The Vatican announced today that they will be opening their secret archive regarding the Holocaust era. This comes on the heels of long-standing criticism by the Jewish community worldwide against Pope Pius XII for his complicity in the Holocaust — for failing to do enough to try to stop the Holocaust or for silent cooperation with the Nazi regime. It is hoped that the opening of the archive will provide documentation of the actions and motivations of the World War II era pope.
But there is another issue that has been awaiting closure since the conclusion of World War II — the identity of those thousands of Jewish children who were hidden in monasteries during the war and who were then cut off from the Jewish people. It is a sad story and one which remains an open wound among Jews the world over.
As Hitler progressed across Europe, one of his main objectives was to round up and annihilate all of Europe’s Jews. Despite centuries of European anti-Semitism, there had never been such a coordinated and legally endorsed campaign to destroy the Jewish people worldwide.
As the Nazis entered towns, cities and villages, they rounded up Jews, sending them to ghettos or directly to concentration or death camps. While the Jews were largely unaware of the exact fate that awaited them, many feared for their lives and sought avenues of escape. But there were very few such avenues. Most of the countries around the world refused to accept Jewish refugees. The British closed the doors to Palestine, refusing entry to all but a select few Jews. Desperate, families sought refuge for their children.
Families grappled with the decision to bring their children to a local monastery or convent. In many cases, these same institutions had been the source of anti-Semitic attacks or pogroms in earlier years, especially in Poland and the Ukraine. But they also feared that should their children survive the war, would they have grown up removed from their own national and spiritual identity. Did they, as Jewish parents, have the right to cut their children off from their spiritual heritage.
As the war progressed and the terrible fate that awaited the Jews became clearer, parents made the choice to leave their children with the nuns. But the parents of most of these children were murdered in Hitler’s death camps and when the war was over, there were no family members who knew where these children were to claim them. Their parents took that knowledge with them to the crematorium.
Just after the war, knowing that there were thousands of Jewish children in convents and monasteries all over Europe but not knowing their names or locations, then Chief Rabbi of pre-State Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, traveled throughout Europe looking for these children. He met with Pope Pius XII and asked for his assistance in restoring these children to the Jewish people. The pope did little to help and actually worked to prevent Jewish children who had been baptized to be returned to Judaism. A poignant story has Rabbi Herzog visiting church orphanage after orphanage. Upon entering the children’s bedroom, he would recite the Shema in Hebrew, eliciting tearful responses from children who were too young to consciously remember their parents. But in this way, they identified themselves as Jewish children. Herzog saved approximately 1,000 children in this way, but there were tens of thousands that were never found.
There are those who hope that today, 74 years after Auschwitz was liberated, the archives will reveal the identity of those lost children, many of whom were the last remnant of their families.
But why were these children not returned to their people in 1945? One factor that played a significant role was the resistance of the church to return these children to their Judaism, which would, by definition, include a rejection of Christianity.
And herein lies that terrible divide that remains a threat to Jewish-Christian relations even today. Christianity has long believed in a sacred mission to evangelize the world, and especially the Jews. While both Jews and Christians cling strongly to their respective faiths and believe wholeheartedly that their faith is the correct one, only Christians are eager to convert Jews to their faith. Jews have no interest in converting Christians to theirs. Jews have no problem accepting and respecting people of different faiths. For Christians that is a far larger challenge.
I have been working with Christians for more than 20 years now and have found dear friends and have forged longstanding relationships with so many Christians all over the world. But the only people I am able to have these relationships with are those who respect me for who I am and for what I believe and who are not trying to change me.
I just recently returned from a trip to Australia where I met wonderful people all over that great land. But on several occasions during that trip, I was confronted by well-meaning Christians who were unable to respect me — they handed me tracts, justified attempts to convert Jews to Christianity, and challenged my beliefs outright. While I have never had difficulty responding to these challenges, I am consistently unwilling to do so. I am simply offended by the rudeness and I can’t understand why these people who have come out to hear me speak about Israel find the need to try to convert me. Why can’t they just leave me alone? Why can’t we just agree to disagree and create relationships on the basis of what we have in common?
When I heard the news of the Vatican archives today and the ramifications on this missing children issue, I was reminded of some of the unpleasant encounters I had in Australia. Jewish children were kept from their people because good Christians believed they had the right to deny the birthright of these precious children in the name of salvation. And those few individuals that I encountered were prepared to deny my birthright in the name of salvation.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We are all children of an Awesome G-d Who has enabled us to witness the fulfillment of prophecy in our own lifetimes. We have seen the restoration of the Jewish people after the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel in fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. G-d is orchestrating the final redemption and we have been invited to take part. Let’s let Him run the show and we will all be blessed in the process.