The Pope at Yad Vashem

I grew up in a wonderful, predominantly Jewish suburb outside Rochester, New York. The Holocaust never directly touched my family. It still cast long shadows over many lives I knew. Inscribed in a notebook at our local Jewish Community Center were names of relatives lost. On my way to shoot pool or play basketball, I could find notations for the grandparents, aunts, and uncles of my classmates and friends. Somehow the survivors managed to reconstruct their lives, enduring quietly with staggering memories of trauma and loss.

I pondered some of those experiences reading accounts of Pope Francis’s visit to Yad Vashem during his recent visit to the Middle East. I am glad that the Pope is trying to mediate in the tragic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. So much about his efforts underscores why he is a remarkable figure on the world stage. Noting Palestinian suffering under an cruel occupation, while also noting the suffering of Israeli victims of terrorism, Francis demonstrated his remarkable ability to honor the humanity of both sides in an intractable conflict.

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And yet, reading Gershom Gorenberg’s fantastic account of the Pope’s visit, something doesn’t sit right. At Yad Vashem, Pope Francis kissed the hands of elderly survivors. He was gracious. He said many things one might expect a religious leader to say in that place on that occasion.  His comments would have been pitch-perfect, had he been visiting (say) Gandhi’s tomb far to the east.  But that wasn’t where he was….

What he did not do was to acknowledge his special responsibilities as the leader of the Catholic Church. He was not there—could not be there– as an individual righteous pilgrim offering comfort and good will to both sides in a tragic dispute. He was visiting in his capacity as the leader of an institution with a complicated and troubled history to precisely the events mourned at that memorial.

A great many individual Catholics, priests, nuns, bishops, and others acted heroically to save Jews and to oppose Hitler. To pick one example among many, Archbishop Jean-Geraud Saliege of Toulouse bluntly declared that ”the Jews are our brothers, like so many others, and no Christian can forget this fact.” The Archbishop said this from the pulpit, in 1942, in the middle of occupied Europe. He was not alone in such heroism.

Unfortunately, as an institution the Catholic Church, particularly Pope Pius XII, spectacularly failed. The Church bears general responsibility and (in many cases) specific guilt both its failure to intervene and for particular actions taken against Jews.

The most obvious failures include the Pope’s failure to plainly condemn Nazism and specific genocide against Jews (and others). In that same 1942, diplomats representing France, Poland, Brazil, the United States, and Britain approached the Vatican with the request that the Pope specifically denounce Nazi crimes against Jews. British diplomat Francis D’Arcy Osborne, wrote:

A policy of silence in regard to such offenses against the conscience of the world must necessarily involve a renunciation of moral leadership and a consequent atrophy of the influence and authority of the Vatican…

Osborne was rebuffed. And his prediction was borne out.

In 1997, the French Catholic Church plainly apologized to Jews. This was long overdue. A succession of Popes have been more reticent.

Some misdeeds continued beyond the war. Jewish children were hidden in Catholic homes or religious institutions during the war. When children were baptized, the Church sometimes deliberately obstructed their return to surviving Jewish relatives. As one notorious 1946 memorandum directed:

1) Avoid, as much as possible, responding in writing to Jewish authorities, but rather do it orally.
2) Each time a response is necessary, it is necessary to say that the Church must conduct investigations in order to study each case individually.
3) Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that would not be in a position to guarantee their Christian upbringing.
4) For children who no longer have their parents, given the fact that the Church has responsibility 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. This, evidently, is for children who would not have been baptized.
5) If the children have been turned over by their parents, and if the parents reclaim them now, providing that the children have not received baptism they can be given back.

It is to be noted that this decision of the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father.

To visit Yad Vashem without noting the Church’s historical responsibility was morally evasive. The Church took oblique responsibility for its historic anti-Semitism in Vatican II, when it undertook a tremendously admirable (contested and incomplete) process of internal reform on that occasion. It has never fully opened its archives or properly acknowledged basic facts about its behavior.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has attracted widespread attention with his recent Atlantic cover piece revived interest in an old issue: reparations to the descendants of African-American slaves. Of course, Germany paid reparations to survivors and to Israel.

Jews don’t require reparations from the Church. They do deserve an honest accounting. There may be no spot on the entire Planet Earth where a Pope, any Pope carries less moral authority than he does at Yad Vashem.

Pope Francis bears no personal stain for actions undertaken almost seventy years ago. And everyone should welcome his efforts to helpfully mediate the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Still, a debt remains unacknowledged and unpaid.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

3 thoughts on “The Pope at Yad Vashem”

  1. Right.

    And do not forget that after the war the Vatican helped many Nazi war criminals make their escapes.

    1. I'm somewhat ambivalent about this. What Harold Pollack says about the deplorable prewar and wartime record of the Catholic Church as an institution is true. Just as what what you say about its postwar aid to war criminals is true also (particularly in France).

      It just strikes me as an odd complaint for an American to make (even an American Jew) in light of prewar support of the Nazis and their war effort by many leading American conservatives and important business interests. America was notoriously hostile to Jewish refuges at a time when many could have been saved and did less to aid Jews during the war than just about anybody, including the Catholics mentioned in Harold's post. Postwar, America sheltered and nurtured more Nazis than any other country.

      America has never acknowledged the support for Hitler provided by leading Americans, let alone offered apologies or condemned the business who profited from German rearmament. I'm not aware of any formal apology by my government for turning away Jewish refugees after Hitler's rise to power. Neither has my country apologized for welcoming and succoring such a large number of particularly vile Nazi war criminals.

      I think we need to acknowledge that paying reparations is politically difficult for an institution like the Catholic Church. There has been a sincere apology and effort at reaching out to the Jewish community, of which this papal visit is a part. It seems churlish to ask of others something which we Americans have never been prepared to do, despite our greater moral failings during Hitler's rise to power and German rearmament.

  2. Mitch,

    Good points. But.

    No one is talking about canonizing Breckinridge Long. And I'm not aware of any secret archives that might shed more light on American activities with respect to Nazis. If such exist, I'd join you in a call to open them.

    Nor did Nazism grow in American soil the way it grew in Roman Catholic belief, for many centuries before Hitler was born.

    That the US admitted some number of Nazis is indeed shameful, but at least the excuses, however pathetic, were based on pragmatic considerations. The Church has no such explanation available to it.

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