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Letter Reveals Vatican Policy on [Jewish] Children of Holocaust

"[Jewish] Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that cannot ensure their Christian education."

By Eric J. Greenberg
January 7, 2005

The discovery of a secret 1946 Vatican letter, ordering French church officials not to return Jewish children to their parents if they were baptized while under church protection, has reignited the controversy over the World War II-era policies of Pope Pius XII, who is on the fast track to sainthood.

The 1946 letter, published last week in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, indicates that Pius XII himself approved the directive regarding Jewish children saved by Catholics from the Nazis.

"If the children were entrusted [to the Church] by their parents and if their parents now claim them, they can be returned so long as these children have not received baptism" the letter stated, adding, "Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that cannot ensure their Christian education."

The letter was discovered by Italian historian Alberto Melloni in the diaries of World War II French Archbishop Angelo Roncalli &emdash; the future Pope John XXIII &emdash; who served as the Vatican's ambassador to France from 1945 to 1948. It was addressed to the office of Roncalli, who is generally acknowledged to have worked to reunite Jewish parents during diplomatic stints in several countries for the Vatican.

It is not clear who wrote the letter, which carries a Paris dateline and was obtained by the Associated Press. But the document states that Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, approved the directives. According to AP, the letter summarizes the views of the Vatican's Holy Office, which oversees doctrine.

Jewish communal leaders and historians have long criticized Pius XII for not doing enough to speak out against the extermination of Jews. Church officials, in turn, have objected to what they describe as unfair attacks on the late pope. In recent years, Jewish-Catholic tensions on that issue and other fronts have calmed. But the latest revelation places the record of Pius XII back in the spotlight, while angering Holocaust survivors.

"After 60 years, the Vatican should come to terms with its record, once and for all," said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser to the American Jewish Committee. "This isn't going away."

Eva Fogelman, a psychologist who treats Holocaust survivors said the new revelation "will provoke tremendous amounts of rage that Jews have towards the Vatican."

"The fact they used this an opportunity to 'save' Jewish souls for Jesus, it's a betrayal," said Fogelman, author of "Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust."

Father Peter Gumpel, a chief supporter of sainthood for Pius XII, denied that the letter came from the Vatican. He told AP that the letter might be an incomplete summary of a Church position from religious officials in France. Gumpel maintained the vast majority of children entrusted to Catholic institutions were never baptized.

The letter stated that Jewish children whose parents were killed during the Holocaust "should not be abandoned by the Church" &emdash; even if they had not been baptized. The single-page memo also instructed church leaders on how to deal with Jewish officials seeking information about missing children. "Avoid, as far as possible, responding in writing to the Jewish authorities, but do so orally," it said.

One Swiss Holocaust survivor, Henri Elias, told the Forward on Tuesday that the French church blocked him from his family for nearly 12 years after the Holocaust because he was baptized.

"During the war, when I was 18 months old, some Belgian resistance fighters advised my mother to hand me to a Catholic institution and she did so," Elias said in a phone interview from Geneva. "At the end of the war, a priest gave my custody to a [Catholic] woman called Fernande Henrard." She repeatedly lied and hid him from his real family.

"I was told I had been abandoned by my mother," Elias said. "With the complicity of Catholic and civil officials, my name was changed to Antoine Benoit and I went through a series of Catholic schools. At the same time, my uncle investigated about me and was told many lies, including that I had died."

In 1949, Elias said, his uncle discovered he was alive, and launched a long successful legal battle against the church to get back his nephew.

"Of course I am angry at the Church; they took away my childhood. I still feel the anguish today."

Elias said he was revolted to learn that Yad Vashem has honored Henrard as a "righteous gentile."

The recently discovered letter, he argued, suggests that many Jewish children were never returned to their parents.

Melloni, the historian who discovered the letter, told the Italian newspaper that it is unclear how many Jewish children were not returned to their parents. "We do not [yet] have serious research on this," Melloni was quoted as saying.

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