Cohort V recently spent a week in Jerusalem for the annual seminar hosted by Yad Vashem. Our students were welcomed by Eliot Nidam-Orvieto, who also stayed with them throughout the week, opening for different speakers and offering advice and connections for research. His talk was entitled “The Rescue of the Jews.”
It is commonly said that it took 10 people to save one Jew. This is both true and untrue. Survivor testimonies often reference only one person, because they were in contact with only one person. In reality, small groups of people created systems which often times saved more than one Jew. This lecture spoke about Catholic involvement in saving Jews. We specifically looked at the role of Catholic institutions in France. For example, some Catholic schools took on German-Jewish teachers and students. Sometimes priests would employ Jewish cooks or secretaries, but they were often only able to save men, in order to avoid suspicion according to their promises of celibacy.
Different organizations under the Vatican are granted more autonomy than others. Convents, for instance, did not report to Regional Bishops but rather to the Pope himself. Therefore, the mother superior often would not ask permission to admit a Jewish student to her boarding school. This is how many Jewish children were saved in occupied and Vichy France. Bishops on the other hand held varying stances on Jewish rescue. Some allowed and encouraged their parishes to accept Jews into the Parish or congregations for survival; Others were Anti-Semites and encouraged their laity to conform to Nazism, many already had underlying Anti-Semitism.
The Bishops who helped Jews hid them in old folks homes, including Dreyfus’ wife (of the Dreyfus Affair), and in Typhus houses (Germans wouldn’t search the Typhus house for fear of contracting the disease, but then Jews hiding there were in danger of the illness as well).
We have to ask the question why were French Catholics so much more willing to help Jews than Catholics in other parts of Europe. One explanation is that until 1941, nuns, monks and priests were prohibited from wearing their habits, and experienced persecution. It is thought that this made them more sympathetic.
Now the question of conversion has to be asked. In most instances, (particular to France) children were not forced to convert. They followed Catholic law which states that a minor (under the age of 14 for boys and 12 for girls) cannot convert without signed permission of their parents. As a result, many Jewish children while in hiding were not converted, even if they sought conversion. However, some clergy had anxiety about the “sin” the children brought to the schools if it they were not converted, and forced conversion upon them. A diary of a nun protecting Jewish children wrote that it was impossible to share Christianity with her wards because it would show their lack of knowledge of Christianity, so it was best not to talk about it, otherwise other students or teachers would know they were Jewish. She wrote, “everything demands this reservation.”
After liberation, many orphaned children were left in France. In postwar France, guardians had to pay taxes on children from different regions. Often times Jewish children who were previously hiding were given to various Jewish organizations. On rare occasions, Rabbis would not accept a child who had converted to Catholicism. This dichotomy ruled that the children belonged to respective affiliation; and the affiliation was responsible for the child, who was often orphaned.
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