David Kertzer on the Vatican’s role in anti-semitism

Forcing Jews to wear yellow badges and keeping them locked up in ghettoes were not cruelties that the Nazis invented in the 20th century, but rather practices that the popes “had championed for hundreds of years,” says the author of a new book condemning the Vatican for its role in promulgating the hatred that led to the Holocaust.

According to David Kertzer — author of The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (Knopf) — the supreme leaders of the Catholic Church “were significant players in developing modern notions of anti-semitism in the late 19th century”, notions that led directly to the Nazi’s Final Solution.

Visiting Toronto as part of a promotional tour (2002), Kertzer spoke with The CJN and expanded on his findings after being allowed extended access to the Vatican’s so-called Inquisition archives in 1998 and 1999.

Rather than focus exclusively on the deeds of Pius XII, who occupied the papal seat during the Holocaust, Kerzer explained that he was more interested in a more telescopic perspective beginning in 1814, shortly after Napoleon liberated Europe’s Jews from their enclosed and restrictive domains.

“In 1814, with the restoration of the Old Regimes, including the Papal States, there was a major question that the rulers faced: Do we send the Jews back into the ghettoes, or do we leave them free to enjoy equal rights with other citizens?” Kertzer said.

“I discovered confidential correspondence of the Vatican’s secretary of state from 1814-15, when he was arguing with the Pope not to send the Jews back into the ghettoes of the papal states. The Pope overruled him and sent them back with all the old restrictions, such as wearing the yellow Jewish badges and being locked in at night.”

“I think that was a fateful transition,” he said. “The whole history of the Jews and the Catholic church could have taken a much more positive direction if a different policy had been taken back in 1814.”

We Remember, an important Vatican document released in 1998, pointed out that Jews were increasingly given civil rights throughout the 19th century, but failed to note that the Vatican itself repeatedly denounced the governments of Europe for emancipating the Jews, Kertzer said. In short, the document whitewashes Vatican history, he said.

“Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the Vatican called for re-introducing the old restrictions on the rights of the Jews as the only way to protect European society.”

Kertzer gained much knowledge of the Church’s anti-semitism in the 19th century while researching his first book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a riveting true story of a Jewish boy who was kidnapped from his family and raised as a Catholic with the Pope’s blessing.

In the Vatican archives Kertzer found a shocking indictment of Pius XI, who seemed to endorse the racial laws enacted in Italy about 1938. “The church hierarchy in Italy called on Italians to observe the anti-semitic laws, saying they were fully in harmony with age-old church teachings on how to deal with the Jews,” he said.

“Pope Pius XI was irate about one aspect of the racial laws, so irate that he complained to the king — in other words, he went over the head of Mussolini. But what he complained about was not any of the anti-semitic laws, but the fact that according to the racial laws a baptised Jew should still be considered a Jew and could not marry a Catholic. This angered the Pope because from the Vatican perspective, a baptised Jew should be regarded as Catholic.”

According to Kertzer, Pius XII should have done much more to help the Jews during the Holocaust, but said the tragedy would have taken place regardless of that pontiff’s actions.

“Much more important is the question, how could millions of Europeans in the middle of the 20th century come to view the Jews in such demonic terms that they could have either welcomed their destruction or at least been relatively indifferent to it? To understand that question, which I think is the key question, we need to look at the decades preceding the Holocaust.”

Kertzer praised the current Pope, John Paul II, for working to improve Catholic-Jewish relations through visits to Auschwitz, Israel and the synagogue in Rome.

“He’s called on the Church to face its past history and to see its dealings with the Jews with clear eyes. He has said that we must face unpleasant truths about the past if we are to move ahead to a brighter future.”

It is not just Jews who hold the opinion that “a full reconciliation between the Church and the Jews will not be possible” until the Church’s historic antisemitism is addressed, Kerzer said. “One of the heartening things is to hear voices within the Church who are talking about the importance” of coming to grips with the Vatican’s antisemitic past.

A professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, Kerzer said he is encouraged that, even though the Vatican has closed certain archives to researchers focused on the Holocaust era, it had opened its “very sensitive” historical archives to other researchers with a broader perspective.

“This shows that there is now a kind of momentum being built towards a full airing of some of the most unpleasant and embarrassing aspects of the Church’s historical treatment of the Jews,” he said.

Toronto historian Michael Marrus, who was part of a panel that disbanded recently after being denied access to Vatican records, called Kertzer’s new work “an important book” in a recent interview in the New York Times. “Unlike a lot of writing on the subject, Kertzer knows what he’s talking about. He’s seen stuff nobody else has,” Marrus said.

The New York-born author, who gave a lecture at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation, told the CJN that his parents had once lived in Toronto and that he had relatives here. His father was born in Cochrane, Ont., and attended the University of Toronto; his mother was born in St. Catharines, Ont. The couple moved to New York so his father could study at the Jewish Theological Seminary. ♦

© 2002 by Bill Gladstone