April 28 is Holocaust Remembrance Day, the start of an eight-day annual period of activities commemorating one of the darkest events of human history. This was the day that Allied troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp in 1945. In so doing, they discovered and made known to the world the full horror of the genocide committed by Hitler against the Jews of Europe. It is a day for us to reflect on the Holocaust and resolve to do our own small part to resist any actions or attitudes that cause or enable hatred and violence. This kind of resolve is best built not just by thinking about evil, but by admiring the good. Yes, 63 percent of European Jews were lost. Thirty-seven percent of them were saved, thanks to the actions of thousands who loved radically, heroically, and sometimes unto death. This article will tell just a few of their stories.
Heroism in Poland
Historically, Poland was more tolerant than most countries in Europe, so by the early 20th century, Poland’s Jewish population numbered over three million. This large concentration of Jews made Poland the prime target for Hitler’s murderous policies. In addition, Poland had been devastated by a combined German and Russian invasion in 1939—a war that left total cities destroyed and the entire population destitute. Thus, few in Poland were well-equipped to help their Jewish neighbors. Despite this handicap, thousands of Poles did struggle for more than their own survival. The underground organization, Zegota—funded by political organizations outside of Poland—maintained Jews in hiding and whenever possible helped them escape from Poland.
Zegota’s most famous member was Irena Sendler. In her position as a health inspector, she was allowed to enter the Warsaw ghetto frequently to help prevent the spread of typhus, since the Germans feared the disease would spread to occupying forces. With this pretext, she was able to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto, hiding them in boxes, bundles of clothing, and even coffins. Her dog, trained to bark and growl as she drove away, muffled the sound of crying infants and discouraged German guards from inspecting her vehicle. The rescued children would then be placed in Catholic convents, rectories, and orphanages throughout Poland. Sendler rescued 400 children in this manner, and a team of 30 women who worked under her saved several thousand more. In 1943 she was arrested by the Gestapo, tortured, had both legs broken, and was condemned to death. Zegota was able to bribe guards to dump her in the woods outside the prison and list her as having been executed. Irena then lived in hiding but continued her rescue work for the remainder of the war.
Italy’s success story
A devastated Poland managed to save only one tenth of its large Jewish population. Far fewer Jews lived in Italy, but the vast majority of these were saved, along with Jewish refugees from other countries. Legal persecution of Jews—mostly restrictions on employment—began under the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in the 1930s, but Italy was still seen as a relatively safe refuge. When Hitler rose to power, thousand of Jews fled to Italy from Germany and were sheltered in many locations with the encouragement of Pope Pius XII and many Italian bishops. Many urban Jews had fled to rural villages for shelter before Italian internment camps were set up in 1940. It wasn’t until 1943, when Italy capitulated to the Allies, that the Nazis occupied Italy and began deporting Jews to Auschwitz. By this time many Jews had been successfully hidden or had escaped Italy.
Best known among Italy’s many Holocaust heroes are Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini and Franciscan Friar Ruffino Niccacci of Assisi, who successfully hid 300 Jews in convents, monasteries, and even village homes. Padre Ruffino disguised some of them as priests and nuns, teaching them the ins and outs of Catholic ritual so they could avoid detection. The film The Assisi Underground tells their story, but this same story was repeated in many other dioceses throughout Italy. Also well known is the remarkable rescue network of Vatican official Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, which is the subject of the film The Scarlet and the Black.
The debate about Pope Pius XII’s decisions during World War II will probably go on forever: Should he have issued official denunciations of Hitler, or would this have resulted in more retaliatory deaths? One thing is beyond debate: Pius worked tirelessly behind the scenes to save Jewish lives, placing the Church’s human, physical, and financial resources at their service. He networked with sympathetic embassies and directed Church officials in key positions throughout Europe to use their diplomatic influence to save lives. Three papal nuncios in particular were highly successful.
Monsignor Philippe Bernardini was nuncio to Switzerland from 1935 to 1953. Jews who had fled to Switzerland were in danger of being sent back, since Switzerland wished to maintain neutrality in the war. Bernardini intervened to keep them safe. He also worked with the Salvadoran consulate to produce 10,000 Salvadoran citizenship papers that were distributed by Church couriers to Jews in occupied territories. He even persuaded Latin American heads of state to publicly confirm the “authenticity” of these forged documents. Later, on receiving intelligence of the planned deportation of Slovak Jews, Bernardini alerted the pope, who pressured the Slovakian government to halt these proceedings.
Monsignor Angelo Rotta was papal diplomat to Bulgaria and Hungary during the war. He issued thousands of baptismal certificates and other safe conduct papers for Jews trying to reach Palestine. He made several official protests on behalf of the pope against the deportation of Hungarian Jews.
Monsignor Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, nuncio to Turkey, organized massive assistance efforts to the thousands of Jewish refugees who arrived penniless in Istanbul. He used his influence with the Turkish government to save 10,000 Jews of Turkish origin who were living in France. Roncalli also obtained Vatican intervention to save large groups of Jews in several other countries. Under his direction, Hungarian priests issued 80,000 certificates of baptism, which enabled Jews there to travel safely to Palestine. Today we remember this nuncio as Blessed (and soon to be, Saint) Pope John XXIII.
Although the numbers of Jews saved by the diplomacy of the three nuncios are impressive, they did not risk their lives by engaging in these activities. The typical rescuer might have helped only a few hundred, or even a few dozen, Jews before the local underground cell was discovered and the rescuer was either arrested or forced to go into hiding. Many of these were nuns who hid Jews in their convents, schools, and hospitals. Blessed Sara Salkahazi was one of these. A member of the Sisters of Social Service, she ran a hostel for poor working women in Budapest. Some of her “boarders” were hidden Jews. On December 27, 1944, she arrived back from her errands to find the hostel being raided by a Nazi search party. When she introduced herself as the person in charge, she and her companions were taken out to the banks of the Danube, stripped, and shot—their bodies thrown into the river. She was beatified in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI. Here is an excerpt from her diary:
“I want to follow you wherever you take me, freely, willingly, joyfully…. I do not want to make my own plans. Let your will be done in me and through me. No matter how hard it might be, I want to love Your will! I want to be one with You, my Beloved, my Spouse.”
St. Maximilian Kolbe You probably know how St. Maximilian heroically offered his own life for that of another Auschwitz inmate condemned to death by starvation. He was arrested and imprisoned because of his writings and radio broadcasts condemning Nazism. Kolbe’s large friary, known as the City of Mary Immaculate, hid 2,000 Jews during the war.
Although this article is about those involved in direct rescue of Jews during World War II, other courageous Catholic witnesses suffered under Nazi tyranny because of being Jewish or publicly protesting Nazi racial and eugenic policies that affected Jews as well as Slavic peoples, gypsies, the aged, and those with disabilities. Among them were St. Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), Blessed Titus Brandsma, Blessed Augustus von Galen, Blessed Bernard Lichtenberg, Blessed Rupert Mayer, and Father Alfred Delp, SJ. You can learn more about them on the Internet. The Wikipedia article, “Catholic Resistance to Nazism” is a good place to start.
To learn more about Catholic heroes of the Holocaust, check out the following:
The Assisi Underground
The Scarlet and the Black
The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler
A Hand of Peace: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust
—Available from Ignatius.com
The Pope’s Jews: the Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis by Gordon Thomas (Thomas Dunne Books)
Hidden Children of the Holocaust: Belgian Nuns and their Daring Rescues of Young Jews from the Nazis by Susan Vromen (Oxford University Press)
Yours Is a Precious Witness: Memoirs of Jews and Catholics in Wartime Italy by Margherita Marchione (Paulist Press)
Yadvashem.org—Official Israeli website with detailed stories of thousands of the “Righteous Among Nations”—non-Jews of all faiths or no faith who were rescuers.