Saints, Real and Imagined: The Vatican of the Holocaust, and the Rev. Dr. William Harter

A young man was mindful of the advice he received about jump-starting conversation with a date. He had already struck out with the first two suggestions: asking about family, or about food. (No, she said, she didn’t have a brother. And she also didn’t like potatoes.) Remembering the third suggestion – philosophy – he turned to her with a flourish. “If you had a brother, would he like potatoes?”

That is where we Jews are in regard to saints. It’s all theoretical. We don’t have them in Judaism. We don’t venerate the dead. Not them, and not their relics.[1] The closest we get is the idea of the tzadik/the righteous one. That honorific is conferred by popular acclaim, and creates no legal status or privilege. We don’t submit names for consideration to panels that investigate. The performance of miracles is irrelevant.[2]

If and when we comment about proposals in other parts of the planet to create new saints, we do so like the hapless young man. If we had them, this is what they would look like. Two events in recent days call for that kind of response.

A new article by David Kertzer in The Atlantic will make it easier for Jews to take a very dim view of the attempt to confer sainthood on Pius XII, the Pope of the Holocaust. Jews and Catholics have been going at each other for decades about whether the Pope was a saint or sinner in regard to the Shoah. No new review of the background is needed here. Briefly, he never stood up to attack the Nazis for the extermination machine about which he knew. He did protect some Jews, and allowed/encouraged his vast network of church institutions to protect others. Was it cowardice that generated his silence? Indifference? Dislike of Jews? Or was it prudence that dictated that he remain mute while six million were murdered, so that he could save whomever he could without bringing the wrath of the Nazis down upon the Vatican? Would that even make a difference? While such a judgment might be defensible in an ordinary person, is it morally acceptable in a world leader of hundreds of millions of faithful? Is it the way a saint should act?

Kertzer’s new revelations come from the long-awaited opening of the Vatican archives on the war years. We read the Pope’s private discussions about the deportation of the Jews of Rome in 1943. More importantly, they show the background of institutionalized hatred of Jews, mendacity and treachery in the Vatican during that period. The account is spellbinding, and should be read in its entirety. I’ll weaken, and provide a few spoilers:

When a thousand Roman Jews – the pope’s Jews, as they were known – were rounded up and held in a building right next door to the Vatican and then sent to Auschwitz, the Vatican did nothing. As deportations from Italy continued, a Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi urged a response, although a rather tepid one at that. It was to be a private memo to the Germans. (There were relatively few Jews in Italy, he argued. Many were intermarried to Catholics, who would be upset. There was nothing to gain, since Mussolini’s racial law “is sufficient to contain the tiny Jewish minority within its proper limits.”)

Even this was opposed by the Secretariat of State’s expert on all Jewish questions, a certain Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua. “The persecution of the Jews that the Holy See justly deplores is one thing,” Dell’Acqua advised the pope, “especially when it is carried out with certain methods, and quite another thing is to be wary of the Jews’ influence: this can be quite opportune…There was no lack in the history of Rome of measures adopted by the Pontiffs to limit the influence of the Jews.”

The pope heeded Dell’Acqua’s advice.

In the aftermath of the war, efforts were made to reunite Jewish children who had been entrusted to Catholic institutions and individuals. (According to one estimate, there were 1200 in France alone, and many more in Poland and elsewhere.) The story of the failed attempt by the then-chief rabbi of Palestine, Rav Yitzchok Herzog to enlist the aid of the same Pope Pius XII is well known. Not known until the archives were opened is what happened next. The issue was referred to Dell’Acqua, who advised against any Vatican assistance in locating and repatriating the orphans.

Things hardly ended there. France in the early ‘50’s watched as Church figures were marched off to jail in a high-profile kidnapping case, concerning two Jewish boys, Robert and Gerald Finaly, who were entrusted to a Catholic friend by their parents, and who were later murdered in Auschwitz. The case fired up anti-Catholic sentiment in France and abroad, and embarrassed the Church. That did not prevent many of its loyalists from spiriting the boys away and hiding them after courts had ordered them returned to Jewish family. (Towards the beginning of the ordeal, a family member accosted the woman who orchestrated their care during the war years. “‘The Jews are not grateful.’ She would never give the boys back, she said.”)

Behind this drama was the same Church policy that played out in the 19th century Edgardo Mortara affair (and that still remains in effect), namely, that the boys had been baptized – without anyone’s consent – by a Catholic woman. Although baptisms without consent are not approved of by canon law, once done they are valid. The children could not be allowed to be returned to the Jews after they had become proper Catholics. And so they were moved from place to place and hidden from the authorities. All with the knowledge and consent of the Pope himself, as we now know, acting on advice from the Holy Office – which is another name for a Church agency begun in the 16th century. It had a long name, but we know it best through one of the words in that name: Inquisition. The Holy Office told the pope that “the Jews, tied in with the Masons and the socialists, have organized an international press campaign” against the Church. (I suppose that is what passed for intersectionality back then.)

Enter, once again, Dell’Acqua. As negotiations continued between Jewish groups, the French government, and the Vatican, the Church found itself on the ropes. The Vatican could consent to “find” the boys, but only if assured that they would continue living as Catholics. Dell’Acqua complained, “the court proceedings in course will finish in favor of the Judaic thesis and the two young boys will end up in the hands of the Jews who, with ever greater ruthless obstinacy, will force a ‘Jewish’ education on them, with the resulting humiliation (at least in the eyes of a part of the wider public) of the Catholic Church.”

At one point, a Reform rabbi deputized by the Finaly family met with Dell’Acqua, who told him that the boys were now Catholic, and “the Catholic Church not only has rights with respect to them, but duties that it must fulfill.” As he got up to leave, the rabbi countered that the Jewish community also had rights and responsibilities. “Not, however,” Dell’Acqua told him, “of the same kind as those of the Catholic Church.”

As it became clear that the boys would likely find their way to Israel with their relatives, Dell’Acqua grew bitter. “I wonder if it is not the case,” Dell’Acqua proposed, “to have an article prepared for La Civiltà Cattolica to unmask the Jews and accuse them of disloyalty.” In the end, Pius himself arranged through the Holy Office for an article to appear in a Catholic publication, claiming righteous behavior, and decrying the infamy of the other parties. “Even the chief rabbis lent themselves to these harmful suspicions with words that, apart from every other consideration, betrayed the most absolute lack of recognition for all that the Catholics had done in these years for the Jews, running the risk of the most serious personal dangers and without asking for anything, simply out of Christian charity.”

Christian charity, indeed. Downright saintly, we would think.

Those who would viscerally react to the piece with, “I told you so! Those Christians are all the same” would be making a great mistake. If anything, the turnaround by Pius’ successors can be appreciated as all the more significant and dramatic. Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II and the Nostra Aetate document it spawned were hugely effective in marginalizing the old-guard anti-Semitic traditionalists, and creating new, positive attitudes towards Jews and Judaism. Pope John Paul II – the closest we will get to a Jewish pope – repeatedly demonstrated with dramatic actions his commitment to a genuine respect for the Church’s “older brother.”

Pius was awful; Dell’Acqua was worse. There were Catholic saints and sinners during the Holocaust. Pius’ successors were remarkably good about repairing what needed to be repaired. There are certainly both saints and sinners in the Catholic Church today. It is not naïve, however, to think that the proportions have shifted towards the good side.

If the material above will create a vacancy in the sainthood department, I have just the person who could fill it more appropriately. He has no chance at it, unfortunately. Presbyterians don’t qualify. The Rev. Dr. William Harter, however, was the kind of human being that no one could think of anything negative to say about him if their entrance to Heaven depended on it.

I first met Bill when his denomination, Presbyterian Church-USA (PCUSA), was poised to become the first mainline Protestant denomination to divest funds from Israel at their General Assembly. Bill was the unofficial leader of a remarkable group of people in that church who were appalled by the anti-Israel leanings of their religious body, and who worked tirelessly for many years to fight it from within. Several within this group literally worked hours each day, every day, on activities in support of Israel and Jews. I value many of them as treasured friends to this day, even as their church has dwindled to a fraction of its previous self in both numbers and importance. (Most of them have left the PCUSA for other denominations.) Unlike my evangelical friends whose motivation draws directly from Scripture, those in this group were animated primarily by justice issues. They understood what Israel was about, and how she was treated unfairly. That was wrong, and they were going to do something about it. When you got to know people in this group, you could never, ever believe that all pro-Israel Christians were motivated by a desire to convert us – or even worse. These are good people.

Bill’s involvement with these issues predates that General Assembly by decades. He was one of the leaders of the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, an umbrella group of Israel-friendly Christians. He did this while pastoring different congregations, one of them together with his wife, until the time of her death. (His faith in G-d at the time of her illness and death could put many people to shame.) He was a worker, a doer, who showed no signs of ego or pride. He plugged away, and led by example. Forever cheerful and upbeat, you could not despair in his company. (I participated by phone in a weekly call to discuss the latest news and strategies regarding Israel. Each week, for years. I tired of it before they did.)

Above all, he was a super-mensch, which should be the most important criterion in sainthood candidacy. He was kind, considerate, and forever caring.

So much of what is wrong with America today stems from idolizing the wrong figures. People need heroes; life is cheapened when they are found within the ranks of mindless celebrities and corrupt politicians. There are real heroes and role models to be found in individuals like Bill Harter.

Bill passed away a few days ago. He will be sorely missed.

  1. OK. Some sub-groups come close – on both counts. Discussing that here would be a distraction to our readership, which is not into that thinking. Hashem yishmor

  2. Rav Shlomo Brevda zt”l made this point regarding the shidduch between Yitzchok and his bride-to-be Rivka. “Yitzchok brought her into the tent of Soro his mother.” (Bereishis 24:67) Eliezer had brought back word of the miracles that had attended his search for Yitzchok’s mate: the incredible speed of his travels; the almost instantaneous answer to his prayer of finding a woman who would volunteer to water the camels; the death of Besu’el. It was clearly a marriage made in Heaven. Yet, claims a midrash cited by Rashi, Yitzchok sought to determine that Rivka possessed the sterling character of his mother. If she failed the midos test, the engagement was off. Miracles didn’t impress him.

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22 Responses

  1. Nachum says:

    Bear in mind that the future John Paul II actually encouraged the return of a Jewish boy to his family.

    • An action so impressive, that the Skulener Rebbe once remarked, “Who knows if it was not in the zechus of that that he rose to prominence?!” JPII also risked his life to care for an abandoned Jewish teen. If you read the entire article you will see that the author speculates that the future goodness of a pope may have been a backlash against the treachery that he witnessed in some circles in the Vatican

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Saint Louis, who had all available manuscripts of the Talmud burned, wasn’t so saintly either. Go through the roll of saints and you’ll find that active hatred of Jews didn’t hurt anyone’s chances of election to the group.

    • Alex says:

      Agreed. And Augustine and his followers who believed that Jews “must be allowed to survive, but never to thrive.” To the whole lot of them–thanks for nothing.

      We should stay out of this argument around Pius XII. It is an internal church decision and either way it will not end well. If he is not declared a “Saint” then some will blame it on “Jewish influence.” And if he is, in spite of the arguments against, then the RCC will have shown their true colors. As if the Crusades & Inquisitions weren’t enough.

      Aside from the Tisha B’Av kinos, read Constantine’s Sword for historical perspective.

      • Mycroft says:

        It might surprise people but we are not the center of the universe in most decisions, thus decisions by other religions on their religious personalities don’t depend on what the person felt about Judaism, one way or the other.

      • Mycroft says:

        We must absolutely stay out of any internal deliberations of any other religion. Going back 60 years ago when Nachum Goldman wanted to accept invitation to send Jewish Observers to Vatican 11. The Synagogue Council of America refused because of the viewpoint of RYBS. Of course, the reason his viewpoint was followed was Orthodox participation in the Synagogue Council of America and right of any group to veto any action. Clearly, the idea that we keep out of other religions deliberations was fundamental to RYBS

  3. Raymond says:

    We Jews cannot escape who we are, even when some of us want to. Many decades ago, when for various reasons I wished to conceal or even run away from my Jewish identity, people would somehow know pretty quickly anyway that I am Jewish. Any of us Jews who try to forget who we are, are engaging in a futile task. It simply does not work.

    And so, being a Jew, I cannot help but see Christians through the lens of history. Overwhelmingly, Christians have had a terrible record against us Jews. In fact, the behavior of too many Christians, Catholic Church or otherwise, has been so negative, that they (along with the islamoNazi terrorists) have given religion a really bad name, causing untold millions of people to abandon religion and G-d altogether.

    And yet, I cannot deny that, paradoxically, for some time now, Christian groups such as the Evangelicals and the Mormons, have been the strongest supporters of our Jewish State of Israel out there, often even moreso than from too many of our own Jewish people. And while I continue to maintain that such support comes with the Christian hope to turn all of us Jews into Christians, there are righteous gentiles such as John Hagee who quite forcefully oppose such conversion efforts. Plus, I have to admit that while such noted Christians as Jerry Falwell probably did want to convert us, that I could not help but be moved when I used to watch him on television spending half of his sermons extolling the virtues of the Jewish State of Israel (when he would switch over to talking about You Know Who in the second half of his sermon, that was when I would change the channel).

    So what is the proper stance to take toward the Christian world? I can only speak for myself on this one, but my default ideological position is to not trust them, yet remain open to there being exceptions to the rule, such as John Hagee. Also, there is the element of gratitude at play here. It is the right and necessary thing to do for our moral characters to appreciate such pro-Israel Christians of all kinds, such as William F Buckley, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Cal Thomas, William Bennett, George W Bush, John Hagee, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Pence. In fact, I will end this by praising Mike Pence in particular. When I have heard him praising our Jewish people, he did so with such awe, such reverence and, I believe, with such utter sincerity, that he went from being just a politician in my mind, to being a living saint.

    • Bob Miller says:

      Pence has had good Orthodox Jewish support here in Indiana and is friends with someone in our community who’s now on his staff. When one of his friend’s sons became Bar Mitzvah, Governor Pence attended much of our Shul’s Shabbos service. The congregant reading the prayer for the government added the Governor’s name.

      • Raymond says:

        It was a stroke of genius when Donald Trump chose Mike Pence to be his running mate, for various practical (think Rust Belt votes) and ideological reasons (solidifying the Christian Right vote). Meanwhile, after I wrote the above, I realized and regretted not having mentioned among my list of Christian Zionists people such as Oliver Cromwell, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr, Ronald Reagan, Nikki Haley, and Donald Trump.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    It behooved to remember that before secular Anti Semitism as practiced in the wake of the French Revolution and especially Nazism and Communism the RCC played a huge role in inculcating anti Semitism that had its origins in the early days of RC

  5. nt says:

    Going to use this to plug David Kertzer’s eye-opening book The Popes Against the Jews; the Vaticans Role in the Rise of Anti-Semitism. It is based on the Vatican archives, and gave me a whole new appreciation for the institutional anti-semitism of the Vatican leading up to the Holocaust.

    • Mycroft says:

      For a balanced description of anti Semitism and Italian Jewry read Bernard Dov Cooperman- if his MOOC. Can be found worthwhile watching. Was at one time offered on Coursera. It is a complicated relationship.

  6. dr. bill says:

    The Roman Catholic church underwent a significant change in attitude towards Jews (albeit not entirely complete in the theological realm.) In most/all traditional religions, change tends to be underplayed and continuity overplayed. As a result, views about the past may not necessarily reflect reality. (Sound familiar?)

    There were antisemitic saints who burned Jews and their books and certainly saints who valued other needs above that of saving Jews from persecution. It is often viewed as “impolite” to accurately depict the past.

  7. Shades of Gray says:

    “Rav Shlomo Brevda zt”l made this point regarding the shidduch between Yitzchok and his bride-to-be Rivka.”

    I’ve seen this point in the name of Rav Brevda’s rebbe, the Brisker Rav(R. Brevda became a ben bayis by the Brisker Rav, and in fact, the Brisker Rav founded his yeshiva upon learning that R. Brevda did not have a place to learn, according to the bio on Torah Anytime).

    I recall reading in the preface to “Not Just Stories: The Chassidic Spirit Through Its Classic Stories”, by Rabbi Dr. AJ Twerski, the following from a chasidic source :

    Rashi says that Eliezer saw the water rise up toward Rivka and therefore approached her. The question arises: If Eliezer saw her merit a miracle, then why continue testing her to see if she’d offer his camels water? We learn that although miracles may have been performed for Rivkah, that wasn’t sufficient to determine if she had good middos.

    Compare with the Rambam in Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah who writes that “whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.”

  8. Zach Kerner says:

    Is there a halachic requirement for non-Jews to save Jews? Was America mandated by halacha to open its doors?

    • Bob Miller says:

      Bnai Noach need to set up fair judicial systems and general institutions. The underlying idea would seem to include treating all people properly as the situation dictates.

    • dr. bill says:

      the term halakhic or halakha adds at best a theoretical perspective. Derech eretz kadmah la’torah applies a fortiori to non-Jews who never were assumed to accept God’s instructions. They are certainly not absolved by never having accepted the obligation.

  9. Tal Benschar says:

    IMO, one must contrast the cowardly actions of the then-Pope with that of other branches of Christianity.

    In particular, the Orthodox Christian church in Bulgaria was instrumental in saving Bulgarian Jewry from the Nazi death. One bishop, Metropolitan Kirill, openly risked his life to save Jews. You can read the whole story here:

    But one excerpt is especially impressive:

    On March 10, 1943, 8500 Jews, including 1500 from Plovdiv, were loaded into boxcars. Before the train could leave, Kirill showed up at the station with 300 church members. The bishop pushed through the officers guarding the area and approached the boxcars. As he reached them, he yelled out lines from the Book of Ruth: “Wherever you go, I will go! Wherever you lodge, I will lodge! Your people will be my people, and your God, my God!”

    Kirill opened one of the boxcars and tried to enter but SS officers stopped him. At this point, Kirill declared his intention to lie on the tracks to stop the train from leaving. Members of his church got the word out about Kirill’s brave stance, and soon all of Bulgaria knew of the bishop willing to lay down his life to prevent the murder of innocents.

    The impact of Kirill’s action was immediate. That same day, 42 members of Parliament rebelled against the government. Political leaders from all parties proclaimed their solidarity with Metropolitan Kirill and the Jews of Bulgaria, and sent angry letters to government ministers demanding the persecution end.

    I am reminded of the statement of Chazal in Yoma 35b:

    נמצא הלל מחייב את העניים רבי אלעזר בן חרסום מחייב את העשירים יוסף מחייב את הרשעים

    Ve ha mayvin yavin.

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