Updated at 6:06 p.m. ET on September 22, 2020.
In early 1953, the photograph of a prominent nun being arrested was splashed across the front pages of French newspapers. Over the next several weeks, other French clergy—monks and nuns—would also be arrested. The charge: kidnapping two young Jewish boys, Robert and Gérald Finaly, whose parents had perished in a Nazi death camp. The case sparked intense public controversy. Le Monde, typical of much of the French media, devoted 178 articles in the first half of the year to the story of the brothers—secretly baptized at the direction of the Catholic woman who had cared for them—and the desperate attempts by surviving relatives to get them back. It was a struggle that pitted France’s Jewish community, so recently devastated by the Holocaust, against the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy, which insisted that the boys were now Catholic and must not be raised by Jews.
What was not known at the time—and what, in fact, could not be known until the opening, earlier this year, of the Vatican archives covering the papacy of Pius XII—is the central role that the Vatican and the pope himself played in the kidnapping drama. The Vatican helped direct efforts by local Church authorities to resist French court rulings and to keep the boys hidden, while at the same time carefully concealing the role that Rome was playing behind the scenes.
There is more. At the center of this drama was an official of the Vatican curia who, as we now know from other newly revealed documents, helped persuade Pope Pius XII not to speak out in protest after the Germans rounded up and deported Rome’s Jews in 1943—“the pope’s Jews,” as Jews in Rome had often been referred to. The silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust has long engendered bitter debates about the Roman Catholic Church and Jews. The memoranda, steeped in anti-Semitic language, involve discussions at the highest level about whether the pope should lodge a formal protest against the actions of Nazi authorities in Rome. Meanwhile, conservatives in the Church continue to push for the canonization of Pius XII as a saint.
The newly available Vatican documents, reported here for the first time, offer fresh insights into larger questions of how the Vatican thought about and reacted to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, and into the Vatican’s mindset immediately after the war about the Holocaust, the Jewish people, and the Roman Catholic Church’s role and prerogatives as an institution.
I. A Secret Baptism
Fritz Finaly, a medical doctor, was 37 and his wife, Anni, was 28 when the Germans came for them. Having escaped from Austria following its annexation by Nazi Germany, in 1938, they had hoped to flee to South America, but like so many desperate Jews at the time they found it impossible to find passage there. Settling in 1939 in a small town just outside Grenoble, in southeastern France, they did their best to make a life for themselves, although Fritz’s ability to practice medicine was hampered by the anti-Semitic laws installed by Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy government following the German conquest of France in 1940. In 1941, Robert, the Finalys’ first child, was born, followed by Gérald 15 months later. Despite a mounting official campaign against the Jews in France, the Finalys had both boys circumcised, in accordance with Jewish law, eight days after birth.
In February 1944, aware of the intensifying Gestapo roundups of Jews in their area, the Finalys placed their two small boys in a nursery in a nearby town. They confided the boys’ whereabouts to their friend Marie Paupaert, asking her to look out for the children in the event of their own arrest. Four days later, the Germans took Anni and Fritz. The couple was transported to Auschwitz, never to be seen again.
Terrified by what had happened to her friends, and fearing that the Germans would come looking for the children, Marie took Robert and Gérald to the convent of Notre-Dame de Sion, in Grenoble, hoping that the nuns would hide them. Deeming the children too young to care for, the sisters took them to the local municipal nursery school, whose director, Antoinette Brun, middle-aged and unmarried, agreed to look after them.
A little less than a year later, in early February 1945, with France now under Allied control, Fritz Finaly’s sister Marguerite, who had found refuge in New Zealand, wrote to the mayor of the town outside Grenoble where Fritz had lived to learn the fate of her brother and his family. When she heard what had happened, she immediately secured immigration permits for the two boys to join her in New Zealand. Marguerite wrote to Brun to thank her for taking care of her nephews and to ask for her assistance in arranging for their travel. To Marguerite’s dismay, Brun’s reply was evasive and made no indication that she would help return the children to their family. At the same time, concealing her knowledge of the existence of any Finaly relatives, Brun got a local judge to name her the provisional guardian of the boys, now 3 and 4 years old. (A good chronology of the basic events of the Finaly case, as previously known, is found in the French historian Catherine Poujol’s “Petite Chronique de L’affaire des Enfants Finaly,” published by the journal Archives Juives in 2004.)
The following year, the family made another attempt to have Robert and Gérald returned, this time by confronting Brun in person. Besides Marguerite, Fritz had two other sisters—one, Hedwig Rosner, living in Israel and the other, Louise, like Marguerite, living in New Zealand. Fritz had also had an older brother, Richard, who had remained in Vienna and perished in the Holocaust. But Richard’s wife, Auguste, had escaped to safety in Britain. Auguste now traveled to Grenoble, and on the morning of October 25, 1946, she appeared at Brun’s doorstep. It had been Fritz’s wish, his sister-in-law told Brun, that if anything were to happen to him and Anni, his sisters would look after the boys. She pleaded with Brun to show pity for a family that had been so recently torn apart. To Auguste’s shock, Brun grew hostile. “To all my prayers and pleas,” the boys’ aunt recalled later, “she had only a pitiless response, and she kept constantly repeating: ‘The Jews are not grateful.’ She would never give the boys back, she said.”
For many more months, Marguerite tried every avenue she could to retrieve her nephews. She sent pleas to the local mayor in France, to the French foreign minister, and to the Red Cross. At Marguerite’s urging, the bishop of Auckland sent a request through the archbishop of Westminster to the bishop of Grenoble, asking him to look into the matter. In his reply, in July 1948, the bishop explained that he had had a long talk with Brun, but she remained firm in her refusal to give up the children to their family. He made no offer of help himself, perhaps influenced by the fact that he had learned what no one in the family yet knew: Four months earlier, Brun had had the two boys baptized, meaning that under canon law they would now be considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be Catholics, and under longtime Church doctrine could not be returned to their Jewish relatives. When the family learned of the baptism, they turned for help to a Jewish family friend who lived in Grenoble, Moïse Keller. Frustrated by the difficulty of effectively fighting their cause from the other side of the world, the sisters in New Zealand decided it would be best if Fritz’s sister in Israel, Hedwig Rosner, took the lead.
With Keller’s help, the Finaly family took the case to court, but over the next years Brun kept refusing to obey a series of court orders giving Rosner custody of her nephews. Although the Catholic press would later present Brun as a surrogate mother to the boys, throughout these years the children were living not with her but in a variety of Catholic institutions. Robert and Gérald later recounted that they saw Brun only a couple of times a year, for brief visits. Shielding the boys from the authorities, by 1952 the nuns assisting Brun had arranged to place them under fictitious names at a Catholic school in Marseille. By then, the boys were 10 and 11.
A newly discovered Vatican document coming from Church sources in Grenoble offers insight into these months, noting that in July 1952 a local court had confirmed Hedwig Rosner’s guardianship of her nephews and ordered Brun to give the boys up to Rosner’s representative, Moïse Keller. Again Brun refused. The Vatican document notes, “Her attitude, motivated by her conscience from the fact that the boys are Christian, is approved by His Excellency Cardinal Gerlier”—the archbishop of Lyon, the archdiocese of which Grenoble is a part. At this time, too, Mother Antonine, the superior of the boarding school associated with the Notre-Dame de Sion convent, took on the leading role in keeping the children hidden. She was supported, according to the account provided by Grenoble to the pope, “by the directives of His Excellency Cardinal Gerlier.”
In November 1952, the local French court decided to stay its order for Brun to produce the Finaly boys, pending a decision by the Grenoble Court of Appeals scheduled for January 1953. By this time, Cardinal Gerlier was growing uneasy about the position in which he found himself. The press had gotten hold of the story. Now, as he wrote to the pope in mid-January 1953, in a letter found in the newly opened Vatican archives, he feared what the press reaction would be if the appeals court ruled against Brun and the Church: “The seriousness of the problem results notably from the fact that a profound agitation of public opinion is being created and growing around this affair. The Jewish press, the anti-Christian press, and many of the major neutral papers are seizing on this question. The communists of Grenoble are getting involved as well.”
The archbishop then came to the key question for which he was turning to the pope and the Holy Office for guidance: “In these conditions, should one be advised to refuse, come what may, to return the children, who belong to the Church by their baptism and whose faith, in all likelihood, would scarcely be able to resist the influence of the Jewish milieu were they to come back?” The matter, the archbishop concluded, is “extremely urgent.”
The Holy Office, one of the major congregations that make up the Roman curia, was founded as the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition in the 16th century as part of the Church’s battle against heresy. By the early 20th century, when it was referred to simply as the Holy Office, it continued to operate as the Vatican body responsible for ensuring adherence to official Church doctrine. It would change its name once again in 1965 and is now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For centuries, one of its functions had been to ensure that Jewish children who were baptized did not fall into the mortal sin of apostasy by returning to their Jewish faith. Although it was considered illicit under normal circumstances to baptize a child against parental wishes, once a child was baptized, whether licitly or illicitly, the baptism was considered valid and Church doctrine had to be followed.
A century earlier, another such case had caught the world’s attention. In 1858, the Holy Office and the pope at the time, Pius IX, learned that a 6-year-old Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, had been secretly baptized by the family’s illiterate teenage Christian maid, who said she feared the boy was dying. They instructed the police of the Papal States, of which Bologna was then part, to seize the child, whose name was Edgardo Mortara. The boy was sent to a Church institution in Rome established for the conversion of Jews and Muslims. While Jews throughout the lands in which the pope ruled as king had long lived in fear of just such a fate for their children, times were changing, and Edgardo’s abduction set off a worldwide protest. Despite the pressure, the pope refused to have the child released. Ultimately, Edgardo Mortara became a monk, traveling through Europe and America as he preached in several languages and tried to convert Jews. (I recounted this story in a 1997 book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, and covered another aspect of the case in a 2018 Atlantic article.) Shockingly, the Church’s position on baptism remains unchanged even now: “An infant of Catholic parents or even of non-Catholic parents is baptized licitly in danger of death even against the will of the parents.”
II. “The Indisputable Difficulties Caused by Judaism”
The Finaly case was not unlike that of Edgardo Mortara. Both involved the baptism of young Jewish children without family knowledge. Both involved the long-held Church doctrine that such children, now considered Catholic, must not be raised by Jewish families. Yet in mid-20th-century Europe, in the wake of the Holocaust, much had changed. Nearly two-thirds of Europe’s Jews had just been murdered. Thousands of Jewish orphans were scattered around the continent. Many of them had been hidden in convents, monasteries, and churches, as well as with Catholic families. In June 1945, the major French children’s relief organization estimated that in France alone some 1,200 Jewish children remained in non-Jewish families or institutions. It was thought that a much larger number were scattered across Poland, the Netherlands, and other countries. (The Canadian historian Michael Marrus provided a good overview of the situation in a 2006 Commonweal article, “The Missing: The Holocaust, the Church, and Jewish Orphans.”)
To the Jews of Europe who had survived the war, and to the Jews in America who were looking on, the idea that thousands of those orphaned children might be lost to their families and to the Jewish people provoked fear and resentment. The recollection of cases like that of Edgardo Mortara had instilled a special sense of suspicion toward a Church whose very doctrines stood in the way of the return to their Jewish families of any children who had been baptized.
For Pope Pius XII, who read Cardinal Gerlier’s plea for guidance in January 1953, the issue was not a new one. On September 21, 1945, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, Léon Kubowitzki, had come to see him to make two requests. First, Kubowitzki had asked the pope to issue a public declaration denouncing anti-Semitism. “We will consider it,” the pope had replied, although he would not, in the end, make any such declaration. The Jewish leader then had come to his second request, asking for the pope’s help in ensuring that the Jewish orphans of the Holocaust living in Catholic countries be returned to the Jewish community. “We will give it all our attention,” the pope had said, asking that his visitor send him “some statistics” on the matter.
Several months later, on March 10, 1946, the pope received another distinguished Jewish visitor, the Polish-born, thickly bearded chief rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog. Herzog’s visit came as part of a mission to help locate the missing Jewish orphans of the Holocaust. It would be of great assistance, said the rabbi, if the pope would issue a public plea to the priests of Europe calling on them to reveal the location of orphaned Jewish children who remained in the hands of Catholic families and institutions. Expressing sympathy for the disaster that had befallen the Jews of Europe, the pope said only that he would have the matter looked into and asked the rabbi to provide him with a detailed memorandum on the subject.
What the pope did next has not, until the opening of the Vatican archives this year, been known. Herzog returned to the Vatican on March 12 with the memorandum the pope had requested and was directed to the Secretariat of State. Following the death, in 1944, of his first secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, Pius XII had taken the unusual step of not appointing a successor, instead dividing the work between his two chief deputies, Domenico Tardini and Giovanni Battista Montini. It was Montini—the future Pope Paul VI—to whom the pope would later entrust the management of the Finaly case. In the eyes of both Montini and the pope, there was one man viewed as the Secretariat of State’s expert on all Jewish questions. This was Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, and it was Dell’Acqua with whom the rabbi was directed to meet.
Insight into Dell’Acqua’s attitudes toward the Jews is now available to us thanks to documents from the archives. Most telling is a remarkable pair of memoranda written as the pope considered whether he should take any action—or make any statement—following the Gestapo’s roundup, on October 16, 1943, of a thousand of Rome’s Jews for deportation to Auschwitz. As of that September, much of Italy was under German control, aided by a Mussolini-led puppet government established in the north. The Germans’ encirclement of the old Roman ghetto and their hours-long rousting of the terrified Jews had been traumatic for the Romans and presented the pope with a problem. Although he had a dim view of Adolf Hitler, as I discuss in my book The Pope and Mussolini, he had also taken pains to avoid angering him and was eager to maintain cordial relations with the Germans who occupied Rome and whose goodwill helped keep Vatican City unharmed. Meanwhile, more than a thousand Jews—mainly women, children, and old men—were being held for two days in a building complex right next door to the Vatican, awaiting deportation. The pope was well aware that a failure to speak out could be seen as an abdication of his moral responsibility.
In the end, he judged it imprudent to raise his voice. The Jews were herded onto a train to Auschwitz—and to death for all but a few of them. In the aftermath of this traumatic event, and amid a continuing roundup of Jews throughout German-controlled Italy, the pope’s longtime Jesuit emissary to the Italian Fascist regime, Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, proposed that some kind of Vatican protest be made. What he suggested was presenting a brief to the German authorities—in the context of a private meeting, not issued as a public document—calling on them to put an end to their homicidal campaign against Italy’s Jews. Two months after the deportation of the Jews of Rome, he went so far as to write a draft of what the official statement should say. The text he wrote, newly discovered in the archives and reprinted verbatim in translation at the end of this article, was titled “Verbal Note on the Jewish Situation in Italy.”
The thrust of the plea was far from pro-Jewish. The proposed Vatican statement argued that Mussolini’s racial laws, instituted five years earlier, had successfully kept the Jews in their proper place, and as a result there was no need for any violent measures to be taken against them. Italy’s Jews, Tacchi Venturi argued, did not present the grounds for serious government concern that they clearly did elsewhere. Nor had they engendered the same hostility from the majority “Aryan” portion of the population that Jews engendered in other countries. This was partly because there were so few Italian Jews and partly because so many of them had married Christians. New laws confining Italy’s Jews in concentration camps, the Jesuit insisted, offended the “good sense of the Italian people,” who believed that “the racial Law sanctioned by the Fascist Government against the Jews five years ago is sufficient to contain the tiny Jewish minority within its proper limits.”
Tacchi Venturi wrote, “For these reasons one nourishes the firm faith that the German Government will want to desist from the deportation of the Jews, whether that done en masse, as happened this past October, or those done by single individuals.” He returned again to his earlier argument:
In Italy, with the above-cited racial law of 1938, observed rigorously, the unquestionable inconveniences caused by Judaism when it comes to dominate or to enjoy great credit in a nation were already taken care of. But since at present this is not happening in Italy, one does not understand why and what need there is to return to a question that Mussolini’s Government considered already taken care of.
Could the pope remain silent if the continuing deportation of Italy’s Jews to the death camps continued? In considering this question, the proposed message to the German authorities—again, to be delivered only verbally—ended by raising the possibility that the Vatican might speak out publicly at some point: “If one renews the harsh measures against the minimal Jewish minority, which includes a notable number of members of the Catholic religion”—that is, Jews who had converted to Catholicism but were still regarded as Jews by both German and Italian authorities—“how will the Church be able to remain silent and not loudly lament before the whole world the fate of men and women not guilty of any crime toward whom it cannot, without failing to carry out its divine mission, deny its compassion and all its maternal care?”
On receiving the proposed protest, the cautious Pius XII turned to Dell’Acqua for advice. Dell’Acqua responded quickly, sending the pope a lengthy critique (also newly discovered, and presented verbatim in translation at the end of this article) two days later, advising against using Tacchi Venturi’s verbal statement, not least because, in Dell’Acqua’s view, it was overly sympathetic to the Jews. “The persecution of the Jews that the Holy See justly deplores is one thing,” Dell’Acqua advised the pope, “especially when it is carried out with certain methods, and quite another thing is to be wary of the Jews’ influence: this can be quite opportune.” Indeed, the Vatican-overseen Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, had been repeatedly warning of the need for government laws to restrict the rights of the Jews in order to protect Christian society from their alleged depredations. Nor, thought the monsignor, was it wise for the Vatican to be saying, as Tacchi Venturi had proposed, that there existed no “Aryan environment” in Italy that was “decisively hostile toward the Jewish milieu.” After all, Dell’Acqua wrote, “there was no lack in the history of Rome of measures adopted by the Pontiffs to limit the influence of the Jews.” He also appealed to the pope’s eagerness not to antagonize the Germans. “In the Note the mistreatment to which the Jews are allegedly being subject by the German Authorities is highlighted. This may even be true, but is it the case to say it so openly in a Note?” It was best, he concluded, that the whole idea of a formal Vatican presentation be abandoned. Better, he advised, to speak in more general terms to the German ambassador to the Holy See, “recommending to him that the already grave situation of the Jews not be aggravated further.”
Dell’Acqua, who, during the early course of the Finaly affair would himself be elevated to the rank of sostituto of the Secretariat of State, one of the most prestigious positions at the Vatican, and would later become cardinal vicar of Rome, ended his memo to the pope with advice for the Jews who kept making so much noise about the dangers they faced and the horrors they had already experienced: “One should also let the Jewish Signori know that they should speak a little less and act with great prudence.”
It was this prelate who met with Isaac Herzog, the chief rabbi of Palestine, a little over two years later. In a long memo now found in the Vatican archives, Dell’Acqua told of the meeting and reviewed the rabbi’s arguments for the pope to help get the Jewish children returned. “The children in question,” the rabbi said, “are in large part orphans (their parents were killed by the Nazis), found especially in Poland; others, however, are also in Belgium, Holland, and France.” The rabbi, Dell’Acqua reported, asked for the Holy Father—or, if not the pontiff personally, the Vatican—to issue a public call for the release of the children.* “That,” the rabbi told him, “would immensely facilitate our task.”
After reporting the rabbi’s request, Dell’Acqua offered his advice on how the pope should respond to what he called this “rather delicate problem.” He began by ruling out any public statement by the pope or the Vatican. “Nor would I suggest responding with a document of the Secretariat of State directed to the Chief Rabbi because it would certainly be exploited by Jewish propaganda.” Rather, the best course, Dell’Acqua advised, was simply to instruct the papal delegate in Jerusalem to offer a generic verbal reply, saying that it would be necessary to look into each case individually. Nothing should be put in writing. This the pope ordered done.
III. “Advise the Woman to Resist”
On January 17, 1953, Pius XII sent Cardinal Gerlier’s urgent request for guidance on the Finaly affair to the Holy Office for its opinion. Although the pope was the titular head of the Congregation of the Holy Office, the cardinals who composed it, along with the cadre of theological consultants who advised them, met separately and typically sent their recommendations to the pope through Monsignor Montini. A Holy Office note discovered in the archives, presumably written by one of the consultants, offered some historical background: “According to the practice of the Holy Office up until the suppression of the Papal States in 1870, Jewish children baptized without their parents’ permission were not returned.” Given the sense of urgency conveyed by Cardinal Gerlier, the Holy Office took up the Finaly matter immediately. As was customary, the cardinals turned first to their group of consultants. The Church, the consultants advised, should make all possible efforts to prevent the Finaly children from being returned to their Jewish family. Should the French court case decide against Antoinette Brun and grant the boys’ aunt guardianship, “one must delay its execution as long as possible, appealing to the Court of Cassation and using all other legal means.” Should the final court ruling then go against the Church, the consultants wrote, “advise the woman to resist … unless the woman were to sustain serious personal damage and one were to fear greater damages for the Church.”
The cardinal secretary of the Holy Office then wrote directly, in French, to Cardinal Gerlier, giving the Holy Office ruling:
The dangers for their faith, should they be returned to this Jewish aunt, requires careful consideration of the following consequences:
- by divine right, these children were able to choose, and they have chosen the religion that assures the health of their soul;
- canon law recognizes for children who have attained the age of reason [age 7] the right to decide their religious future;
- the Church has the inalienable duty to defend the free choice of these children who, by their baptism, belong to it.
What this meant, the cardinal secretary of the Holy Office advised Gerlier, was spelled out in the opinion the consultants had offered, which he appended.
Meanwhile, in France, Mother Antonine, afraid that the upcoming court ruling would go against them, had her own sister take the Finaly boys to a Catholic boarding school more than 500 kilometers from Grenoble, in Bayonne, near the Spanish border, and register them under false names. Her fears proved prescient. On January 29, 1953, the court ordered Brun arrested for failing to produce the boys. Brun would remain in prison in Grenoble for the next six weeks. Informed that the police were now looking for Robert and Gérald and afraid that they would not be safe as long as they remained in France, Mother Antonine made her way to Bayonne to discuss the matter with the local bishop. Two days after this visit, the boys disappeared. Shortly after that, Mother Antonine, charged with kidnapping, was herself imprisoned. The photograph of her arrest and the mystery of what had happened to the Finaly boys kicked off what would be many months of intense public interest in the case, in France and beyond. Over the next weeks, more monks and nuns would be arrested and imprisoned, charged with participating in a clerical underground that had spirited the boys across the Spanish border into the heart of Spain’s Basque country.
On February 24, in the wake of the French court decision and the arrest of Antoinette Brun and Mother Antonine, the Holy Office informed the pope that it had sent Cardinal Gerlier a new letter with the directive “to hold off as long as possible, that is up to when other more serious reasons might advise a different line of conduct.” The Holy Office, using one of the anti-Semitic themes routine within the Roman Catholic Church for many years, went on to inform the pope that “the Jews, tied in with the Masons and the socialists, have organized an international press campaign” around the case. In the face of this campaign, it complained, the reaction among France’s Catholics had been woefully weak, with only two of the Catholic periodicals having “energetically raised their voice in defense of the rights of the Church.”
Since the arrests, Cardinal Gerlier had agreed to negotiations with Jacob Kaplan, chief rabbi of Paris, to find a way out of the crisis. In its February 24 report, the Holy Office added its own cautious support for the negotiation. Given the situation they now found themselves in, with the Church taking a beating in the press and an increasing number of Catholic clergy imprisoned, something had to be done, the cardinals advised, to bring the case to an end. At the same time, the Holy Office insisted, any agreement requiring the boys’ return to France would have to meet two conditions. First, Robert and Gérald had to be placed in a “neutral” educational institution “in such a manner as not to get in the way of the boys’ practice of the Catholic religion.” Second, guarantees had to be given that Brun, Mother Antonine, and all the others charged with kidnapping either be absolved of the charges or amnestied. The Holy Office also suggested that Monsignor Montini speak directly with the French foreign minister, who happened to be visiting Rome, about the case, and called on Montini to send instructions to Cardinal Gerlier through the nuncio in Paris. Finally, it advised that in whatever action Gerlier took, no mention be made of the role being played behind the scenes by the Vatican, “so as not to compromise the Holy See in such a delicate and sensational dispute.”
The following day, Montini wrote back to the cardinal secretary of the Holy Office, informing him that the pope had accepted their advice. Montini reported that he had already spoken with the French foreign minister and sent the nuncio the instructions to agree to a settlement as long as it accorded with the Holy Office requirements. Following his conversation with the pope, Montini had added a clause to the language proposed by the Holy Office to make it even clearer that the children must be free to continue to practice their Catholic religion. The agreement, he told the nuncio, could only be reached “after having taken the opportune precautions to ensure that they [the boys] are not prompted to become Jews again.” Montini added a final instruction in his coded telegram to the nuncio: “E’ bene che S.O. non apparisca” (“It is well that the Holy Office not be visible”).
The Vatican was between nuncios in Paris at the time, as the pope had recently notified the previous nuncio, Angelo Roncalli—later to succeed him, as Pope John XXIII—that he was being appointed a cardinal and would become patriarch of Venice. Just as the acting nuncio received Montini’s instructions, he was visited by Israel’s ambassador to France. The ambassador came on behalf of his government to ask the pope to issue a public plea to all good Catholics to assist in finding the Finaly boys and to disassociate himself from the monks and nuns who had hidden them. “I observed,” the papal emissary wrote in reporting the conversation to Montini, “that he dared to ask too much. The Holy See might be able to support an agreement, but only if certain guarantees were given with respect to the little ones’ Faith. It would never disassociate itself from and publicly condemn those who, it must be supposed, acted out of the righteousness of conscience.”
The following days saw intense negotiations between the priest deputized to represent Cardinal Gerlier and the Church on one side and Rabbi Kaplan on the other. Receiving a draft of the proposed agreement in early March, the pope called on his expert on Jewish affairs, Dell’Acqua, to prepare an analysis. The Finaly affair, Dell’Acqua advised, had stirred up a fierce press campaign against Church authorities in France, and so finding a way to bring it to an end was crucial. And yet, he concluded, the proposed agreement did not provide the guarantees the Church was looking for. “With all likelihood,” Dell’Acqua wrote, “the court proceedings in course will finish in favor of the Judaic thesis and the two young boys will end up in the hands of the Jews who, with ever greater ruthless obstinacy, will force a ‘Jewish’ education on them, with the resulting humiliation (at least in the eyes of a part of the wider public) of the Catholic Church.”
Any agreement, thought the monsignor, had to ensure the boys’ ability to continue their Catholic education. “If, then, the Jews do not observe the commitment they assumed”—here Dell’Acqua added in parentheses, “which is likely”—“the fault will then be theirs and the Church will always be able, with reason, to charge them with hypocrisy.”
The pope, too, was unhappy with the agreement that the negotiators had reached in France. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, assessore of the Holy Office, had brought the text in mid-March to show the pontiff. “A positive approval cannot be given,” reads the cardinal’s handwritten note of what the pope told him, bearing the purple stamp marking an official papal decision. The agreement, the pope thought, did not offer sufficient assurances that the boys would not come under Jewish influence and revert to their parents’ religion. That said, and recognizing the public-relations disaster that the Church faced if no agreement were to be reached, the pope sought to place responsibility for the deal on Cardinal Gerlier.
As a result of these discussions with the pope, on March 16 Montini wrote again to the acting nuncio in Paris. After pointing out the Holy See’s unhappiness over the lack of sufficient guarantees provided in the draft agreement, Montini added, “If, however, the cardinal, considering the circumstances, believes he is able to assume responsibility for the execution of the agreement, the Holy Office does not oppose it and will give promised support for finding the boys.”
At the same time, the head of the liberal branch of Judaism in France, Rabbi André Zaoui, came to Rome to plead on behalf of the Finaly family. Although he was presumably eager to see the pope, it was Angelo Dell’Acqua he got to meet with, a meeting the monsignor then reported on in a memo for Pius XII. The Vatican, the rabbi had told Dell’Acqua, would be performing an act of “charity” in helping return Robert and Gérald to their relatives. “I responded,” the monsignor informed the pope, “that it was not a matter of charity but a question of principle and therefore of justice. The two boys, being Catholic, have some rights. The Catholic Church not only has rights with respect to them, but duties that it must fulfill.” As he got up to leave, the rabbi countered that the Jewish community also had rights and responsibilities. “Not, however,” Dell’Acqua told him, “of the same kind as those of the Catholic Church.”
After hearing from Cardinal Gerlier that he could get no further concessions from the Jewish side and that prolonging the concealment of the Finaly boys would prove disastrous for the Catholic Church in France, the pope reluctantly—the Latin expression aegre is used in the official record of the pope’s decision—gave his approval to the agreement. On March 23, Montini sent a telegram to the nuncio in Madrid informing him of the decision and advising the clergy to help find and return the Finaly children.
IV. A Flight to Tel Aviv
Hopes that the agreement would lead to the speedy return of the boys were soon to be disappointed. Although the nuncio in Madrid met with Spain’s cardinal primate to let him know of the Vatican’s desire for the boys to be returned, it seemed that neither the Spanish clergy nor, for its own reasons, the Spanish government was in any rush to have them found. The Spanish monks hiding the boys, Cardinal Gerlier wrote Rome, were still claiming that the pope was not eager to see them returned. In April, this prompted another telegram to the nuncio in Madrid: “Cardinal Gerlier reports that the local Spanish religious authorities where the Finaly brothers are found are said to declare that the guarantees contained in Gerlier’s agreement are insufficient and would not agree to the return of the children without an order from the Holy See.” In an accompanying note for the pope, Dell’Acqua stressed the “importance that the Holy See not appear directly. It is necessary to be attentive not only to the effects in France but also in the other Catholic and non-Catholic countries. If in some way it appeared that the boys were being returned due to the direct intervention of the Holy See, that might, at least in some countries, be judged unfavorably.” In other words, Church traditionalists familiar with Catholic doctrine might be displeased with the pope should he be seen calling for the return of the boys to their Jewish family.
In an effort to deflect attention from any Church responsibility for the continuing concealment of the Finaly children in Spain, Dell’Acqua, with the pope’s approval, drafted an article to be placed in a Swiss newspaper. It was not the “religious” aspects of the case that were preventing the boys’ return, it asserted, but political issues, “insofar as the two boys can consider themselves to be refugees who have invoked the right of exile.” On April 28, Montini sent the text of the article to the nuncio in Bern, with the instruction that he “examine how to have the press of that Nation publish the news contained in the Note, obviously without them knowing its origin.”
Still the boys could not be found. As part of the agreement he had reached with Cardinal Gerlier in March, Rabbi Kaplan had remained silent, but in early June, under growing pressure from France’s Jewish community, he called a news conference. High Church officials, he charged, had never publicly condemned the baptism of the Finaly children and the Church had taken no action to pry their whereabouts from the priests and nuns who knew where they were. He had been promised their return, the rabbi said, but now, almost three months later, Catholic clergy were still hiding them.
“The attitude of the Spanish authorities,” the French ambassador complained to the Vatican, as a newly available Vatican record of the conversation reveals, “remains less than clear. While the Minister of Foreign Affairs seems to be favorable to the desired solution, those under him come up with various pretexts to avoid the conclusion.” Indeed, the excuse that the Spanish officials repeatedly gave for their inaction was that it was Spanish Basque monks who were hiding the Finaly boys and they did not want to further inflame the government’s already tense relations with that region. On June 22, the French ambassador followed up with a memo he gave to Montini, which Montini in turn quickly forwarded to the nuncio in Madrid: “The Governor of San Sebastián [in Spain’s Basque region] continues to think … that the Spanish Basque clergy have the last word and that ‘without a formal order from Rome, the boys will remain in the shadows.’” The French government, the ambassador reported, found the Church’s failure to abide by the terms of Cardinal Gerlier’s agreement for the return of Robert and Gérald a matter of growing concern.
Four days later, a greatly relieved French ambassador called the Secretariat of State and got through to Dell’Acqua: The Finaly boys had just been handed over at San Sebastián to Germaine Ribière, the woman who had been shuttling back and forth across the border on Cardinal Gerlier’s behalf, trying to find them. The boys had already crossed the border into France.
As the saga approached its final chapter, the battle over Robert and Gérald Finaly would take on a new complexion. From the Vatican’s perspective, while it had agreed to the children’s return, it had not agreed to have them abandon their Catholic identity. Reacting to press reports that the boys’ aunt, who had left her husband and her own children behind in Israel during the months that she had been in France, was planning to take them back with her, Pius XII authorized a news story to be planted by the Holy Office in a Roman Catholic newspaper. A journalist at the Vatican’s own L’Osservatore Romano was charged with drafting it, and the final text was edited by the Holy Office.
The article, published on July 9, explained that any claim that the accord reached between Cardinal Gerlier and the Finaly family would permit taking the boys to Israel and becoming Jewish was erroneous. “The free will of the two boys, who have declared their wish to remain Catholic, is protected by the agreement. Thus they have the full right to profess and practice Catholicism, without being exposed to any pressure direct or indirect … It is clear that the prospect of the two boys’ ‘reeducation’ to Judaism would be in contrast with these premises.” The article then took a swipe at France’s Jewish community. Although French Church authorities had kept their word, the article stated, the press in recent weeks had been filled with sarcastic remarks about how long it was taking for the Church to locate the boys. “Even the chief rabbis lent themselves to these harmful suspicions with words that, apart from every other consideration, betrayed the most absolute lack of recognition for all that the Catholics had done in these years for the Jews, running the risk of the most serious personal dangers and without asking for anything, simply out of Christian charity.”
On July 19, Monsignor Montini followed up in a letter to the new nuncio in Paris. “Some newspapers,” he wrote, “are reporting that the Finaly brothers will soon be taken to Israel to be reeducated in Judaism. That is in contrast with the agreements that Cardinal Gerlier concluded some time ago.” He instructed the nuncio to call the cardinal’s attention to this fact and to report back on his response.
Six days later, Hedwig Rosner, having been awarded legal guardianship of her two nephews, boarded a plane with Robert and Gérald and flew to Tel Aviv.
What should the pope do now? Dell’Acqua offered a suggestion. The Jewish press, he wrote in a memo for the pope on July 29, was casting the outcome of the Finaly affair as a victory. “I wonder if it is not the case,” Dell’Acqua proposed, “to have an article prepared for La Civiltà Cattolica to unmask the Jews and accuse them of disloyalty.” (This document is included in the appendix.) The pope apparently thought this worth considering, at least in some form; two days later, Montini prepared a message to the nuncio in Paris, complaining about Cardinal Gerlier and asking for his opinion on whether going ahead with the proposed article would be a good idea. The conclusion of the Finaly affair, Montini wrote, “had inflicted a serious blow to the Church’s right and also to its prestige in the world.” Meeting a few days later, the Holy Office supported the idea that some public action was called for, advising the pope to instruct Cardinal Gerlier to lodge an official protest.
Yet in the end, following the advice of the new nuncio in Paris that an article such as the one being proposed would be widely read as a condemnation of the action of the French episcopate, and especially of Cardinal Gerlier, the plan was dropped. Montini did, however, send a written protest in late September to the French government through its ambassador to the Vatican. The Holy See, Montini wrote, could only “express its great regret for the solution that was given to this affair without considering the religious interest of the two baptized youths. It likewise expresses the fear that these boys’ Catholic education will come to be compromised, contrary to the spirit of an agreement signed by the representatives of the family and those of the ecclesiastical authorities, and to which the latter have remained faithful.”
V. More to Come
Anni and Fritz Finaly had made it to within months of the Allied liberation of France when the Gestapo seized them and sent them to their death. While the danger to France’s Jews would soon pass, the horrors of the Holocaust were slow to move the Roman Catholic Church to consider its own history of anti-Semitism or the role it played in making the Nazis’ mass murder of European Jews possible. Pope Pius XII was undoubtedly horrified by the slaughter, but as pope or, earlier, as the Vatican’s secretary of state, he had never complained about the sharp measures taken against the Jews as one Catholic nation after another introduced repressive laws (Italy in 1938, for instance, and France in 1940). The only complaint Pius XII made about Italy’s anti-Semitic laws was the unfairness of applying them to Jews who had converted to Catholicism. That there might have been a link between the centuries of Church demonization of the Jews and the ability of people who thought of themselves as Catholics to murder Jews seems never to have crossed his mind. The fact that Mussolini’s regime relied heavily on Church materials—its newspapers and magazines filled with references to the measures popes had taken over the centuries to protect “healthy” Christian society from the threat posed by the Jews—to justify its anti-Semitic laws led to little rethinking of Church doctrine or practice under his papacy.
Among the revelations of the newly available documents is how little impact the Holocaust had on the Vatican’s view of its proper course of action in the case of the Finaly boys. While the documents show occasional allusions by the pope and those around him to the suffering recently experienced by the Jewish people, these expressions of sympathy did not translate into any special concern for the wishes of Robert and Gérald Finaly’s parents or for the Finaly family survivors who sought to take the boys in. What comes through clearly in reading the Vatican records is that the prerogatives of the Roman Catholic Church mattered above all else: that, according to Church doctrine, baptism, even against a family’s wishes, gave the Church the right to claim the children. This was what motivated the monks and nuns who moved the boys around, under fictitious names, from one hiding place to another.
The commitment of Pope Pius XII and the men of the curia to prevent the Finaly family from gaining custody of the children was tempered only by concerns about bad press, a worry constantly highlighted by Cardinal Gerlier in his increasingly urgent pleas to Rome. He especially feared bad press because it was, as he repeatedly reminded the pope and the Holy Office over these months, weakening the Church’s political position in France and its efforts to get the postwar French government to give state recognition to Catholic parochial schools.
No aspect of the pope’s attitude toward the Jews has received as much attention as the controversy over his silence during the war—his failure to denounce the Nazis and their accomplices for the systematic slaughter of Europe’s Jews. In an effort to respond to critics, it was Montini himself who later, as Pope Paul VI, commissioned a group of Jesuit scholars to pore through the Vatican archives—which have remained closed to other scholars until now—to bring to light all relevant documents regarding the pope’s and the Vatican secretary of state’s actions as they considered how to respond to the unfolding horrors of the Second World War. This resulted, from 1965 to 1981, in the publication of 12 volumes filled with thousands of documents. Volume 9, devoted to how the Holy See sought to help the victims of the war in the year 1943, contains 492 documents.
In light of the publication of this massive trove of documents, the claim has been made that nothing much new will be learned about the pope’s silence during the Holocaust from the recent opening of the Vatican archives. But scholars need not have worried about a lack of new material. Neither Pietro Tacchi Venturi’s proposed tepid, anti-Semitic Vatican protest of the Germans’ murderous campaign against the Jews in Italy nor Angelo Dell’Acqua’s memo in response was included in that massive publication. The single document published there on the episode is Cardinal Maglione’s somewhat cryptic comment in response to Tacchi Venturi’s proposal: “It is not the case to send Father Tacchi Venturi’s note (which would in any case have to be redone) nor even a more delicate note by us.” Dell’Acqua is not mentioned at all. A footnote by the editors of the Vatican volume does not make clear what Tacchi Venturi was proposing and only quotes the passages from his memo that offered a positive image of the Jews and of the lack of anti-Jewish sentiment in Italy. The new discoveries provide ample grounds to believe that the full story of Pius XII and the Jews remains to be written.
It would only be after Pius XII’s death that Church attitudes toward the Jews would change in a meaningful way, thanks to his successor John XXIII, who convened a Vatican Council devoted in part to rooting out the vestiges of medieval Church doctrine on the Jews. The culmination of those efforts came only after Pope John XXIII’s death; in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the remarkable declaration Nostra Aetate. Reversing long-held Church doctrine, it called on the faithful to treat Jews and their religion as worthy of respect.
Although I am not aware that anyone has made the link, it may not be too far-fetched to suspect that the Finaly case played a role in that historic shift and, with it, the abandonment of the Church’s centuries-long vilification of the Jews. The link is John XXIII’s successor, Paul VI, who presided over the council when it considered and then approved its revolutionary new doctrine. This was the same man who—under his given name, Giovanni Montini—had spent months managing the Vatican’s dealings on the Finaly affair a dozen years earlier.
If there was any distance between Pius XII and Montini in the actions taken in the Finaly affair, I have not found any trace of it in the Vatican archives. Montini’s ties with Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, could scarcely have been stronger. He had begun working for him as one of his two chief deputies when Pacelli was still the Vatican’s secretary of state and continued in the same role when, in 1939, Pacelli ascended to the papacy. In his final report to the government the following year, the outgoing French ambassador to the Vatican described Montini as the man closest to Pius XII’s heart and added, “Everyone agrees in predicting that Monsignor Montini will himself be pope.”
Yet, although heavily identified with his patron, Montini had a mind of his own. He came from an influential northern Italian Catholic family. His father had been a member in Parliament of the moderate Catholic Italian Popular Party until Mussolini abolished all non-Fascist parties in 1926. Montini was an intellectual with sophisticated tastes in art and literature. He had quietly worked behind the scenes, while Pius XII was pope, to prevent the Holy Office from condemning the works of the writer Graham Greene. The Vatican’s behavior in the Finaly case was a nasty business. Did Montini’s involvement on Pius XII’s behalf bother him at the time? Did it leave lasting scars? Did he think about the Finaly case as he was considering the proposals of the Second Vatican Council to change the Church’s long-held attitudes toward the Jews? We may not know the answers to these questions anytime soon; the archives of Paul VI’s papacy will most likely not be opened for many years.
Not long ago, I was able to reach Robert Finaly by email in Israel, where he and Gérald—now known as Gad—have lived since they were taken there by their aunt. Robert recalled the school environment in which they had been held, before their family was able to reclaim them, as one that was “100% Catholic.” Students were taught that Jews were destined for damnation. Had it not been for the persistence of his family, he and Gad would likely be living elsewhere—in France or Spain—and would, as Robert noted, remember their past very differently. The lives they have lived in Israel have been remarkably uneventful. Gad pursued a career in the Israeli military and subsequently as an engineer. Robert became a doctor, just like his father.
Appendix: Vatican Documents
David Kertzer would like to thank his collaborator, Roberto Benedetti, whose work in the Vatican archives, after Kertzer was compelled by the COVID-19 pandemic to leave Italy, proved crucial to unearthing the documents on the Finaly case. Kertzer and Benedetti are preparing a longer version of this account for publication in a historical journal, providing full archival references to all the documents cited here.
* This article previously suggested that Rabbi Isaac Herzog requested that the Vatican issue a public call for the release of the Finaly boys specifically. In fact, Herzog sought a public call for the release of all Jewish children being kept from their families.