Abraham H. Foxman
National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
This article originally appeared in The Palm Beach Post on January 23, 2005
Now I understand. The recently discovered document in which the Vatican instructed its representatives in France after World War II to prevent baptized Jewish children from being returned to their families, finally makes clear to me what happened to me as a "Hidden Child" after the war.
Like the many thousands of Jews who probably were saved because Catholic individuals, families and institutions chose to take in Jewish children whose parents were being dragged off to the concentration camps, I was one of those children. My nanny took me in. She persuaded a priest in the Lithuanian city we had reached, after fleeing our home in Poland as we tried to stay ahead of the Nazis, to baptize me and falsify records to show that I was born to a Catholic family. Clearly, she could not have done this without the approval involvement and support of the priest, the church and the church hierarchy.
It also is clear that without the baptism, many of those who took in Jewish children would have found themselves in a far more dangerous situation where exposure was more likely and retribution by the Nazis a certainty.
I long have believed that there are many stories of acts of courage by Catholics that have not seen the light of day. Unfortunately, there is a troubling negative side to this history that now has been compounded by the revelation about orders from the Vatican. (The story, broken by The New York Times' Elaine Sciolino, appeared in The Post on Jan. 9, "1946 letter reopens Holocaust wounds.")
Most Jewish children who were taken in and baptized were not as fortunate as I was. My parents survived the camps and the ghetto and returned to claim their child. Possibly thousands of others, particularly in Poland, where by far the largest numbers of Jews were taken away, but in other European countries as well, were raised as Catholics and never have been told to this day of their true origins.
That is why 10 years ago, in a meeting with Pope John Paul II, I called on the Vatican to recommend to the dioceses throughout Europe, but especially in Poland, France and Belgium, that they open the baptismal records of children saved by Catholics during the war. I argued then, as I do now, that this would give the "Hidden Children" an opportunity to discover their true origins and possibly a return to their original faith, while providing a magnificent story of courage by Catholics. In the hell that was the Holocaust, this is one bright shining light.
The disclosure about the Vatican directive to French authorities after the war adds a new dimension to the issue in general and to my personal experience. When my parents returned to claim me, my nanny, a pious Catholic, refused to return me to my parents and my faith. This resulted in a series of kidnappings and a custody battle. For many years, my parents could not fathom my nanny's sudden change of heart and her determined effort to keep me. The recent disclosure sadly sheds light on her actions.
More broadly, the directive, which most likely was not limited to France but reached Catholic clergy throughout Europe, adds a level of responsibility for the church to actively participate in revealing the truth about those who were baptized. In other words, it is not only a question of providing an opportunity for people born Jewish to learn of their origins, even if it is 60 years later, though that is sufficient reason in itself. It is also a question of the church making right a directive which had a profound imprint on the lives of thousands of people and which is inconsistent with the many positive changes that have taken place in the Vatican attitudes toward Jews and Judaism in the past half-century.
A lot of things can be set right, even at this late date, if access to historical records is provided. Acts of heroism can be known, a special class of Holocaust survivors can connect to their past, and the church can act today in a positive way to ameliorate past decisions. Now is the time to act, because time is running out.