Sixty-seven years ago today, on April 12, 1951, the state of Israel created Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, to be observed every year on the twenty-seventh day of the Hebrew month Nisan. On that day, in Israel and around the world, Jews commemorate the victims of the Shoah (“catastrophe,” the Hebrew word preferred by Jews for the Holocaust). Not to be confused with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on January 27 and is the worldwide commemoration of the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz in 1945, Yom HaShoah is a holy day on the Jewish liturgical calendar.
Some historians have charged that the Catholic Church helped the Nazis in their persecution and genocide of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, or at least that it was not active enough in the 1930s and ’40s in opposing Nazism or the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” British journalist John Cornwell, for example, referred to Pope Pius XII (r. 1939–1958) as “Hitler’s Pope.”
Far from collaborating with the Nazis, however, the Church of the time directly opposed them and repeatedly warned the faithful of the grave danger they posed. In 1937, Pope Pius XI published an encyclical denouncing the Nazis, Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”). The document was written in German and smuggled into Germany with the expectation that it would be read from the pulpits of all Catholic churches in Germany on Passion Sunday of that year. In it, Pius XI stated:
Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, or a particular form of state, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.
Pius XII continued the work of his predecessor, and numerous historians, both Catholic and Jewish, have chronicled his work in rescuing Jews from the Nazis. Two books that recount Pius XII’s efforts and refute the post-war slander against him are Hitler, the War, and the Pope by Ronald J. Rychlak and The Myth of Hitler’s Pope by Rabbi David G. Dalin. After the war, Pius XII was widely praised for his work by many Jewish agencies and representatives, and his rescue work so inspired Israel Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome during the war, that when he converted to Catholicism Zolli chose Pius’s Christian name Eugenio for his own baptismal name.
There were also protests of Nazi treatment of Jews by national Catholic bishops’ conferences, the most well-known of which was in the Netherlands after the Nazi occupation of Holland. The Dutch Catholic bishops published a letter to be read in all Catholic churches in Holland on July 26, 1942, quoted by Rychlak in his book, which stated:
Ours is a time of great tribulations of which two are foremost: the sad destiny of the Jews and the plight of those departed [sic] for forced labor. . . . [All] of us must be aware of the terrible sufferings which both of them have to undergo, due to no guilt of their own. . . . [We] have learned with deep pain of the new dispositions which impose upon innocent Jewish men, women and children the deportation into foreign lands. . . . [The] incredible suffering which these measures cause to more than 10,000 people is in absolute opposition to the divine precepts of justice and charity. . . . [Let] us pray to God and for the intercession of Mary . . . that he may lend his strength to the people of Israel, so sorely tried in anguish and persecution.
As a result of the Dutch bishops’ intervention, the Nazis retaliated by rounding up and deporting Catholic converts from Judaism, including St. Edith Stein and her sister, Rosa. Historians believe that this retaliation against the Dutch bishops very likely was one reason Pius XII became more circumspect in addressing Nazi war crimes during his public addresses for the remainder of the war. In his Christmas message of 1942, for example, Pius XII did not refer directly to the Jews or to the concentration camps, but only to “the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”
There were also lay Catholics who risked their lives to shelter Jews, many of whom have been honored as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. Examples include St. Elisabetta Maria Hesselblad, a Swedish Bridgettine religious sister who hid Jews in her community’s monastery in Rome; Servants of God Józef and Wiktoria Ulma, a Polish married couple who were executed in 1944 for sheltering Jews; and Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker who smuggled Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Not all Catholics acquitted themselves honorably during this time, and some of those were Catholic clergy. Karl Eschweiler, a German priest and theologian, was a member of the Nazi party. He had his priestly faculties temporarily suspended by then-Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (later Pius XII) for his support of eugenics legislation. When he died in 1936, he was buried in a Nazi uniform. Austrian bishop Alois Hudal was a Hitler supporter widely reported to have helped Nazi war criminals escape justice following the war.
It is a great shame that some individual Catholics, even clergy, cooperated with the evils of Nazism. But the universal Church opposed it, and many other Catholics—including two popes— fought it heroically.
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