VATICAN CITY – A document that surfaced recently in Roman Catholic archives has revived debate about a contentious postwar issue: the Vatican's attempt to keep hold of some Jewish children who were protected from the Nazis by Christian families.
The 1946 circular apparently instructed French Church authorities that Jewish children baptized as Catholics, for safety or other reasons, should remain within the Church — even if that meant not returning them to their own families once the Nazi Occupation (search) ended.
The document, published in Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper this week, caused a stir for its tough, clear wording, though several historians said it offered no major revelations on an issue that emerged across Europe after World War II.
One Jewish leader called the letter "horrible."
"It's a dry, bureaucratic document, which has no feeling for the Holocaust, I'm sorry to say," Amos Luzzatto, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (search), told the Apcom news agency.
The one-page document, dated Oct. 23, 1946, advised French Church authorities on how to handle information requests from Jewish officials, asking them not to put anything in writing.
"Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that cannot ensure their Christian education," says a copy of the French-language letter obtained by The Associated Press.
One of the letter's most jarring lines says that children whose families survived the Holocaust should be returned, "as long as they had not been baptized." Those whose parents were killed "should not be abandoned by the Church," even if they had not received the sacrament.
That stance on baptism predated the Holocaust by nearly a century — in 1858, papal guards took a 6-year-old Jewish boy named Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna, Italy, after hearing he had been secretly baptized by a Catholic housemaid.
The 1946 letter shows how seriously the Church still treated the sacrament — and how it was unable to grasp the implications of the Nazi extermination of Jews, said Michael Marrus, a Holocaust historian at the University of Toronto (search).
"What really rings true to me is the Church's failure to understand the Holocaust as a catastrophe that affected the Jewish people, as a people, and that certain consequences had to be drawn from this," he said, adding that the Church was not alone on that front.
The document was discovered recently in Church archives outside Paris by a French historian and was passed on to the John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies (search), the Bologna research organization said.
One mystery is who exactly wrote it. The letter is datelined from Paris and says it summarizes the views of the Vatican's Holy Office, the precursor to the current Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
It also notes that the contents were approved by Pope Pius XII — the controversial figure accused by some Jewish groups of not doing enough to prevent the Holocaust.
Rev. Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit investigator promoting Pius' cause for sainthood, denied that the letter came from any source at the Vatican. He suggested it might have been a brief, incomplete summary of Church position by religious officials in France.
"Certainly there was a discussion about these issues, and norms were established in the Vatican, that is true. But they were far more explicit and far clearer and far more benign," Gumpel said.
The vast majority of children entrusted to Catholic families or institutions were never baptized, Gumpel said. Some were baptized with their parents. And all of them, when they came of age, had the right to choose their religion for themselves, he said.
Besides Pius, the letter also appears to have involved another major Catholic figure of the last century — the Vatican diplomat who became John XXIII.
In 1946, Angelo Roncalli was the Vatican's ambassador, or nuncio, to France, and the letter was addressed to his office. The much-loved pontiff is credited with saving thousands of Jews with transit visas and other assistance during the war, before he became pope.
Etienne Fouilloux (search), a French historian who is compiling Roncalli's diaries, said he found no trace of the diplomat's reaction to Jewish leaders inquiring about children.
Given Roncalli's record, Fouilloux said, "it would be a great discovery if we knew what the nuncio had replied."