, attended also by Mrs. Recha Sternbuch the Vaad Hatzalah representative in Switzerland, an organization was formed called “Rescue Children, Inc.”
Through unrelenting pressure and persistence, this group would ultimately rescue over two thousand Jewish orphans from the Holocaust and place them in homes throughout Europe, as reported in JDC Archives and Yeshiva University Files.