[Varian Fry Institute]          [Chambon Foundation Home]          [Chambon Institute Home]

From Holocaust Scholars Write to the Vatican, Harry James Cargas, Editor (Greenwood Publishing Group Wesport, CT, 1998)

[1996] Letter to Pope John Paul II
by Pierre Sauvage

"Alas! For the sixth time the Christian dawn breaks again on ever widening battlefields, on graveyards where war victims lie buried in steadily lengthening rows, on devastated lands where a few tottering towers tell with silent pathos the story of once flourishing and prosperous cities whose bells have fallen to the ground, or have been carried off, and no longer awaken the people with their jubilant Christmas chimes."

1944 Christmas letter from Pope Pius XII to the faithful (footnote 1)

Dear Pope John Paul II:

Although the specific assignment from our mutual friend Harry James Cargas was to join Holocaust scholars in writing letters to the Vatican, perhaps both he and you will forgive me if I, a child survivor of the Holocaust, take the liberty of addressing this letter directly to you.

Indeed, among the lessons I draw from the shoah is how inadequately organizations respond to acute moral challenges, just as later they seem incapable of accepting responsibility for their failures. In the United States, where I live, the major American Jewish organizations have yet to acknowledge to any significant degree the inadequacy of their own response to the massacre of their brethren in Europe.

Moreover, it is to you personally that I now presume to write: the Pope who has acquired great moral authority both inside and outside the Church; the Pole who has made significant efforts to continue the healing work with the Jews that was begun by Pope John XXIII.

Your Holiness, how exemplary it would be to all if your legacy, as you lead us out of this murderous 20th century, were to include a dramatic decision to open all Vatican records from the Nazi era to the public.

Your Holiness, how inspiring it would be to all if this announcement could be coupled with an exhortation to your fellow Catholics to come to terms with the inadequacy of the Vatican’s response to the persecution and massacre of the Jews during that challenging time.

I have been told that such decisions on the Vatican’s records are yours to make, that the last Vatican records to have been made public are those relating to the papacy of Benedict XV (1914-1922), and that when Vatican records are made public the decision is made papacy by papacy. The Vatican records to which I refer would thus be those pertaining to the papacies of Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pius XII (1939-1958).

The year 1998 marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII. In the Bible that we share, forty years is a generation. One generation later, might it not be time to open the documents pertaining to the papacy of Pius XII to the public?

I am aware that a few estimable scholars have already been allowed free access to these documents, and that many volumes of significant documents have been published. But is not true that important facts often emerge from ostensibly minor documents? That a different perspective can greatly affect how a document is understood? And would it not be helpful to still have eyewitnesses to those complex times when we attempt to make sense of the documents pertaining to them?

It is possible that those Vatican records may confirm just how very much the Vatican knew about the massacre of the Jews, how very much the world knew. But can the final healing ever approach until we all stop pretending that it is more important to stress what we didn’t know, rather than to admit all that we did know—or were in a position to learn?

If I may be so bold, perhaps such a revitalizing admission of sin could even include the recognition that the former Karol Wotyla bears a special responsibility to his Church in this regard. Although biographical accounts of your life as a young man living not far from Auschwitz differ as to whether you did anything of significance to help Jews, it does not appear that you yourself believe that you were among those who rose to the righteousness that those challenging times called for.

Some people after they act badly towards someone never clearly and unmistakably acknowledge that they acted badly but simply try to change their conduct in the future¾ repent, as it were, by their deeds. But is it not much more likely that they will avoid repeating their conduct, consciously or unconsciously, if they succeed in identifying, understanding, expressing what was wrong with that conduct in the first place?

Christians share with Jews and others a belief that words count. I ask that you raise your voice even more loudly and more eloquently and more forcefully than you have to date on the matter of the Christian share of responsibility for the Holocaust. I ask that your words be accompanied by a powerfully symbolic deed: the elimination of current secrets and paralyzing taboos.

But while the opening of the archives coupled with a renewed call for repentance would constitute a powerful and needed message as Christians prepare to embark on the third millennium since the birth of their faith, there is yet another gift that I would like to request for the faithful.

I am not as familiar with the process of canonization as I should be, and as a Jew I personally do not believe in saints. I have, however, met people who were incapable then of passing by on the other side, no matter the risks to them or their families.

There were many Catholics among such people. There were many priests and nuns among such people. There were, of course, priests who died in the camps with the persecuted, having spurned even the special living conditions that the Vatican sought and was able to obtain from the Third Reich for many of its incarcerated followers.

You have already elevated more people toward sainthood than all of your predecessors in this century. I cannot believe—I do not believe—that among those righteous Catholics—our "saints," the chassidei umot ha’olam, the righteous among the nations—there weren’t also women and men whom you would consider saints. I believe instead that an inadequate effort has been made thus far to discover who these saints were.

Only if you identify the righteous Catholics of the Holocaust will the Church be able to learn from them and be changed by them, to the lasting benefit of humankind.

Please allow me to mention why the issue of the Christian response to the persecution and massacre of the Jews is of passionate and personal interest to me.

To begin with, I am a Jew born in Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944, and that means that around the time of my birth much of my family was humiliated, tortured and murdered¾ while the world watched.

But I also may owe my very existence, and that of my children, to righteous Christians—to a community of righteous Christians. My mother was a Polish Jew, from Bialystok. My father had been raised a French Jew. When my mother became pregnant in the fall of 1943 in Nazi-occupied France, they found food and shelter and peace and friendship in a mountain community of some five thousand peasants and villagers.

The sturdy people of the area of Le Chambon, France, rooted in their history and their faith, extended this dangerous hospitality to some five thousand Jews who over the years made their way to this unique corner of the world.

There, the people turned no one away, betrayed no one, attempted to convert no one. There was something to be done, and they just did it. No big deal. It was who they were. Although this was essentially an old Huguenot community, the Catholic minority there joined actively in the rescue effort.

Thus I know what was possible.

However challenging some of what I believe may be to Christians, those beliefs are those of a Jew who will never forget that he survived the worst of what Christians allowed to happen because of the best of which Christians were—and are—capable.

Surely, values cannot be taught if the teacher considers that he is not accountable as well. Surely, moral distinctions are most effectively made about others when there is willingness to face one's own responsibilities.

I’m aware that not only individual Catholics but the Vatican itself did do a number of good things in favor of the Jews. In fact, I suspect that the Vatican did more than we know, more than has been trumpeted. Perhaps discomfort about what was not done has prevented us from knowing more about what was done. The Vatican archives, I am sure, contain much that is good.

We need to know both: the good and the bad. In fact, can we fully understand the bad if we don’t appreciate the good? Can we fully appreciate the good if we don’t understand more about the bad?

I live near Hollywood and am a filmmaker. I well know that I have no right to any airs of moral superiority.

I was astonished and moved when my labor of love, a feature documentary about the people of Le Chambon, Weapons of the Spirit, was purchased for broadcast on Polish television even before it was acquired by French television. I had the opportunity to ask Jan Karski, that legendary, righteous Polish emissary to the West, what should be my attitude now towards Poland. As always, he spoke slowly and chose his words carefully: "Show them sympathy. And forgiveness."

I am, in fact, eager to make Polish friends, eager to reconnect with the land where my ancestors lived for centuries—by no means always unhappily.

As a Jew, I also believe that there is more that binds me to committed Christians than to aggressive secularists, although I was raised by just such militant secularists. (Religiously, I was raised as a "nothing." It is only when I turned 18 that my parents revealed that they and I were Jewish. I know something about taboos and the need to overcome them.)

I’m sure that soon we will all be beyond debating the appalling inarticulateness and misguided political savvy of Pope Pius XII. Elie Wiesel has said that the Pope "should have gone to Auschwitz then. He should have tried to save Jews then and risked his life." (Footnote 2.) Do such words reflect merely a Jewish vision of prophetic leadership? Would not Jesus himself have stood with the persecuted, even if they hadn’t been his people and even if he’d had other, conflicting responsibilities to his followers? Have you not yourself been arguing that religious convictions should be brought to bear on political issues? If not then, when?

Why were the advocates and practitioners of murder not themselves denied the sacraments? Why were they not told that if the "rumors" were true, mortal sins were being committed? Is there any record of Hitler, that son of Catholics and former choirboy, even being threatened with excommunication?

Soon, it will no longer be so much a matter of what happened—or did not happen—then. It will be a matter how we react to what happened then.

Thus, for instance, the Pope’s Christmas message of 1944, excerpted above, may not yet speak for itself. Christians might still read it today without even imagining the nature and depth of one possible reaction to it, to the pain that it still has the power to inflict.

Of course, by Christmas of 1944 the (inadvertent) liberation of the death camps had begun: Majdanek, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibór... There can be no doubt whatever that by then the Holy Father well knew that the children of Christians had long been torturing and murdering innocent men, women and children, participating in an attempt to eliminate the Jews and their heritage from the earth.

But Pope Pius and his writers speak only of "battlefields" and neatly buried "war victims." With the stench of Auschwitz in his nostrils, your predecessor waxes poetic about the "pathos" of fallen cities and of demolished church bells that can no longer awaken the faithful with their "jubilant Christmas chimes."

At the end 1944, with nothing to fear any more from the Third Reich, knowing full well than in the heart of Christendom millions had been tortured and murdered because they had been born Jewish, Pope Pius XII does not even acknowledge these non-battlefield dead, these murdered who were not buried but incinerated, these victims not of war but of antisemitism and racism.

And while his reaction may be of a different nature, should not a Christian also be saddened by the ineffectiveness of his faith at that moment? Is it not indeed true that "everything that rises converges"? (Footnote 3.) Do we not all aspire to a common understanding of our heritage?

Christians and non-Christians, believers and non-believers, we all live in the shadow of a great lesson: the truth will make you free.

You have made your mark on this century in many important ways. May your time on earth also be remembered for your bold decision to reveal and proclaim the full record of Vatican activity during a disastrous time in human history, while also identifying and sharing with future generations those exemplary Catholics whose divine inspiration led them to effortless communion with their fellow man and woman.

May your life be for a blessing.

Most respectfully yours,
Pierre Sauvage

Note 1) "Pius XII and Democracy: Christmas Message of Pope Pius XII, December 24, 1944." Revised translation by Rev. John B. Harney, C.S.P. The Paulist Press, 1945, p. 5
Note 2) Elie Wiesel, Statement, CBS News Special Report, CBS-TV Network, June 7, 1979. "Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel." Selected and edited by Irving Abrahamson. Holocaust Library, 1985, vol. 1, p. 168.
Note 3) Father Teilhard de Chardin.

© Chambon Foundation, 1996

Back to Home Page

[Varian Fry Institute]          [Chambon Foundation Home]          [Chambon Institute]

[email us]   [contact information]   [table of contents] [make a contribution?]  [search]   [feedback]   [guest book]   [link to us?]

© Copyright 2004, Chambon Foundation. All rights reserved.                    Revised: May 20, 2010