Could there be reconciliation over the Vatican’s role in Holocaust?

Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.




(the israel bible)

September 12, 2023

4 min read

Relations between Catholicism and Judaism have been historically difficult, but the Vatican’s role in World War II and the Holocaust is perhaps the biggest stumbling block. The Ulma family is listed by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as Righteous Among the Gentiles, a title given to non-Jews who took great risks to save Jews during the Holocaust. Jozef was a farmer and amateur photographer who lived with his wife Wiktoria and their six young children in the small town of Markowa in the county of Lancut, district of Rzeszow. In the summer of 1942.

The Jews were taken from their homes, shot, and buried in a former animal burial ground. Some managed to escape and went into hiding in the surrounding area. In the fall of 1942, while the hunt for Jews was going on in the entire area, a Jewish family from Lancut named Szall came to Markowa to find shelter. When they asked Josef and Wiktoria Ulma to hide them, the couple agreed and took them in with two sisters – Golda and Layka Goldman. Someone reported them to the Nazis, and on the night of 23-24 March 1944, German police came to Markowa from Lancut. They found the Jews, and killed 70-year-old Saul Goldman with his sons Baruch, Mechel, Joachim and Mojzesz, along with Golda Grunfeld and her sister Lea Didner with her little daughter Reszla, on the Ulma farm and shot them. Afterward, they murdered the entire Ulma family. 31-year-old Wiktoria was seven months pregnant. Their children were  Stanislawa, 7; Barbara, 6; Maria, 18 months; and sons Wladyslaw, 5; Franciszek, 3; and Antoni, 2.

Jozef and Viktoria Ulma

The beatification of the Ulma family was theologically challenging for the Catholic Church as Wiktoria’s unborn child had not been baptized, which is a requirement for beatification. The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints issued a clarification, saying the child was actually born during the horror of the killings and received “baptism by blood” of its martyred mother.

On September 13, 1995, Yad Vashem recognized Jozef Ulma and his wife, Wiktoria Ulma, as Righteous Among the Nations. They are among 7,232 Poles who have received the recognition. A monument in remembrance of Josef and Wiktoria Ulma and their six children was inaugurated in Markowa in 2004.

David Nekrutman, the Executive Director of The Isaiah Projects and an Orthodox Jewish theologian, praised the Vatican for the move.

“This is a huge step by the Catholic Church to beatify a whole family that saved Jews during the Holocaust,” Nekrutman said. “They all are righteous non-Jews among the nations. Furthermore, I applaud the Catholic Church for beatifying Wiktoria’s unborn child and declaring it a martyr, although the baby was not baptized. This unborn child, in partnership with the family, helped save Jewish lives and paid the ultimate price as martyrs.”

In a reciprocal sign of reconciliation over the Holocaust, a report was released from Yad Vashem this week claiming to have discovered new documentation that substantiates reports that Catholic convents and monasteries in Rome sheltered Jews during World War II. According to the report, at least 3,200 Jews whose identities have been corroborated by the city’s Jewish community were sheltered from the Nazis. 

Researchers from the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Research Institute, and Rome’s Jewish community released the findings at an academic workshop Thursday held at the Museum of the Shoah, part of Rome’s main synagogue.

The documentation was discovered in the archives of the Biblical Institute, which is affiliated with the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University. It lists more than 4,300 people who were sheltered in the properties of 100 women’s and 55 men’s Catholic religious orders. Of those, 3,600 are identified by name, and research in the archives of Rome’s Jewish community “indicates that 3,200 certainly were Jews,” the statement said.

“Of the latter, it is known where they were hidden and, in certain circumstances, where they lived before the persecution. The documentation thus significantly increases the information on the history of the rescue of Jews in the context of the Catholic institutions of Rome,” the statement said.

Claudio Procaccia, in charge of the cultural department of Rome’s Jewish community, said the documentation doesn’t provide any information as to whether the Jews identified had been baptized. He emphasized that the lists provided an important “new element in understanding qualitatively and quantitatively” who was sheltered and their origins.

Vatican archives of the Pius papacy suggest that the Vatican worked hardest to save Jews who had converted to Catholicism or were children of Catholic-Jewish mixed marriages, according to the book “The Pope at War,” by Brown University anthropologist David Kertzer.

Nekrutman, who has several decades of working to build relationships between Israel and the nations, was optimistic that these developments would lead to further reconciliation.

“In 2010, I submitted a whole folder on behalf of Pave the Way Foundation on the positive role of Pope Pius XII in saving Jews during the Shoah to Yad Vashem,” Nekrutman told Israel365 News. “Any evidence to counter the skewed account of John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope is sorely welcomed.”

“The Catholic convents that sheltered Jews in Rome during the Shoah had to have the approval from the Pope,” Nekrutman noted. “Furthermore, Jews were also sheltered in the Vatican during this time. I am fully cognizant that the final assessment of Pope Pius XII for never publicly condemning outright the persecution and genocide of Jews and others will continue to fuel the critics of his papacy.”

“The fact remains that even Yad Vashem changed the wording on an exhibit on Pius XII’s papacy in 2012, from he ‘did not intervene’ to he ‘did not publicly protest.’ This was a positive advancement by Yad Vashem to incorporate the other scholarly assessments of the pope’s role during the Holocaust of his role in saving Jews.”

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