Honoring Pope John XXIII, a Righteous Man

On April 27, 2014, two remarkable individuals, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, were canonized as saints by Pope Francis I who at the event called them “men of courage.” The day was deeply meaningful as a ceremony in honor of  John XXIII (whose given name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli) since it was Yom HaShoah, the day of commemoration for the Jews who died in the Holocaust as a result of the actions of Nazi Germany and its associates. Two weeks later, on May 13, 2014 the Israeli Knesset held a special session devoted to John XXIII’s memory and legacy because he had helped save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust. 

John XXIII was an extraordinary figure in the history of the Catholic Church for his actions during his pontificate from October 1958 to June 1963. Less than three months after he became Pope, he announced in January 1959 preparations for a ecumenical council, the Second Vatican Council that convened in October 1962 and that would lead to a revised liturgy, and reconstruction of Catholic doctrine (aggiornamento).

That reconstruction meant change in attitude towards Jews. On Good Friday, March 27, 1959 Pope John removed the description of Jews as “perfidious” from the prayer for the Jews, and changed the wording of the ritual of baptism to remove the offensive words, “Jewish unbelief” and “Hebrew error.” He removed the word “faithless” from the prayer for the conversion of the Jews. He was quoted in the Catholic Herald in 1965 as saying “ We are conscious today that many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes (about Jews)… Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews.”

His approach laid the foundation for a more open dialog and for more cordial relations between Catholicism and Judaism. This resulted in the Declaration, Nostra Aetate, proclaimed after John’s death by Pope Paul VI on November 28, 1965. Contradicting traditional teaching about Judaism, the important words were that the death of Christ “cannot be charged against all Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against Jews today.”

If this were not enough, John XXIII should be regarded as a saint for his actions during World War II, even though no second miracle could be attributed to him as the Church requires for sainthood. He has equal claim to be honored for those actions while he was Monsignor Roncalli during the years of the Holocaust. Whether he was the best Pope in history for the Jews as some have asserted is arguable. What is undeniable is that his behavior during the dark years represents the greatest understanding and sympathy for the Jewish people menaced by Nazi Germany.

Roncalli spoke out about Nazi crimes in a clear fashion and voiced his condemnation of them. He understood the meaning of the Nazi euphemism “transportation of Jews to the East.” He was aware of the persecution of Jews throughout his career, as Apostolic Vicar and Delegate to Turkey and Apostolic Delegate to Greece, 1935-1944, and Apostolic Nuncio to France in December 1944-53. During those years he tried to rescue Jews from the Nazi threat of deportation and extermination in a number of ways: by written requests, personal influence, calling on other clerical leaders to act, and by meeting leaders and officials from various countries.

In view of the continuing controversies over the policies and indeed knowledge by President Franklin D. Roosevelt concerning the Nazi death camps and the Holocaust, it is fascinating to learn that Roncalli had met in Istanbul with Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York and told him of the extermination camps in Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Spellman passed the information on to FDR who on June 26, 1944 wrote to the Hungarian government asking them to stop the deportations.

It is important to outline some of Roncalli’s humanitarian activities in the different countries. In Istanbul, he helped organize a network and collaborated with the delegation of the Jewish Agency to provide immigration certificates to Palestine, through diplomatic couriers, for Jewish refugees, though he took no political stand on the issue of Palestine. He sent to priests in a number of countries “temporary baptismal certificates,” religious documents that saved the lives of many, perhaps thousands of Jews, especially in Hungary through the certificates sent to the Hungarian Nuncio, Monsignor Angelo Rota, who has himself been recognized as a Righteous Gentile.

On July 8, 1943 Rocncalli  wrote to Deputy Secretary of State Montini in the Vatican that millions of Jews had been sent to and were being executed in Poland. In May 1943 from Sofia he wrote directly, thus avoiding the, to the Apostolic Nucio Valerio Valeri in Vichy suggesting that he help “this little caravan of Jews” in Perpignan, France.

One of Roncalli’s remarkable achievements was his intervention concerning King Boris of Bulgaria. He wrote a personal letter to the King who he knew asking him to prevent the deportation of Jews. This was done for a time, until Boris’ mysterious death, either by heart failure or poison, on August 28, 1943. Roncalli recorded that the King had acted (Il re ha fatto qualche cosa). When the German Army entered the country in August 1944 all Jews who could be found were deported to their death.

Roncalli also wrote in May 1943 directly to Jozef Tiso, himself a Catholic priest, who was President of the Slovak Republic, a satellite of Nazi Germany : “The Holy See anxiously implores the Slovak Government to assume an attitude consonant with the Catholic principles and sentiments of its nation.”  For a time the deportations were stopped.

He intervened in helping Romanian Jews from Transnistria  leave. He helped prevent Jews who were being held at the Sered concentration camp from being deported to the death camps in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. He also intervened on behalf of Italian Jewish refugees, and those in Eastern Europe, from Romania, Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary and Greece, and from France.

In what may have been his most remarkable achievement Roncalli elicited support from Franz von Papen, German Ambassador to Turkey, with whom he had daily meetings, to help Jews, who had fled Eastern Europe, escape from Istanbul, and to provide food and clothing. In return, Roncalli probably saved von Papen from being sentenced to death at the Nuremberg trial of war criminals. He wrote to the judges that he “did not want to interfere with any political judgment on von Papen. I can only say one thing: he gave me the chance to save the lives of 24,000 Jews.”

According to the rules of Yad Yashem in Jerusalem a diplomat cannot be recognized as a Righteous Gentile unless he had endangered his own life or career in the process of saving Jews. Though Pope John XXIII, Roncalli, did not specifically do this, the courage and humanism of this extraordinary individual justify his being given an award of the highest distinction.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.