Catholic Classroom: The Holocaust

Question: How Did the Church Respond to the Holocaust?

This month we celebrate the feasts of two saints who died at the hands of the Nazi regime: Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and Saint Maximilian Kolbe. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, formerly Edith Stein, was raised a Jew but converted as a young adult. She entered the Carmelite convent in Cologne where she was eventually captured and killed by Nazis. She accepted her death with peace, offering it up for her Jewish brothers and sisters. St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan Friar, was sent to Auschwitz where he offered to take the place of a Jewish man condemned to death by starvation. Both of these saints demonstrate a radical obedience to Christ’s call to self-sacrificial love. Throughout this dark period of history when millions of Jews were systematically slaughtered, they provided a glimmer of light. Although there was much more that could have been done in the face of this horrific genocide, there were many faithful Catholics who courageously took action to help their persecuted brothers and sisters.

Before World War II broke out, Pope Pius XI wrote an encyclical titled With Burning Concern, which denounced the “myth of race and blood," and reminded the faithful that the Church is the same for “all races and nations.” Though it did not directly address the Nazis or Hitler, the Pope’s words set the foundation for how the Church should respond in the face of racism and hatred. The encyclical was secretly distributed throughout Germany by the clergy and it was read at every parish on Palm Sunday of 1937.

Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Pope Pius XII wrote and spoke out against the Nazi regime. A New York Times editorial from December 1942 wrote; 

 “The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas... he is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all... the Pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism... he left no doubt that the Nazi aims are also irreconcilable with his own conception of a Christian peace.”

Pope Pius also commissioned Archbishop Giovanni Ferrofino to take action to help Jews seeking asylum. Ferrofino went to Portugal and the Dominican Republic to obtain hundreds of visas for Jews so that they could safely seek refuge in those countries. Ferrofino and Pope Pius XII are credited with helping to save more than 10,000 Jews by helping them escape Nazi Europe in this way.

There were also many priests and religious throughout Europe who sheltered Jews and others who were being persecuted by the Nazis. The French Carmelite, Fr. Jacques de Jésus hid Jewish boys in his school in France by enrolling them in classes under false names. He was eventually found out and he and his students were sent to concentration camps. Father Jacques was one of 67 Catholics to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. Those given the honor are non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish people during the Holocaust.

Five other Catholics recognized as Righteous Among the Nations were members of what became known as the Assissi Network, a rescue operation started by Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini. He and local priests and religious hid Jews in 26 convents and monasteries throughout the city. They even made sure that the Jews were able to celebrate their religious holidays, providing them with food for feasts like Yom Kippur.

There are surely hundreds of other Catholics who put their lives on the line to help those who were persecuted, but their stories will never be known.

In 1998, Cardinal Cassidy, president of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, presented a reflection on the Holocaust in which he acknowledged that many Catholics gave all the assistance they could, but many did not. He says, “We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church… We pray that our sorrow for the tragedy which the Jewish people has suffered in our century will lead to a new relationship with the Jewish people. We wish to turn awareness of past sins into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among Christians or anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect, as befits those who adore the one Creator and Lord and have a common father in faith, Abraham.”

Let us continue to pray for the souls of those killed in the Holocaust, the survivors who still live, and for our Church, that she may always defend the persecuted.


Catholic Classroom: The Holocaust