PARIS — Reopening a scandal that broke in 2004, the new French book “L’Eglise de France et les enfants juifs” (“The French Church and Jewish Children”) is a 10-year investigation into one of the most controversial post-war Catholic Church policies.
The book, which recently hit French bookstores, opens with a October 23, 1946, directive from the French Apostolic Nunciature that author Catherine Poujol found in the Church Archives in 2004 in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a commune in the southwestern area of Paris.
Leaked to the Italian daily newspaper Corriere Della Sera without her permission on December 28, 2004, the document — written in French and “approved by the Holy Father” — forbids Catholic authorities from allowing Jewish children who had been sheltered by Catholics and baptized to be returned to their families and communities.
“For Jews today, children or grandchildren of Shoah survivors, the letter from the Nunciature is written evidence of what was once feared,” Poujol writes. “We knew that after the war, Jewish organizations did everything in their power to obtain a letter from the pope, a memorandum asking institutions looking after hidden Jewish children to hand them over.
“Today, we have the evidence that a contrary order came from the Vatican, and affected some of these children,” she adds.
The formal Church directive outlining how to deal with requests from Jewish organizations looking for hidden children throughout Europe fails to mention the atrocities of the Holocaust.
“Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that would not be in a position to guarantee their Christian upbringing,” the document says. “For children who no longer have their parents, given the fact that the Church is responsible for them, it is not acceptable for them to be abandoned by the Church or entrusted to any persons who have no rights over them, at least until they are in a position to choose themselves.”
Archbishop of Lyon Monsignor Gerlier — credited with rescuing 120 Jewish children from deportation in Vénissieux — received the letter on April 30, 1947, along with another document, entitled “Note from the Abbot Blanc.”
Explaining the opinion of a theologist consulted by the Vatican envoy in France, Angelo Rocalli, the document states: “Baptism is what makes a Christian, hence it ‘cancels the Jew,’ which allowed the Church to protect so many endangered Israelites.”
To this day, there are no reliable figures on how many French Jewish children were hidden and saved by Catholics, or directly affected by this Church directive.
For almost a decade, Poujol has refused to talk to the press about her discovery. Now, she explains the reasons behind her silence.
“I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire without properly investigating the subject — and this was a very complex, lengthy process,” she told The Times of Israel.
“When the media published the directive, they had no evidence whatsoever of its origin and its actual impact on the field,” she continues. “For a historian, it is very tempting to talk to the press, especially when you discover something big. But had I talked, I would have lost my credibility and the Church’s trust.”
Poujol admits, however, that without the 2004 scandal, the French Church would probably not have granted her access to its private archives.
“The Church felt cornered, and at first adopted an inward-looking stance. But soon it realized that denying the access to these postwar documents would fuel the scandal even more.”
After examining countless sources and traveling throughout Europe, the US and Israel, Poujol came to the conclusion that even if this document clearly outlines the Church’s intention of keeping baptized Jewish children under its custody, it doesn’t cast blame on the entire Catholic Church.
“Many priests and bishops acted completely independently and didn’t abide by the directive,” she says.
Poujol notes that there is very little evidence as to which members of the Church did receive the note.
‘On the one hand, a sacrament, in this case baptism, was administered to save individuals from a likely death. But on the other hand, Catholics truly believe in the rescue of souls via this sacrament’
“After the war, the Church was in an unprecedented, exceptional situation — and wasn’t prepared for it,” she says. “On the one hand, a sacrament, in this case baptism, was administered to save individuals from a likely death. But on the other hand, Catholics truly believe in the rescue of souls via this sacrament.”
Amid numerous, well-documented examples, Poujol mentions the Finaly Affair, which consumed and divided France in 1953.
In 1944, two Jewish boys, Robert and Gerald Finaly, were sent by their parents to a Catholic nursery in Grenoble. After the parents were deported and died at Auschwitz, their uncle and aunt, who were living in Israel, attempted to get the children back.
In 1948, French Catholic nurse Antoinette Brun baptized the children without the family’s permission and formally adopted them, omitting to tell the judge about the existence of other relatives.
The affair reached the national spotlight when a police investigation found that several nuns of the Notre Dame de Sion order and Basque priests had arranged and executed the kidnapping and smuggling of the children in Spain in February 1953.
The boys were returned to their family on July 25 after an eight-year legal battle that divided the French public opinion.
Poujol explains, “The Finaly Affair is the most emblematic example of the Church’s ambivalent attitude. The debate opposed on the one hand Monsignor Gerlier, who did everything he could not to hand over the children, and on the other hand, Monsignor Caillot, archbishop of Grenoble and fervent supporter of the Vichy government, who lobbied actively to return the boys to their family.”
“French public opinion was divided into two opposing camps, clericals against anti-clericals, Zionists against anti-Zionists, and canon law against Republican law,” she adds.
In France, 11,600 Jewish children died during World War II, but another 72,400 survived.
“There are many gray areas when it comes to the role of the Catholic Church during and after the war; we cannot jump to a clear-cut, black or white conclusion,” says Poujol. “The very goal of my book is to show that we need to adopt a nuanced stance.”