New book examines role of the Polish church in saving Jews during the Holocaust
Often overlooked, the role that the church played in the rescue of Jews during WWII has been cast into the spotlight following the publication of a new book by the Catholic University of Lublin.
Titled the ‘Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy’, and available for free download in pdf format, the 1,300 page tome is the first ever English-language record to specifically document the heroic part the church played in saving Jews.
Speaking at the official release, Fr. Prof. Mirosław Kalinowski revealed that not only did the book take decades to write, but that it also fulfilled one of the demands made by Pope John Paul II.
“He told us to ‘serve the truth’, and that by doing so we would ‘serve freedom and life’,” said Kalinowski.
Written and researched by Ryszard Tyndorf, and described as “a monumental publication”, the book brings together the testimonies of Jews that were directly saved by the clergy whilst simultaneously giving credit to an institution often perceived for not doing enough at the time of the Holocaust.
“Pope Pius XII actually condemned Nazism and the deportation and murder of Jews,” said Professor Yagil Limore of the Institute for Holocaust Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “However, he preferred to act diplomatically and with discretion.”
Paired with the Communist system’s reticence to highlight the part that the church played in the rescue of Jews, this has often resulted in criticism and accusations of inaction.
In actuality, though, the book reveals that 100 religious orders in more than 500 facilities in Poland risked all to aid the country’s Jews.
Speaking at the book’s release, Grzegorz Berent of Gdańsk’s WWII museum said: “After the war Polish authorities kept silent about the involvement of priests and nuns in rescuing the Jewish population, but the issuance of documents and the provision of shelter did not take place against the church’s hierarchy, but with its consent.”
In total, approximately one in five priests were murdered during the war, but this did not deter many from trying to help despite the lingering threat of execution.
Introducing itself as “a long-overdue attempt to explore the extent of rescue activities that the Polish Catholic clergy extended to Jewish fugitives,” it does not shirk the harder questions, and the foreword openly admits that there were Poles whose “malicious misdeeds” only increased Jewish suffering.
Likewise, neither does the opening ignore the fact that a large number of people chose to turn a blind eye.
Despite this, the book offers a comprehensive reassessment that sheds a completely new light on the church.
“Despite the fact that thousands of Jews owed their lives, at least in part, to this extraordinarily perilous and abiding endeavour—carried out under the most challenging circumstances imaginable—to date, only one pioneering work, published a quarter of a century ago, has made a small part of this remarkable story known outside of Poland,” says the author.
Partially, it has not helped that high-profile works exist lambasting the church. In his chronicles of life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote: “The Polish clergy has reacted almost with indifference to the tragedy of the slaughter of the whole Jewish people.”
This point does not go unaddressed, with the author citing the American sociologist Nechama Tec who asserted that Ringelblum’s conclusions were “based on scattered case histories and casual observations”.
Unfortunately, they did set a narrative that asserted that Poland’s Catholic church all but promoted anti-Semitism, a belief that has grown with the years. In 1979, for instance, the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, stated: “What concerns the Jews, the Poles have been collaborating with the Germans. Only at most one hundred people helped Jews. … Polish priests did not save even one Jewish life.”
The Canadian rabbi, Reuven Bulka, has furthered such sentiments, going so far as to accuse Poles of “eagerly cooperating with the Nazis in the cold-blooded murder of the Jews.”
Finally, though, significant steps have been made to recall and honour the Polish church’s wartime role and this book has been at the vanguard.
Beginning his research in the 1990s alongside his co-author, Zygmunt Zielinski, Tyndorf’s epic work looks set to redefine popular knowledge.