For almost 60 years, angry controversy has surrounded the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the Holocaust. A recent event that received minimal attention, however, illustrates another side to the story.
On July 10 near Buenos Aires, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation dedicated a kindergarten named for Monsignor Angelo Roncalli. The kindergarten, part of the adjoining Raoul Wallenberg Community Center, serves children of poor families. Among those presiding was Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Relations with the Jews.
Roncalli – who would become Pope John XXIII – played a pivotal role in saving the lives of thousands of Jews while serving as the papal representative to Turkey during World War II.
“Much blood and ink have been spilled in the Jewish tragedy of those years,” said Chaim Barlas, who worked closely with Roncalli as head of the Palestine Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee. “But to the few heroic deeds which were performed to rescue Jews belong the activities of the apostolic delegate, Monsignor Roncalli, who worked indefatigably on their behalf.”
The International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation asked the Holocaust Museum of Israel to designate Roncalli as “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honor reserved for non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. Rabbi Simon Moguilevsky, chief rabbi of Buenos Aires, called Roncalli “a man truly created in the image of God.”
Roncalli displayed the behavior that earned such praise long before the Holocaust. As the papal representative to Bulgaria from 1925-34, Roncalli worked diligently not only to serve the needs of Bulgaria’s small Catholic community but also to reduce intense suspicion from the overwhelmingly Orthodox majority.
Three examples speak loudly. Nine days before Roncalli arrived in Bulgaria, terrorists tried to assassinate King Boris III by placing a bomb in the dome of Sofia’s main Orthodox cathedral. The explosion sent the dome crashing on the congregants, killing 150 and injuring 300.
Roncalli visited the wounded in a Catholic hospital that offered free care to everyone, regardless of religion. Boris was so impressed that he received Roncalli days later – a significant gesture because Roncalli had no diplomatic standing; his official title was “papal visitor.” Boris would prove indispensable to Roncalli 20 years later.
In July 1924, Roncalli visited a town where anti-Catholic sentiment erupted into violence. As Lawrence Elliott wrote in his biography, I Will Be Called John, “he returned glares of hostility with smiles. Then he preached a sermon of such friendship and unqualified good will that afterwards, the Orthodox vice-prefect, a wild-eyed anti-Catholic, came to pay his respects.”
In 1928, a series of earthquakes devastated central Bulgaria. Roncalli personally directed the distribution of food and blankets in the ravaged areas and even slept in emergency tents among the homeless, “comforting them with his presence when he had nothing else to offer,” Elliott wrote. Roncalli also solicited papal and private funds for a soup kitchen that fed everyone who came for nearly two months.
Six years later, the Vatican sent Roncalli to Istanbul as the apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece. Though he held no diplomatic standing with Turkey’s secular government, Roncalli developed cordial relationships with diplomats and various officials as the Vatican’s only representative. Those contacts became vital when World War II started and neutral Istanbul became a hive of diplomatic intrigue and espionage.
Roncalli first heard about the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe when he met Jewish refugees fleeing Poland in September 1940 – and helped them reach Palestine, then a British colony.
“We are dealing with one of the great mysteries in the history of humanity,” Roncalli wrote about the Holocaust. “Poor children of Israel. Daily I hear their groans around me. They are relatives and fellow countrymen of Jesus. May the Divine Savior come to their aid and enlighten them.”
Roncalli even communicated his outrage to the Germans. He rebuked German Ambassador Franz von Papen, a devout Catholic who suggested that the anti-Communist Pope Pius XII demonstrate public support for Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.
“And what shall I tell the Holy Father,” Roncalli replied, “about the thousands of Jews who have died in Germany and Poland at the hands of your countrymen?”
Nevertheless, even von Papen became useful. Roncalli wrote to the Nuremberg tribunal that von Papen – one of the Weimar Republic’s last chancellors who barely escaped death in a 1934 Nazi purge – “gave me the chance to save the lives of 24,000 Jews.”
As the persecution increased, Roncalli accelerated his activities. In January 1943, he forwarded Berlas’ request for the Vatican to inquire whether other neutral countries could grant asylum to Jews, to inform the German government that the Palestine Jewish Agency had 5,000 immigration certificates available and to ask Vatican Radio to broadcast that helping Jews was an act of mercy approved by the church.
Though the Vatican declined, Roncalli remained determined. With the help of Bulgaria’s King Boris, a reluctant Axis ally, Roncalli used the Red Cross to save thousands of Slovakian Jews who had been deported to Bulgaria prior to extermination.
In February 1944, Roncalli met twice with Rabbi Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Herzog asked him to intercede for 55,000 Jews interred in Romania, another Axis ally. Though Roncalli notified Rome, only 750 Jewish refugees – 250 of them orphans – were saved when their ship arrived in Jerusalem.
“The limits on Roncalli’s ability to help Jews were now cruelly apparent,” Peter Hebblethwaite wrote in his biography. “There was very little room left for maneuver.”
Yet in 1944, Roncalli launched his riskiest gambit.
That summer, Roncalli received Ira Hirschmann, a special envoy from the American War Refugee Board and a Hungarian immigrant. Germany invaded Hungary in March, and Hirschman brought statistics and eyewitness accounts of the resulting anti-Semitic purge.
“Roncalli listened intently as I outlined the desperate plight of Jews in Hungary,” Hirschmann later recalled. “Then he pulled his chair up closer and quietly asked, ‘Do you have any contact with people in Hungary who will cooperate?’”
The monsignor had heard reports of Hungarian nuns distributing baptismal certificates to Jews, mostly children. Nazi officials recognized the certificates as legitimate and allowed the bearers to leave Hungary unmolested. Roncalli planned to reinforce and expand the operation – regardless of whether Jews were actually baptized. Hirschmann readily agreed.
“It was clear to me that Roncalli had considered the plan before my arrival,” Hirschmann remembered, “and that he had created an atmosphere in which to test my credentials, my discretion and my ability to help put the operation into practical effect.”
Roncalli used diplomatic couriers, papal representatives and the Sisters of Our Lady of Zion to transport and issue baptismal certificates, immigration certificates and visas – many of them forged – to Hungarian Jews. A dispatch dated Aug. 16, 1944 from Roncalli to the papal nuncio to Hungary illustrates the intensity of “Operation Baptism”:
“Since the ‘Immigration Certificates’ we sent you in May contributed to the saving of the Jews they were intended for, I have accepted from the Jewish Agency in Palestine three more bundles, begging your excellency to pass them on to the person they were intended for, Mr. Miklos Krausz.”
Miklos Krausz was Moshe Kraus, Budapest secretary of the Palestine Jewish Agency.
“Operation Baptism” proved so effective that when the Soviets captured Budapest in February 1945, “some 100,000 Jews (200,000 in the whole of Hungary) had been spared,” Elliott wrote.
By that time, Roncalli was in his third month as papal nuncio to France, considered the choicest position in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps. In 1952, Pius XII made him a cardinal and the patriarch of Venice. Six years later, Roncalli became Pope John XXIII and reigned until his death in 1963.
John XXIII’s pontificate is best known for the Second Vatican Council, which he initiated to modernize Catholic practices and attitudes. One product of that council was the encyclical Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), which stressed Christianity’s Judaic roots and sought to repair centuries of hostility between both faiths. Some excerpts:
“Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.”
“Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
“Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
Though John XXIII died before the encyclical became public, it expresses theologically the attitude he bravely demonstrated two decades earlier.
“To Roncalli, who referred to the virtual obliteration of European Jewry as six million crucifixions,” Elliott wrote, the mission to save Jews from Hitler “was in no way singular but indeed mandatory on anyone who claimed to love God and humanity.”