Which idea saved most of the lives

Jewish children in the lap of the Catholic ChurchLives saved, identity lost

They are stories that sound incredible: stories of women religious who hid Jewish children in monasteries and convents during the Nazi era. Stories of priests who, at risk of death, smuggled their wards, threatened with death, into church boarding schools, and even into parsonages. Most of them survived in the bosom of the church.

But after the war, gratefulness is often mixed with bitterness. For many of these children were later kept secret about their Jewish origins and a strange one, a Catholic one, was imposed on them. Again and again there were accusations that the church was spreading a cloak of silence over "this matter" - the baptism of Jewish children. What to do? The Catholic Church had been torn back and forth for a long time.

"There was the 'Mortara case' in the 19th century, says Professor Thomas Brechenmacher, historian in Potsdam," The church had such bad experiences with it that in the thirties and forties they were wary of anything like that to apply again. That has caused the greatest entanglements. "

Emergency baptism with consequences

Anna Morisi is at a loss. The little one has been coughing and feverish for days. Yes, of course, in those autumn days of 1852 the flu was rampant in Bologna. But what if it is something worse? Something that could threaten 11-month-old Edgardo's life? The maid Anna Morisi decides to act: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit." She sprinkles the little son of her rule with holy water and speaks the baptismal formula with which every Christian can baptize in an emergency. The fact that this little person to be baptized, Edgardo Mortara, is the son of a Jewish family - that has no meaning for the inexperienced housemaid at the moment.

Anna Morisi's emergency baptism has far-reaching consequences. After she reported it to a priest five years later, the story spreads like wildfire: And so on a summer evening in 1858, police officers thundered at the door of the Mortara family. Unmoved, they inform the stunned parents that little Edgardo cannot stay in his Jewish family because he is a baptized Christian. Pope Pius IX I therefore personally gave instructions to take the boy out of the family and bring him up as a Catholic.

How (Imago / Westend61) Religious rescued Jews from the Nazis
When the Nazis invaded Italy, some Jews found refuge in a Catholic order. They even wore Franciscan robes for camouflage.

Amid the desperate sobs of his mother, the police take the six-year-old with them and take him to a church in Rome. The historian Rudolf Lill says what is legal from a formal legal point of view:

"Until the 19th century, the Pope's state included not only Rome and Lazio, but the Marche and Romagna. Bologna and Ancona were the two largest cities in the Papal State after Rome." Consequently, according to Vatican expert Lill, the law of the Papal States also applies there, "which was largely aligned with canon law."

And Lill continues: "The Pope had a double function: he was the sovereign of the Papal States, and he was the Pope. And as Pope he obeyed canon law in all things related to the sacraments. And at that time they said: if a child If someone has been baptized, it is absolutely necessary for their salvation that they continue to grow up Catholic, and if the parents do not, in this case because they are not Catholics at all, then the child has to be brought into a Catholic context and raise it Catholic. It is in this context that history has to be placed. "

All of this takes place at a time when Pope Pius IX. an authoritarian-absolutist regime leads - up to a complete dogmatic paralysis of his church, so Lill: "And a victim of this paralysis was Edgardo Mortara."

Start as Jews, end as Christians

Change of scene. It's a moving memorial service. In one of the most magnificent churches in Christendom. On this August day 2007, representatives of the French government, politicians and dignitaries from many religions gather in the Notre-Dame Cathedral to bid farewell to the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger.

And then the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, echoes through the Gothic high choir of Notre-Dame. The historian Arno Lustiger speaks it for the cardinal, his cousin. Who had always made one thing clear throughout his life: "Become a Christian through faith and baptism, I remained a Jew, just as the apostles remained."

There is a connection between the child baptism in Bologna in 1852 and the funeral service in Paris in 2007: Both the little Italian boy and the French cardinal began their lives as Jews and - ended them as Christians. Both of them have become a plaything of their time and of the prevailing political conditions.

(www.imago-images.de) The "Oskar Schindler of the Vatican"
The story of the Irish priest Hugh O'Flaherty, who rescued many Jewish and other refugees from the Vatican, was filmed in 1983 with Gregory Peck in the lead role.


Edgardo Mortara never returned to his parents' house after the "kidnapping" ordered by the Vatican. He remained a Catholic Christian and entered the order of the Augustinian Canons in 1865, says Lill: "He was completely convinced that this papal doctrine was correct. Because the Pope liked him and preferred him, he was able to join at the age of 21 To be ordained priests. "

Similar and yet completely different: Cardinal Lustiger, born in Paris in 1926 as Aaron Lustiger. The son of Polish Jews was one of the thousands of Jewish children whose families were deported during the German occupation of France; his mother was murdered in Auschwitz. Aaron survived under a false identity, hidden in the care of a Catholic family. At the age of 14 he converted to Catholicism and took the name Jean-Marie. He studied theology, became a priest, archbishop of Paris and cardinal in 1983:

"What is interesting or moving in his résumé is that he has always been committed to Christian-Jewish dialogue. He always said that we come from one root," says historian Thomas Brechenmacher, professor at the University of Potsdam. There are many such stories. And all the stories are similar: they are stories like those of the Polish priest Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel, to whom his Catholic foster mother only revealed on her deathbed that he was born in the Lublin ghetto - as a Jewish child.

Only the father knows Jean’s true identity. Scene from Louis Malles "Goodbye, Children" (imago stock & people)

The French director Louis Malle tells one of these stories in his famous, autobiographical film "Auf Wiedersehen, Kinder". In 1944 she played in a Catholic boarding school in German-occupied France. There the religious welcomed a Jewish boy whose real name only one of them knows and whose story has a depressing end: "More than 40 years have passed since then, but as long as I live I will remember that January morning. Goodbye "Children. See you then!"

The "Holocaust Orphans"

"The background, according to Brechenmacher about the film," is of course the genocide of the Nazis against the Jews and in this context the Catholic Church provided help for persecuted Jews. "Thomas Brechenmacher was for several years a member of an international commission of Christian and Jewish scholars who has dealt with the subject of the so-called "Holocaust orphans" in Catholic institutions: "When the Nazis' persecution policy intensified after the beginning of the Second World War and the course was set in the direction of the murder of Jews, many desperate parents are in occupied countries such as France and It occurred to Poles, in order to at least save their children, to hand these children over to church institutions or to Catholic families. "

Monasteries, convents, parsonages and boarding schools open their doors to protect Jewish children and ensure their survival, says Brechenmacher: "The magnitudes are difficult to determine: Jewish organizations assume that there are around 8,000 to 10,000 children which in this way were placed in the care of Catholic institutions by their parents. "

Many of these children survive the extermination of the Jews in this way. They keep their lives, but they often lose their Jewish identity. Because they do not find out their true origin. Decades after the end of the war, those affected continue to search for their lost identity. They almost always encounter silence. But research into their fate was carried out immediately after the end of the war, says the Potsdam historian:

"After the Allies marched forward in Europe, the British and American associations also included individual troops from the not yet existing Israeli state, i.e. the pre-state Israeli or Zionist organization in Palestine. And soldiers of these troops relatively soon after the conquest of the Germany occupied territories began to ask the local authorities whether children had been hidden or rescued in individual institutions. That was one line; the other line was officially run through Zionist politicians; so we are talking about the so-called 'yishuv'. The 'yishuv 'is the organization that preceded the State of Israel. And representatives of this pre-state organization also established contacts with the Vatican relatively soon. "

A "cloak of silence"?

But these negotiations often come to a standstill. The church is being accused more and more of spreading a cloak of silence over "this matter". Because she, it is believed, wanted to cover up how many of these children were baptized and "appropriated" by the church at the time.

In 2004 a document from the Vatican that was discovered in a French church archive caused a stir. This, it was said, contained instructions to church authorities not to put down anything in writing on the "matter" of the so-called "Holocaust orphans" and to always declare that the church would investigate each case individually.

The historian Thomas Brechenmacher considers the importance of this document to be overestimated. He points out that this document is only a French-language summary of a paper of the "Holy Office". In addition, it is extremely shortened, because:

"In the meantime the original document has emerged, namely this instruction from the Holy Office. It dates from the end of September 1946 and presents these things in great detail ... Basically the Pope assured the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Herzog, that they would behave cooperatively on this issue - only you saw a certain problem because you realized that it is not a homogeneous mass of children, but there are very many individual cases. Therefore, the first instruction was to say: then we can only from a case-by-case examination. "

Brechenmacher also interprets the much-criticized "instruction to remain silent" differently: This is not an attempted cover-up, but a diplomatic practice:

"By saying: If the Holy See authorities negotiate with the Zionist politicians, then if possible no written testimony should be made about this. That does not mean that no testimony is made at all. It has been said that there will be an oral but not a written statement And then the question actually came up: What happens to children of whom no relative is alive, that is, Jewish orphans? And there you could again distinguish between those orphans who remained in their Jewish faith and those who were born out whatever reasons have been baptized. "

Thomas Brechenmacher recalls the case of a colleague, the Italian historian Sergio Minerbi:

"What always moves me is that Minerbi was also one of those people - he is a Roman Jew by birth - who survived in a convent. Minerbi has remained a Jew; he is still a sharp critic of Pius XII to this day. Nevertheless, he tells us that he was never called upon or pressured to become a Christian in his order. "

Forbidden baptisms

Which, by the way, would also have violated the official line of Rome and the official line of canon law: "If you look at canon 750 of canon law of 1917, it has been clearly described here: non-Christian children who are not yet of age are only allowed to be baptized if there is immediate danger to life or if the parents agree. "

The parents actually have to agree to the child baptism. Many Jewish orphans were baptized anyway (www.imago-images.de)

It is known from Pope John Paul II that his respect for Judaism went so far that, during his time as a priest in Poland in the 1940s, he strictly refused to have Jewish children baptized - even if they were saved by Catholic priests were. And a note from the Vatican Foreign Minister Domenico Tardini to Nuncio Roncalli on October 23, 1946 made it clear that rescued Jewish orphans should be returned immediately if biological relatives came forward.

Nevertheless, it remains undisputed that there have been overzealous priests and religious who have proselytized and also baptized without much fuss. Many children were given new, non-Jewish names and even after the end of the war did not find out about their origins or their true identity. Any memory of it should be erased. "Never say your - real - name," had been insisted on even the smallest among them over and over again.

According to Thomas Brechenmacher's research results, the cases of forced baptisms and forced conversions are numerically limited. Brechenmacher sees the reason for this in the trauma of the church after the "Mortara Affair": "The church had such bad experiences with it that in the thirties and forties they were careful not to use something like this again caused the greatest entanglements. " Because with his tenacity in the Mortara case, Pope Pius IX. at that time the two great Catholic powers France and Austria turned against them. They appeal to him to immediately return little Edgardo to his Jewish parents. The pontiff refuses: "Roma locuta - Causa finita!"

This word of power by the Pope, his lack of empathy and his apparent inability to think politically, fuel anti-clericalism in many European countries. The liberal press denounces the Catholic Church: as reactionary, absolutist and misanthropic, explains the historian Rudolf Lill:

"All the liberals said: Now look, the Pope is ready to kidnap when it comes to his teachings. You can see that this papal church acts anti-human, anti-liberal when it comes to its power. A tremendous fact. And It fell at a time when the authoritarian defensive of the papacy was radically turning against liberalism and against modernity as a whole, at a time when the papal state was in its final crisis. The Mortara case was a symptom of backwardness and denotes the narrow-mindedness of the Roman papacy. "

According to his own statement, Edgardo Mortara has never regretted his way into the bosom of the church. In his order he makes a career as a popular preacher and pastor. He becomes a theology professor. He worked for a long time in the Neustift monastery near Brixen in South Tyrol. During the Nazi era, his superiors sent him to Belgium to protect him from the National Socialists: "Because according to the laws of the Third Reich, he was a 'full Jew'," says Lill.

Edgardo Mortara died at the age of almost 90, in 1940.

In the summer of 2009 the Vatican resumed investigations into the fate of the Jewish "Holocaust orphans". The occasion was the planned trip of Pope Benedict XVI. to Israel. In a personal letter, Rabbi Shalom Dov Lifshitz, head of the Israeli anti-missionary organization "Yad Leachim", asked the head of the church to release names and information about the fate of the Jewish orphans. The then Apostolic Nuncio in Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, replied that the Holy See had been "active in this matter" and would seek further information. This was followed, apparently to this day, by silence. Nothing was known of further research.

But Thomas Brechenmacher is confident that there will be new impulses and insights on this topic, because in March 2020 the Vatican archives for the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. opened.

Too late for Dorota Szalajka, who was handed over to a Catholic orphanage in Lublin, Poland at the age of two in 1942 and who later only found the entry in her papers: "Name unknown." The consequence for her: "I will always only be 'name unknown'". I don't know about myself and that will never change, "she noted.

Dorota Szalajka died in 2016.