In 1941, when Abraham Foxman was a year old, his parents and a nursemaid carried him east from his Polish homeland to Vilna in an effort to outrun the Nazis. But they failed, and the Nazis ordered his parents and the other Jews of Vilna into a ghetto.
“My parents decided to leave me with the nanny, a decision that ultimately saved my life and their lives because they were able to care for themselves rather than being tied to a child,” Foxman said. The nanny, Bronislawa Kurpi, had Foxman baptized Henrik Stanislous Kurpi and for the next four years he “lived as a Catholic, went to church and spit on Jews.”
His parents survived the war, were reunited with him, and Kurpi resumed her duties as the nanny. But after a short time, Kurpi announced that the child “belonged to her and the Catholic Church,” Foxman said.
“She tried to get my father arrested by the Soviets as a collaborator, and the Soviets said it was a family squabble and to settle it in court,” he said. “The court ruled in favor of my parents because it couldn’t care less about Catholicism.”
The family then returned to Poland and the nanny “kidnapped me, and my parents kidnapped me back.”
“My parents until the end of their lives could not understand what happened to her,” Foxman said of the nanny. “She had lived in a Jewish household and was very comfortable being part of our family.”
Foxman said he too was mystified by her actions — until late last month. On Dec. 28, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published a letter dated Oct. 23, 1946, purportedly written by the Vatican — although not by Pope Pius XII — directing French churches not to return Jewish children to their families if they had been baptized during the Holocaust. Foxman said that if such a letter was sent to the churches in France, it is likely to have been sent to Catholic churches in other countries. His nanny, he said, was just following Church dictates.
“She saved my life and my parents’ lives and what she did [in fighting to keep him] she did out of faith and belief,” he said. “I love her and value her memory. This letter has closed a chapter [in my life].”
But it has also added fresh fuel for those opposed to the Vatican’s plans to beatify Pope Pius XII for what critics contend was his public silence as the Nazis carried out their plan to murder the Jews of Europe.
Although the one-page, typewritten letter directive barring the return of baptized Jewish babies to their parents is unsigned, it states, “This decision has been approved by the Holy Father,” Pope Pius XII.
Foxman, now national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said his organization is preparing to send a letter to the Vatican requesting that Church plans to make Pope Pius XII a saint be held in abeyance until scholars have an opportunity to review all wartime-era Vatican records.
“The letter adds ammunition to those who believe Pope Pius XII could have and should have done more, and now we see that even after the war he took steps to prevent Jews from being Jewish,” said Foxman. “And so it sheds light on how righteous he was. It impacts on what he may or may not have done during the war, and raises our anxiety about the role he played.”
Rabbi Joel Meyers, co-chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which represents the major Jewish religious streams and communal agencies in their dealings with other international religious bodies, said he too believes the Vatican should “delay action” on the beatification process until scholars “have a chance to thoroughly examine Pope Pius’ record.”
He said the letter serves to “raise again questions about Vatican policy at that time.”
“We know that many children were safely sheltered by the Church and returned to their families after the war,” Rabbi Meyers added. “But we also know of other instances where the church withheld children from Jewish families. Given the ambivalent approach to the Church at the time … we would hope the church would be more forthcoming in searching its archives.”
Eugene Fisher, associate director of ecumenical relations at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said archivists are now combing through Vatican records to catalogue all records kept from the war years. He noted that the Church has already released records of to the beginning of the war. “They will finish doing Pope Pius XI and then they will do Pius XII up through the war years,” Fisher said. “A few years ago they increased the number of archivists working on this from two to 10, but they still have to bind it and catalogue everything. It is a fairly laborious, physical process.”
He said the request to delay the beatification process pending a review of the files by scholars has been made before by both Jewish and Catholic groups. “Very responsible people have given their opinions on both sides of the issue,” Fisher said. He added that the authenticity of the Vatican document is questionable.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser to the American Jewish Committee, said Fisher is looking at the issue tactically rather than whether the Church had an “ethical obligation” to return Jewish children to their families when the war ended. And even if their parents had been murdered in the Holocaust, “there was still a Jewish community that could claim them.”