Monday, April 25, 2011

Michael Berenbaum on John Paul II and a reference to Pius XII

Michael Berenbaum's thoughtful reflection on the significance of John Paul II to Jews is a serious article which deserves a wide readership.  Pope Benedict XVI will beatify his predecessor on 1 May 2011, the Sunday after Easter Day.  Berenbaum has a long history on Holocaust scholarship.  In this article he demonstrates the significance of John Paul in the re-creation of the relationship between Jews and Christians in light of the horror of the Shoah.  Making a passing mention of Pius XII, Berenbaum uses a rabbinic maxim to speak honestly and charitably of the late pope: "there is no righteous person without sin".   While there are many Catholics who have serious reservations about the beatification of John Paul II (declaration of sanctity one step before canonisation) there is no serious person of good will who does not see in the Polish Pope a man who did more than anyone else to take Christian-Jewish relations into a new era where both sides have learned to sit, listen, discuss and argue together as friends.  For this reason on its own, John Paul II is surely one of the "Righteous of the Nations".  May his memory be a blessing for all - Jew and Christian.

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There have been few times in the two thousand years of Christian Jewish relations when Jews have shed genuine tears at the death of a Pope;when Pope Jon Paul II died, I – and many other Jews – cried. Building on the work of Pope John XXIII has done more to improve on Catholic Jewish relations than any Pope in history. And Jew should react with joy at the beautification of Pope John Paul II on Sunday May 1st.


It is a paradox of the Holocaust that the innocent feel guilty and the guilty innocent.

Nowhere is this paradox more pronounced that in the post-Holocaust behavior of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II made confronting the Shoah and the fight against antisemitism a centerpiece of his papacy. He brought Roman Catholic-Jewish relations to a new level of respect. Like his predecessor Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II was directly touched by the Holocaust and has assumed responsibility for its memory. Both men were changed by the history they experienced and as leaders changed the institution they headed, even an institution so conservative and seemingly so reticent to change as the Roman Catholic Church.

Pope John XXIII accepted the ongoing life of the Jewish people after the arrival of Jesus rejecting supercessionism, the doctrine that Christianity had come to replace Judaism and thus that there was no reason for the people of Israel to remain Jews; he eliminated the charge of deicide and removed it from Catholic teaching and liturgy, he stopped to greet Jews leaving a Rome Synagogue on Sabbath, yet neither he nor his two immediate successors accepted the renascent State of Israel, the very form of Jewish life since 1948. He had come to terms with 1878 years of Jewish life – the years of Jewish exile from 70 C.E. to 1948


Enter Pope John Paul II who as a young man in Poland witnessed the Shoah. Three million Jews of Poland were killed in the Holocaust. After the war, Polish cities, which were once the home of large and thriving Jewish communities, were bereft of Jews and the Pope’s hometown was the site of a large ghetto whose Jewish population was deported to death camps. As a young university student, and when he worked in the theater Karol Wojtyla had Jewish friends. Some remained his friends throughout his long and distinguished life. As a recently ordained young priest, he was asked to baptize children born of Jewish parents who had been raised by Polish Catholics, who had sheltered them during the Shoah, thereby saving their lives. When their Jewish parents did not return after the war, the Polish family that had raised them lived them as their own children and wanted to raise them in their faith. On these occasions, the future Pope insisted that Jewish children first be informed of their Jewish origins and only then could they be baptized. It was an act of courage – political, religious and pastoral in post-war Poland, a deed of profound respect for memory. It was not an act popular with his congregants who were unable to tell young Jewish children of their origins during the war for such information could be lethal of both the child and his adoptive family, and who were reluctant to do so after the war for fear of reprisal from the local population and for complicating their relationship.

As Pope John Paul II, he recognized the State of Israel. He visited a synagogue for prayer and treated the Rabbi and the Congregation of Rome with every religious courtesy. Instead of dividing the world between Christians and Jews, he spoke of the commonality of religious traditions/ He spoke with reverence of the Torah. He spoke out against antisemitism again and again. He visited the sites of Jewish death and acknowledged on numerous occasions the centrality of the Shoah.

His visit to Poland in 1979 was perhaps the moment for which he was elected Pope. He delegitimated Communism in Poland and played a pivotal role in its demise. And Communism was the strongest enemy of Jewish nationalism and of Judaism.

In March 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel – the State and not just the Holy Land. From the moment he arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv to the moment he departed, it was clear to Roman Catholics and Jews, and to the international media, that this was an extraordinary gesture of reconciliation in the shadow not only of two millennia of Christian antisemitism but in the massive shadow of the Holocaust. Even if Pope John Paul II did not say everything that could be said – he apologized for the antisemitism of Christians not of Christianity—his bowed head at Yad Vashem and his note of apology inserted into the Western Wall said more than could be said by words alone. In the Third Millennia, The Pontiff was determined that Roman Catholics act differently, behave differently and believe differently. An eyewitness to the Holocaust, he had come to make amends. He took all-important steps to make certain that the full authority of the papacy was brought to bear against antisemitism. His theology was quite simple: antisemitism is a sin against God. It is anti-Christian. These are welcome words to every Jew and one could sense their power by the manner in which the Israelis received Pope John Paul II. Even ultra-Orthodox Rabbis, opposed by conviction to anything ecumenical and raised on the stories transmitted through the generations of confrontations between Priests and Rabbis, were deeply impressed by the Papal visit to the offices of the Israel’s Chief Rabbis.

Pope John Paul II’s record was not perfect. He attempted to canonize Pope Pius XII, the war-time Pontiff, he did not open the Vatican Archives from World War II for researchers on the Holocaust to let the true record of he Vatican be known, he canonized (sic - should be beatified)  Pope Leo IX (sic - should be Pius) who had forbidden he return of a forcibly baptized Jewish child, he welcome Yasir Arafat and President Kurt Waldheim to the Vatican, the former before he recognized Israel and the later after his Nazi past was exposed and he had flamed Austrian antisemitism during his presidential campaign.. The most charitable thing that can be said of his handling of the pedophile scandal in the Church was that it was inadequate. Jewish tradition teaches that “there is no righteous person without sin.”

Yet none of this can obscure the overriding substance of his papacy. He demonstrated that true religiosity – devout, orthodox and pious as it may be—need not demonizes another religion and disparager other faiths and the right of another religion to worship their God as they believe. The innocent ones who felt guilty have led contemporary Roman Catholicism to renounce antisemitism and to accept the integrity of the ongoing religious life of the Jews. This behavior should serve as a model for Jews and Muslims as well as for other religious leaders as to the ethical requirements of religious doctrine.

1979 John Paul stands before the memorial in Birkenau




1986 John Paul with Rabbi Elio Toaff makes the first ever papal visit to the Rome Shul

2000 John Paul at Ha Kotel, The Western Wall, Jerusalem

Thursday, April 14, 2011

N.Y. Archbishop Urges Vatican to Expedite Opening of Its Holocaust Archives

Access to World War II Files Seen as Crucial to Evaluation of Pope Pius XII


By Josh Nathan-Kazis


Published April 13, 2011.


Catholic scholars, no less than Jewish scholars, are frustrated over the Vatican’s decades-long delay in the opening its closed Holocaust archives, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan told a Jewish audience April 12.

Dolan, the city’s highest Catholic official, stopped short of calling for the immediate opening of the Vatican Secret Archives for the papacy of Pius XII, who some have accused of failing to help Jews during the Nazi genocide. But Dolan said that the church should not fear whatever it is the archives hold.

“Whatever is needed to complete this project, even in phases rather than only as a whole, I suggest must be explored,” Dolan told a gathering at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

In his address, the archbishop called for a shift in the dialogue between Jews and Catholics away from what he called a “dialogue of grievances” to conversations about mutual challenges.

The former Archbishop of Milwaukee, Dolan, 61, was made Archbishop of New York – a city whose name he pronounces with a very un-local “New Yawrk” - by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Dressed in a black cassock and purple skullcap, he joked easily with the crowd at JTS, Conservative Judaism’s most prominent academic institution.

Dolan called for a change in the tone and character of interreligious dialogue. “Too often in the past, I’m afraid, our grievances, however legitimate, with each other have been our sole topic of discussion,” he said.

Dolan also spoke of Jews’ and Catholic’s shared reverence for Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. “I continue to be inspired by the passion of your love for John Paul II,” he told the mostly Jewish audience.

The Archbishop approached the subject of the Vatican archives through a discussion of disputed plans for the beatification of Pius XII, who Dolan called “a somewhat unique challenge to Catholic-Jewish relations.”

“The current debate about Pius XII has become shrill, hasn’t it?” Dolan said.

Dolan argued that the historical record was still unclear on Pius XII’s responsibility for the deaths of Jews in the Holocaust, and said that more study was needed – including study of the Vatican archives.

“Whatever the archives hold, the Catholic church cannot fear the truth about the often heroic and sometimes disgraceful conduct of her leaders and members during the Second World War,” Dolan said.

Jewish groups have long called for the opening of Vatican archives relating to Pius XII’s papacy, particularly in light of Catholic efforts to put the former pope forward for canonization. The Vatican first promised to open the files for scholarly review in 1986, following a meeting between Pope John Paul II and American Jewish leaders.

“They have indicated it is a tedious process,” said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations who participated in that meeting. Reich continued to pursue the issue with the Vatican as chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation.

Reich said that the Vatican claims that its scholars are putting the archives in order, but that his offers to raise money to expedite the process have been ignored.

“They’re plodding along and it’s very frustrating, and it’s important that the archives be open while Holocaust survivors are still living so they can get a sense of what occurred.”

Reich said that he was pleased by Dolan’s support for the archive’s opening. “It’s gratifying that Archbishop Dolan is supporting an early opening of the archives, and I just hope the Vatican hierarchy take note of his message.”

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The address can be found on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EE_Qs-s8fQ

It is well worth watching and listening.  Dolan's address is a very positive assessment of the current state of Catholic-Jewish relations.  His comments on Pius XII begin at 9.20 and continue in Part 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2zAaj4KH8I).  They are balanced and non-defensive.  Dolan attempts to distinguish the beatification process from the historical analysis of Pius.  

He asks whether the standard question about Pius, namely, "Was Pius XII guilty of failing to save Jewish lives in the Holocaust?", should be replaced by "What does the historical record tell us?"  For those of us who work in this area, it is an obvious question, but in fairness to Dolan, I think he is right to ask it.  He continues with a challenge to the Vatican archivists:  open the relevant archives, even if it is done in phases.  Dolan's frank acknowledgement of the frustration experienced by historians, Catholic, Jewish and others, is welcomed. 

On a touching pastoral note, the archbishop said it was part of the responsibility of the archivists to open the war files for the sake of the survivors and their families.

In Part 4 Dolan discusses the Oberammergau Passion Play.

In Part 5 at 4.20 the 1962 Good Friday liturgy was raised.  After some semantic points, Dolan called up Dennis McManus, the archbishop's theological advisor on inter-religious matter, who explained the prayer from the 1962 text and Benedict's re-write, after significant Jewish (and Catholic!) protest, in 2007.   It was, I think, the best spin on what is an unnecessary text.  The 1970 Good Friday text is a superior text.  McManus ended on that point.

Dolan is an excellent speaker and clearly engages his audience.  His text was substantial and erudite, balanced and clearly articulated.


Archbishop Timothy Dolan

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

ADSS 6 The Brazilian Visa Episode Part 2

The Brazilian Visas Project (continued)

From this point on there were no developments beyond further obstacles created by the spread of the war after the German invasion of Western Europe in April 1940. Nuncios in Belgium, Holland, France and neutral Switzerland asked for an allocation of visas for Non-Aryan Catholics in their countries. The Brazilian government stalled on issuing the visas despite ever-increasing and urgent requests from the Vatican. There was even an exchange of memos over a rumour that false baptismal certificates were issued for Jews – the Vatican hotly denied the rumours. (Docs 209, 212, 305, 321). Although there were occasions when Maglione was able to write that approval for some visas had been given, such as in Holland in June 1940 (Doc 240), there is no evidence that the visas were issued or used. By mid-1940 the chances of leaving German-occupied Europe were growing ever slimmer (eg Doc 251, 252, 254).


Documents on the continuing process to obtain the visas: 128, 129, 145, 147, 155, 158, 161, 163, 170, 184, 191, 199, 202, 208, 219, 255, 263.

The end of the visa project.

In August 1940 Masella wrote to Maglione to signal a break through in the visa process. The Brazilian government had agreed to relax the financial requirements for the visas, reducing the required 20 contos to 20,000 Italian lire. Those without the money could still enter the country if they had a guarantee of work. Brazil would permit the Holy See to allow a maximum of 50 people without money to enter the country a month so as not to risk increasing unemployment. (Doc 275)

However this news had not been received by the Brazilian embassy in Berlin and the process stalled again. (Doc 277). Nonetheless the Vatican continued to hope that the visas would be issued. (Documents 280, 285, 297, 299, 304, 308, 313, 316, 320, 322, 323, 327, 328, 329). However, it was becoming clear that short of a major reversal of Brazilian government policy it would be highly unlikely that any visas would be issued, much less any Non-Aryan Catholics leave German-occupied Europe.

On 13 September 1940, Maglione explained to William Godfrey (1889-1963), the Apostolic Delegate to the United Kingdom, that the visa program has been suspended for the time being. (Doc 309)

Six weeks later, on 29 October 1940, Maglione wrote to the French nuncio, Valeri with new information on the visa situation. The distribution of the visas was still meant to proceed. However, the Brazilian government had changed the 1933 baptism date to 1934. There was also criticism that some of the Jews who had arrived in Brazil before 1939 had been a source of problems and not regarded as reliable Catholics. This would suggest that some of the arrivals were more Jewish than Catholic. Maglione’s final comment is very telling: “Of course, it must be sincere Catholics, who deserve to be helped.” By year’s end no progress had been made.

There is little in ADSS Volume 8 (1941-1942) except to record the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Theodore Innitzer’s plea to the pope in late January. Innitzer (1875-1955) pleaded for the 60,000 Viennese Jews who faced deportation. (Docs 14, 15) He explicitly mentioned the Brazilian visas. All came to naught after the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Gestapo closed the offices of the Raphaelsverein three weeks before the German armies invaded Russia in June 1941.

Nuncio Masella wrote to Maglione on 21 November 1941 announcing the Brazilian government’s decision to suspend, “with great regret”, the visa program. (Doc 205).

From the documentary evidence in ADSS it is clear that the Vatican did undertake the Brazilian visa program in good faith and with the hope that some Catholics of Jewish descent would be able to immigrate to South America. The nuncios, staff of the Raphaelsverein and many other “ordinary” Catholics worked hard to meet the demands of the Brazilian government to help Jews get out of Germany and Europe.  In this episode the problem lay with the Brazilian government and its very strange and inconsistent immigration policy.  It seems to me that Brazil's initial offer of the visas may have been made in good faith and as an act of respect to Pius XII, but it appears to have quickly become a source of embarrassment to Rio.  The end result was a "death by a thousand cuts" through deliberate stalling, bureaucratic bungling and muddling.  The saddest and cruelest aspect was the lost opportunity to save lives.  And in a final twist of irony, it was the Brazilian ambassador to the Holy See, Pinto Accioly, who led the 1942 push to have Pius XII condemn the German mass murder of the Jews.





ADSS 6 The Brazilian Visa Episode Part 1

Brazilian Visas Project 1939-1941



German Catholic refugee agencies had been working since 1933 to help Catholics of “non-Aryan” descent to leave the country. In 1935 the German Catholic bishops made the Raphaelsverein (St Raphael’s Work) the official agency responsible for assisting katholische Nichtarier (Non-Aryan Catholic - using the official government terminology). Based in Hamburg, the Raphaelsverein had been established in 1871 as an agency to help German Catholics emigrants. Its energetic general secretary was Pallotine priest, Max Grösser (1887-1940). With very limited resources at his disposal, Grösser and the Raphaelsverein helped 967 Non-Aryan Catholics leave Germany between April 1937 and March 1938.

One major reason for the relatively low figures was the German government’s deliberate policy of impoverishing Jews. Every effort was made to strip Jews of all assets, including the money spent to fund their emigration from Germany, an “atonement tax” levied per person after the November 1938 pogrom, and the 25% “flight tax” imposed on remaining assets. Jews were only permitted to take RM 10 in cash with them as they left the country.

The total population of Christians (Catholic and Protestant) of Jewish descent was estimated at about 138,500. Using population proportions of one third Catholic to two thirds Protestant to Germany in 1938 (ie before the anchluss with Austria) the number of Catholics of Jewish descent was around 46,000. That number jumped to close to 180,000 after Germany annexed Austria in March 1938.

Catholic agencies, and that included the Vatican, simply did not have the resources to sponsor mass migration of Jews out of the Greater German Reich. Help would have to come from governments. After the Evian Conference in July 1938 it was clear that attempts to help Jews leave Europe were diminishing rapidly.

This sets the scene for arguably, one of the most ambitious projects attempted during the war, and the one that came so close to concrete action. It is also one of the most vivid examples of the activity of the Vatican using all its resources to help Jews escape German persecution. At every stage the pope was actively involved.

It is essential to remember that official German policy towards the Jews until the early summer of 1941 was migration and / or expulsion from the German sphere of influence. The change in policy to extermination sometime around July 1941 marks the end of all migration schemes and also marks the end of the Brazilian visa plan.

What follows is my reconstruction of the visa episode using the material in ADSS volumes 6 and 8. The chronology covers the most important part of the visa episode, from March to December 1939.

The reader can find a summary of the affair in the introductory essay at the beginning of Volume 6, pages 15-21. (The essay is in French.)

ADSS 6


1939

Docs 8-9: 31.03.1939.

Cardinal Michael Faulhaber (1869-1952), Archbishop of Munich wrote to Pius XII asking for the pope’s help in obtaining immigration visas to Brazil. This was based on conversations Faulhaber and Wilhelm Berning (1877-1955), bishop of Osnabrück had with bishops from Argentina and Brazil while they were in Rome for the pope’s coronation earlier that month. Faulhaber writes that the Munich office of the Raphaelsverein has been in contact with Helio Lobo (1883-1960), a Brazilian diplomat in Switzerland who had authority to issue up to 3000 Brazilian visas for German and Austrian Catholic priests and religious refugees. However, Lobo was open to using the visas for Jewish refugees who would work as agricultural labourers. Berning’s letter of the same day supported Faulhaber’s request.


Doc 11: 05.04.1939

Cardinal Luigi Maglione (1877-1944), Secretary of State, wrote to Archbishop Benedetto Aloisi Masella (1879-1970), nuncio to Brazil asking him to convey the wish of the pope that President Getulio Vargas (1882-1954) would grant the 3,000 visas. (This was done on 14.04.1939 and appears as Annexe I on page 100 after Document 35. The date in ADSS is recorded as 1936 – an error.)



Doc 28: 05.06.1939


Pallotine priest Max Grösser (1887-1940), Secretary General of Raphaelsverein wrote to Pius XII asking for his help in assisting Catholics of Jewish descent to immigrate to Brazil.



Doc 30: 06.06.1939

Maglione to Masella. The pope asked for news on the request for the 3,000 visas.


Doc 33: 20.06.1939

Maglione to Masella. President Vargas has granted the 3,000 visas as an act of personal homage to the pope.



Doc 34: 23.06.1939

Maglione to Faulhaber. Maglione informs Faulhaber of the granting of the visas.



Doc 35: 28.06.1939


Masella to Maglione. Masella sends the conditions under which the visas will be granted. Brazil will leave it to the discretion of the Holy See to determine who gets a visa – Germans or other nationalities. (Annexe I is Masella’s request in the name of the pope; Annexe II is the Brazilian response on 24.06.1939 confirming the grant of the visas.)


Conditions for the granting of the visa [sourced from several documents in ADSS]:

a) Applicants must deposit a minimum of 20 Contos di Reis with the Bank of Brazil; (the equivalent of RM 39,000 / 273,000 Italian lire / $US 15,600) A sum that was impossible for most Jewish refugees.


(In 2011 = $US 250,000)


b) Applicants must be Catholics of Jewish descent;


c) Applicants must travel as a family unit (minimum three persons), ie single people will not be issued a visa;


d) Applicants were expected to work in agriculture and farming.



Doc 37: 11.07.1939

Maglione to Masella. Maglione instructs Masella to thank Vargas.



Doc 39: 13.07.1939

The Procurator General of the Pallotines, Fr Franz Xaver Hecht (1885-1953) wrote to Angelo Dell’Acqua (1903-1972) in the Secretariat of State suggesting that it would avoid confusion if the Raphaelsverein was declared the only agency for the distribution of the Brazilian visas. (This request was repeated in a letter from Hecht to Maglione [Doc 41] on 17.07.1939).



Doc 40: 16.07.1939

Maglione to Masella. Maglione asks for the conditions for the granting of the visas.



Doc 42: 20.07.1939.

Berning to Maglione. Responding to the details sent in Document 35, Berning says the financial conditions for the granting of the visas are too heavy. The Holy See should ask for a relaxation of the financial restrictions. The bishop also points out that most of the potential immigrants have no experience as agricultural workers. Berning also suggests Protestant non-Aryans be considered for the Brazilian visas.



Doc 44: 22.07.1939

Masella to Maglione. The visas are directed primarily at non-Aryan German Catholics.



Doc 46: 29.07.1939

Maglione to Masella: Masella asked to approach the Brazilian government and request an ease of restrictions on the visa conditions. Document 47 (31.07.1939) is Masella’s acknowledgement and indication of attempting to seek an ease of visa conditions.



Doc 53: 30.08.1939


Maglione to Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo (1873-1946), Nuncio to Germany: Maglione passes on information about the visas and attempts to have conditions eased.



Germany invaded Poland on 01.09.1939

Doc 57: 02.09.1939

Orsenigo to Maglione: The nuncio sends two letters: the first from Grösser asking the Holy See to intervene with the Brazilian government for the easing of visa conditions; the second proposed Jewish immigration to Argentina.



Doc 61: 11.09.1939

Orsenigo to Maglione: Discussed immigration of non-Aryan Catholic families to Brazil.



Doc 70: 19.09.1939


Maglione to Masella: Maglione repeats his earlier request [Doc 46] that Masella press the Brazilian government to ease visa conditions.




Doc 95: 21.10.1939


Maglione to Masella: Third request – as per docs 47 and 70. Growing urgency.


Doc 96: 24.10.1939

Archbishop Valerio Valeri (1883-1963), Nuncio to France to Domenico Tardini (1888-1961), Secretariat of State: Is there a possibility of using some of the Brazilian visas for Non-Aryan Catholic refugees in France? Document 97 is Maglione’s response.

 Doc 106: 13.11.1939

Masella to Maglione: Brazilian government asks for a tax payment of 20,000 Italian lire per potential immigrant.



Doc 111: 22.11.1939

Secretariat of State to the Brazilian Embassy to the Holy See: Formal request for a mitigation of the conditions attached to the visas.




Doc 120: 14.12.1939


Secretariat of State to the Brazilian Embassy to the Holy See: Formal request to use the 3,000 visas.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

Katarzyna Person on Assimilated Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto

Person's article in the English-language The Warsaw Voice reminds us that among the hundreds of thousands of Jews held in the Warsaw ghetto between 1940 and 1943 and the camps that replaced it after its destruction, were a small group of assimilated Catholics of Jewish descent.  Under German law they shared the same fate as all other Jews caught in the Nazi maw.

However, their stories are still only emerging.  There has been a shroud over much of the fate of the Catholics of Jewish descent in the Holocaust; they don't quite fit.  However, their existence was known in the Vatican and ADSS records several instances of attempts to minister to them.  The churches of All Saints and the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in the ghetto boundaries served "non-Aryan" Catholics.  The clergy of All Saints were allowed to come and go from the ghetto since they were classified as "Aryans".  (The Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw has an excellent online resource on Jewish Warsaw.)

I stood in this church in August 2005.  It was an eerie experience, made all the more sad because the desecrated Nozyk shul stood less than 200 metres away, across the ghetto wall.  Close to where the wall stood, there is a monument to the Home Army and the second Warsw Uprising of August 1944.  The great monument to the 1943 Ghetto Uprising is a short distance away in parkland that was once the heart of Jewish Warsaw.




















(All Saints Church, 2005)



All Saints as seen from the "Aryan" side of the ghetto wall. c 1941


The building stands very near the Nozyk shul (below) now, the only functioning Orthodox shul in Warsaw.  It survived on the outside of the ghetto because the Germans used it as storage facility.



The next photo was taken from All Saints looking towards the Nozyk shul.  In 1941 the ghetto wall ran along the road.



The fate of the non-Aryan Catholics in the ghetto is another piece of the mosaic of Jewish history during the Holocaust.  Katarzyna Person's article is a timely reminder that remembrance embraces all victims.

A Forgotten Voice From the Holocaust

April 19, 2011 marks the 68th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. On that day in 1943 a few hundred very young Jewish fighters started a hopeless battle against the German army. Choosing to die as soldiers rather than as victims, they became a symbol of heroism and resistance to the Holocaust. The story of the Warsaw Ghetto is, however, not only a story of the uprising.


Over the two years of its existence, the largest Nazi ghetto in occupied Poland was a prison for, at one point, over 500,000 people. These were men, women and children; former factory workers, petty merchants as well as world-famous artists and scientists; impoverished refugees and native Varsovians, all trying to lead their daily lives in the hell behind the ghetto walls.

This article will tell the story of a small group of them — those known as “assimilated” Jews. They were people who grew up in the Polish environment; graduates of the most elite Polish secondary schools and universities; often veterans of the Polish fight for independence. Many of them faced their Jewish identity for the first time only with the onset of the German occupation of Poland.

In October 1940, a year after the beginning of World War II, the occupational authorities announced the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto, referred to in German propaganda as the “Jewish residential quarter in Warsaw”. Specifically, this was a walled-in part of today’s Wola district, where all those of Jewish ancestry were forced to relocate.

The vast majority of assimilated Jews, including some who had never set foot in the traditional Jewish quarter of Warsaw, complied with the German degree. Only a few decided to risk an illegal existence with forged papers outside the ghetto, a crime which with time would put both them and those helping them at risk of the death penalty.

Hell on earth

Inhumanely overcrowded, poverty-stricken, ridden with disease and hunger, the Warsaw Ghetto was described in countless testimonies as hell on earth, set up with a clear aim of exterminating those imprisoned there. Due to their pre-war professional position, financial situation, and especially contacts outside the ghetto, members of the assimilated intelligentsia were among the most fortunate of Ghetto inhabitants. The Nazi-induced Jewish Council (the Judenrat), seen by the ghetto society as a “nest of disgusting assimilation,” was due to its overblown bureaucratic structure the most prominent job provider for lawyers left without a practice, teachers with no teaching positions, high-level civil servants, university students and employees of pre-war social help institutions, almost all of them with no previous experience in office work. The Judenrat did not pay much, but its employees were at least able to feed themselves and their families and were immune from forced labor, which collected thousands of victims from among the ghetto poor. Former officers from the Polish Army and lawyers became natural recruits to the ghetto police, the Jewish Order Service, who were purported to refer to themselves as the “most intelligent police service in the world”. However, for the majority of ghetto inhabitants they were synonymous with bribery and abuses of power. The highest ranks were filled exclusively by converts and highly assimilated Jews. The Jewish Order Service was commanded by Józef Szeryński, a pre-war colonel in the Polish police and one of the 2,000 Christians in the ghetto. Many of these converted Jews were representatives of the professional and social elite of pre-war Warsaw, who almost automatically penetrated the top layers of ghetto life, creating the feeling of a mutually supportive Catholic clique.

The symbols of the ghetto Christian community were the Nativity of Blessed Virgin Mary Church on Leszno street and the All Saints at Grzybowski Square (both of which are still standing today), which celebrated widely-attended Sunday masses. The large gardens adjacent to the church at Leszno street, one of very few places of greenery in the ghetto, were a meeting place for the elite of the quarter — professors, engineers, teachers and their families. Many of them sent their children to the parish-run clandestine primary school and for extra-curricular activities, including dance classes held by the famous ballet teacher Irena Prusicka. The adjacent buildings of All Saints housed many prominent converts and offered them living conditions starkly different from those in the rest of the ghetto. They were described by one of the inhabitants as “so quiet and peaceful that you felt like there was no ghetto and no war.”

Regarded as traitors

Already before the war the vast majority of the Jewish population held a decidedly negative attitude towards assimilated Jews, and even more so towards converted Jews. They were regarded as traitors betraying their Jewish heritage and culture. Conversion was rarely seen as a religious statement but rather a step to advancing one’s social and professional position by turning away from one’s community. The privileged position of assimilated Jews in the ghetto, so prominent against the background of the predominantly very poor, traditional, Yiddish-speaking ghetto street, only intensified these negative feelings. Yet probably more painfully felt by the assimilated community was the fact that they were rejected by the Polish community, which before the war they felt themselves to be a part of.

Pre-war Warsaw became the symbol of their lost pre-war life, in clear contrast to the reality of the ghetto: “an overflowing, stinking prison, where we stopped being human, where anyone can hit us and where we are nothing more than part of the despised masses.” Yet Warsaw remained unobtainable. As of the assimilated teenagers from the ghetto wrote, Krakowskie Przedmieście street in the center of the capital was as far away as the Champs-Élysées or the Piazza San Marco. The only sight of Warsaw that the vast majority of ghetto inhabitants could obtain was from the top of the bridge connecting the two parts of the Warsaw Ghetto. Since people were not allowed to stop on the bridge, many crossed it numerous times in a day, just to cherish a glimpse of the other side of the wall.

Even more painful was the lack of contact with Polish friends and acquaintances. Just before the ghetto was sealed off, many noted a wave of visits by their Polish friends, who “brought food parcels and what we needed even more: expressions of sympathy.” After the ghetto was hermetically sealed, such visits, requiring the bribing of German, Jewish and Polish guards, became very difficult and increasingly dangerous. With no physical contact possible, the main source of information about the other side were tales and rumors, and these were mainly concerned with the spread of szmalcownictwo — a popular term for the robbery and blackmail of Jews outside the ghetto.

Additionally, the comparatively good living situation of the ghetto assimilated community started to change from mid-1941. As the price of food was constantly growing while wages remained at the same level, the proportion of people in the ghetto able to live off their pre-war assets shrank. From this point onwards there was no longer a class system in the ghetto, only an overall slide towards poverty. As one of the ghetto inhabitants wrote: “Money ends, one finds some more stuff to sell. One day there will be nothing left though. This is the end. This is what awaits most, as nothing lasts forever. It is only a question of order. We are all standing in the queue.” At that time a new wave of beggars, once members of affluent and prominent families, appeared on the ghetto streets.

Deportations start

Despite the growing persecution and poverty, very few seemed to believe that the fate of the quarter was sealed. The Gross-Aktion, the deportation of the Warsaw ghetto inhabitants to the Treblinka extermination camp, caught the ghetto unaware and unprepared. On July 22, 1942, SS-Sturmbannführer Hermann Höfle, the newly appointed “Resettlement Commissioner”, informed Adam Czerniaków, head of the Judenrat, that the “resettlement to the East” was about to begin. Between July 22 and mid-September 1942, altogether 350,000 people were deported from the ghetto and murdered. The first to go were the poorest among the ghetto inhabitants. The assimilated Jews, with high-level positions in the official ghetto institutions or the German shops, felt assured of their safety. It soon turned out that this was an illusion.

As the deportations progressed, exemption documents and passes proved to be invalid. Life and death became dependent on completely haphazard factors. Even for those who managed to leave the ghetto, that was just the beginning of their ordeal. The Hans Frank decree of Oct. 15, 1941, imposed the death penalty on those discovered outside the ghetto and also on those helping them. The excruciating cost of remaining in hiding and constant fear of denunciation transformed the greatest figures of the interwar society into distressed, bewildered paupers.

For many, the pressure did not end with the end of the war. The great educator Janusz Korczak wrote in his Warsaw Ghetto diary: “Long after the war, men will not be able to look each other in the eyes without posing the question: How did it happen that you survived? How did you do it?” To no one was this statement referring more than to the so-called “victims of privilege” — policemen and members of ghetto authorities, actors in German-licensed theatres. In the eyes of the public, the stories told by the ghetto elite could not match those of the underground fighters. They were more likely to be tried for collaboration than hailed as heroes. It was only recently that the assimilated community were given their voice again, a voice, which like all of those who endured the Holocaust, deserves to be heard.

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