The long-awaited opening of the secret Vatican Holocaust archive lasted just a week before the coronavirus pandemic shut it down again.
But that was long enough for researchers to uncover documents which proved that Pope Pius XII, accused of being a silent bystander during the Holocaust, had reliable information in 1941 that Jews were being systematically annihilated.
These disclosures overturned defenders’ claims that the pope’s silence was based on uncertainty about the facts until late in the war. They also cast doubt on the accuracy of the Vatican’s 11-volume work glorifying the papacy of Pius XII.
“Events in those volumes are often described out of context; the chronology is unreliable,” observed German historian Hubert Wolf in Religion News Service.
While these revelations made headlines in many quarters, in the Jewish community they sparked only passing interest. That is because pope’s silence during the Holocaust was never the great “mystery” of the age.
A far more burning issue is the subject of thousands of Jewish children who had found sanctuary with Catholic families or Catholic monasteries, convents and orphanages during the war. The newly-opened Vatican archive was expected to shed light upon this subject, of intense interest even seventy-five years later.
What became of these child survivors hidden in Catholic institutions? So many of them were never recovered. They spent lifetimes in complete ignorance of their Jewish roots. The pain over their loss has never abated.
Untold numbers of frantic Jewish parents, fleeing the Nazis in Poland, France, Belgium, Slovakia, Holland and elsewhere had placed their children in the care of non-Jewish neighbors, employees and Catholic shelters, in the hope that they would survive.
A great many of these hidden children were baptized and raised as Christians without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Some assumed Christian identities on their own to escape detection.
No one has exact numbers for this survivor population under the church’s auspices. What is known is that the Nazis and their collaborators murdered a million and a half Jewish children, and that between 100,000 and 200,000 survived the Holocaust.
By late 1945 and early 1946, heads of Jewish organizations believed that about 10,000 of those children were in Catholic institutions or with non-Jewish families.
With the opening of the Vatican archive last month, Jewish groups harbored hopes that the names, birthplaces and identifying information of thousands of child survivors would finally be disclosed.
From One Painful Odyssey to the Next
In many instances, the hidden children were the only surviving members of their families. In other cases, relatives not only existed but desperately searched for these youngsters hidden in non-Jewish homes or institutions. Finding them, instead of marking the joyous end of an odyssey, often launched survivors on a new one as rescuers refused to give up the children.
Sometimes the motive was emotional: they had grown attached to the children and couldn’t part with them. In other cases, greed dominated the discussion and the return of the children was conditional on extravagant payments.
Most intransigent of all were the religious arguments: the Catholic church insisted that once baptized, the child belonged to the church and had to be raised as a Christian.
The knowledge that several thousand child survivors were thankfully returned to the Jewish community has never erased the pain over the countless souls who were not.
The Finaly Affair: Bris Milah in the Danger Zone
Although the Vatican has again closed the Holocaust archive to the public, the forgotten chapter of the lost child survivors has been re-opened, igniting fresh interest in cases of relatives who fought intense, often drawn-out battles to recover Jewish children.
One of the most famous of these is the Finaly Affair, the extraordinary case of Robert and Gerald Finaly, born to Austrian-born parents Dr. Fritz and Anne Finaly after the couple fled to La Tronche, France.
Despite hiding their identities as Jews in very perilous times under the Nazi-Vichy regime, the Finalys gave both their sons a bris milah. This act of faith would one day sway the highest French court in the land, in a bitter custody battle between the boys’ Jewish relatives and the Catholic church that had them baptized.
In February 1944, the Nazis occupied the entire France and aided by French collaborators, began implementing the Final Solution. Dr. Finaly was arrested while walking on the street and his wife Anne a few hours later in their apartment. Both of them were sent on one of the last transports from France; the freight cars left on March 3, 1944, from the notorious Drancy interment camp and disgorged their passengers at Auschwitz.
If We Don’t Come Back…
A few days before their arrest, the couple had been warned by friends about impending raids but had no time to arrange a safe hiding place. Fearing the worst, Fritz and Anne had entrusted two and a half year-old Robert and 18-month old Gerald to one of their Christian neighbors.
Along with the children, the neighbor was given a leather suitcase containing Dr. Finaly’s medical equipment, jewelry, photographs, documents, and the addresses of his two sisters in New Zealand and a third sister in Israel.
An attached letter begged the neighbor, if the Finalys did not return at the end of the war, to transfer the children to their aunts, Mrs. Grete Fischel and Mrs. Luise Rothbaum in New Zealand, or to Mrs. Yehudit Rosner in Israel.
Finding the task of caring for the toddlers overwhelming, the Finalys’ Christian friend transferred them to a Catholic orphanage in Grenoble supervised by a middle-aged Catholic headmistress, Antoinette Brun.
In February 1945, upon learning of the death of Dr. Fritz and Anne in Auschwitz, Mrs. Grete Fischel reached out to Brun, thanking her for her great kindness to her orphaned nephews, and stating her wish to bring them to New Zealand. Grete said she had already initiated efforts to have them transferred, offering to pay all expenses including a professional chaperone to accompany them.
Her written overtures were met with a brusque refusal by Brun, who wrote back in hostile tones. She said that since she had shown the courage to take the boys in when it was dangerous to do so, “no one has the right to break the bonds of affection [between her and them].”
Recounting events many years later in a memoir, Miriam Lavah, a cousin of the Finaly boys, recalled that Brun had made bizarre claims, accusing the children’s relatives of wanting a stake in their inheritance, although clearly none existed. The woman appeared unhinged.
“My Aunt Grete went to all possible lengths to work around Mlle. Brun; she used English and French Red Cross people as intermediaries, and got other prominent people to intercede,” wrote Lavah. “But there was no budging this woman.”
In 1948, after three years of fruitless efforts to negotiate the boys’ return, Mrs. Grete Fischel sought the assistance of her sister and brother-in-law in Israel, Moshe and Yehudit Rosner. The Rosners in turn asked an acquaintance in Grenoble, French-speaking Moshe Keller, to intercede on their behalf.
Keller turned out to be an extraordinary activist, compassionate, resolute and tireless, never throwing in the towel despite facing an enemy that appeared to have the full backing of the Catholic church. A chemical engineer by profession, he ultimately sacrificed his livelihood to fight for the return of the Finaly children.
His first move was to pay a visit to Brun. As soon as the headmistress heard the purpose of visit, she heaped abuse on him before throwing him out. “Cowardly, ungrateful Jews, under the slightest danger you ran away like frightened mice, leaving your children to the care of others, and now you have the nerve to ask for them back?” she fumed. “You don’t know me yet… never ever are you going to see these boys.”
To Keller’s retreating back, she flung out, “I had them baptized, you hear? They are little Catholics.” [The Finaly Affair, Moshe Rosner, 2005].
Brun had in fact not only arranged for the boys to be baptized, she had won custody of them in a French court, concealing from the judge the existence of relatives who wanted to care for them.
This subterfuge drove home to the Rosners the reality of who they were dealing with. They embarked for France to join forces with Keller, realizing there was no choice but to take legal action.
What followed were five years of costly, intense, exhausting legal battles in French courts; first, to overturn Brun’s custody by exposing her lies and shenanigans, and then to force the church, who was clearly calling the shots, to relinquish the children to their biological family.
Case Hits Spotlight; Divides France
After years of legal hearings and counter suits, a high-ranking French court ruled in 1951 that Brun was required to return the children to their relatives. As the court contained no mechanism to enforce its ruling, however, Brun continued to defy it.
With the help of her sister and the Catholic clergy of Grenoble, she had the boys, now eight and nine years old, taken to Switzerland under assumed names. When their identity was discovered, authorities ordered them returned to France and turned over to Mrs. Rosner.
Abetted by church officials, Brun then had them whisked away to another hideout. Then 11-year old Robert kept a diary, in which he described being on the run with his brother, fleeing from school to school, church to church, house to house in the never-ending flight from the “evil” much-feared Mr. Keller. Young Robert also described their brutal flight across the Pyrenees mountains during a snowstorm, to the Basque region of Spain, through knee-deep snow. “We were in sandals and summer clothes, freezing to death,” he writes. At the time, he felt his and his brothers lives were at stake and their only hope of surviving was to follow Brun’s instructions, however bizarre, in order to remain under the church’s protection.
When a police investigation uncovered evidence that several nuns of the Notre Dame de Sion order and Basque priests had arranged and executed the boys’ kidnapping, the case exploded into the public spotlight. Headmistress Brun and her clergy cohorts were arrested and ordered to divulge the children’s whereabouts.
In the spirit of true “martyrs,” they refused to give any information, including from which higher authority they were taking orders. The arrestees were sentenced to a brief period of incarceration. In the meantime, the children had disappeared.
By this time, the custody battle over Gerald and Robert Finaly had stirred passions throughout France that, in the words of a French journalist, had not spilled forth with such intensity since the Dreyfus Case. It was a media bonanza and the French press milked it to the hilt.
The case pitted French anti-clerics against French Catholics. Politicians calling for obedience to the laws of state clashed with clergymen insisting on the higher authority of Divine law, particularly regarding baptism.
Secular voices who saw the church trying to encroach on individual liberties, were outraged that its officials refused to honor the rights of parents to choose the religious identity of their children.
Amid all this uproar, pro-church groups railed at the Jews for being “ungrateful,” for making demands and allegations after Christians put their lives at risk to save them and their children.
The anti-Semitism the case unleashed reverberated through Europe’s shattered Jewish communities, still trying to recover from the horrors of the preceding years. The specter of a new outbreak of Jew-hatred hung over the tiny survivor communities.
And while passions raged over the case, the two young boys at the heart of the storm had vanished without a trace.
To be continued…
Secret Vatican Mandate
In 2004, historian Alberto Melloni discovered a bombshell document in the Church Archives of Issy-les-Moulineaux, a Catholic commune in southwestern Paris.
Written in French and approved by the “Holy Father” (Pope Pius XII), the document, dated October 23, 1946, communicated the Vatican’s intention to retain custody of Jewish children saved by Catholics during the Holocaust.
According to an Associated Press story, the document “instructed French church authorities that Jewish children baptized as Roman Catholics should remain within the church. Even if that meant not returning them to their own families once the occupation ended.”
Within a few weeks, the story turned explosive.
Historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (Hitler’s Willing Executioners) charged the document with “ordering a criminal deed,” and characterized the pope who presumably authored it as “one of the most rampant would-be kidnappers of modern times.”
Pius XII’s defenders, meanwhile, argued that the document had been falsely attributed to him, and misinterpreted.
Researchers and historians, however, said there was little doubt about its authenticity, noting it came from the Paris Nunciature, the Vatican’s diplomatic representation in France.
Pope to Church leaders: Ignore Rabbi Herzog
The document is a summary of a previous Vatican communications, say researchers, which advised church officials on how to decline requests Rabbi Isaac Haleivi Herzog for assistance in locating survivor children and restoring them to Jewish hands.
“The Eminent Father decided that…there should be no response to the Grand Rabbi of Palestine,” the document declared.
During the Holocaust, Rav Herzog tried to meet with the Pope to beg for his intercession to save Jews. Twice he was refused. Only after the war was he granted an audience.
On March 10, 1946, the rov sat down with Pius XII at the Vatican for about an hour. He begged the pope to return Jewish orphans in monasteries to their relatives and the Jewish community. In particular he sought a special papal appeal to all priests to reveal the whereabouts of Jewish children in Catholic custody.
According to the rov’s summary of the meeting, the pope threw out a few gracious remarks about wanting to help but kept his words bland and made no commitment.
Rav Herzog was no fool. He saw through the platitudes to the pope’s true answer.
A short time later, addressing a crowd who had assembled at an airport in Chicago to greet him on his arrival there, the rov appeared somber and sad.
“My dear friends,” he began. I come not from Yerushalayim but from Rome. I have just met with Pope Pius XII…We spoke about the terrible war when many Yiddishe kinder found shelter in monasteries across Europe….I pleaded with the pope that the time has come for these children to be identified and returned to the remnants of their families. I asked him to release those children back to their heritage.
Suddenly, to everyone’s shock, the rov began to cry. “The pope did not agree,” he said brokenly. “He said that once a child is baptized, Rachmana litzlan, he can never be returned. My dear friends, we lost the children!”
After a few moments, the rov composed himself. “We lost them,” he repeated sadly, locking eyes with the faces turned toward him and resting his gaze on the youngsters in the crowd. “But we have you!” he said emotionally. “We have you!”
Secret Document Bans Return of Jewish Children
Although it’s certain Rabbi Herzog never saw the Vatican’s secret 1946 document presenting guidelines about how to deal with pleas to take Jewish children out of the church, he was strikingly on target in his reading of the pope.
The secret 1946 document sets forth five policy points in response to Jewish demands for custody of the survivor children, the gist of the message being that baptized children belong to the church.
“First, nothing should be put in writing,” the document exhorts. Second, the initial answer to petitioners should be that the church must investigate each case on its own.
Third, children who have been baptized “cannot be given to institutions that cannot assure their Christian education.”
Fourth, regarding children without parents or relatives, “it is not appropriate that they be entrusted to people who have no right to them, at least up to the time when they can decide for themselves. Including children who have not been baptized.”
Finally, “If the children have been entrusted [to Catholic institutions or families] by the parents and the parents now come to claim them, provided the children haven’t received baptism, they can be given back.”
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“We knew that after the war, Jewish organizations did everything in their power to obtain a letter from the pope asking institutions sheltering hidden Jewish children to turn them over,” wrote French journalist Catharine Poujol after the Vatican’s incriminating document came to light in 2004.
“Today, we have the evidence that a contrary order came from the Vatican.”
The pope’s order was an attempt to graft a rejected medieval doctrine—the supreme authority of the Catholic church—onto a modern western democracy. L’affaire Finaly would ultimately doom that effort.