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Pontiff-To-Be Helped Rescue Thousands of Hungary’s Jews Print E-mail
By Jay Bushinsky
January 2, 2007


JERUSALEM [-] Newly discovered records document the role played during World War II by Pope John XXIII [-] at that time a Vatican diplomat in Istanbul [-] in helping to rescue thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.
   
They also lend some weight to arguments that Pope Pius XII, who served as pontiff during the war, failed to do all he could to prevent the systematic massacre of millions of Jews.

The memoirs, documents and letters, stashed away in the private collection of a Jewish associate of the future pope, describe frequent meetings, often late at night, at the Vatican's official compound in heart of Istanbul.
   
There, the two men composed urgent messages to the Holy See and obtained false papers to enable doomed Jews to escape the reach of the Nazis and their allies.
   
Examined recently by Tel Aviv University professor Dina Porat, an internationally respected authority on the Nazi genocide, the documents attest to a unique relationship that had consequences of historic importance.
   
Pope John, still using his given name Angelo Roncalli at the time, was serving as papal nuncio in Istanbul, in effect the Vatican's ambassador. He went on to become one of the most beloved popes and, by convening the Second Vatican Council in 1962, opened the Catholic Church to a wave of modernization that included a revised liturgy and a major efforts to unite with other Christian faiths.
   
His ally in saving the Polish Jews was Chaim Barlas, who had been sent to Istanbul as an emissary of the Rescue Committee, established by the Jewish community in what was then Palestine to try to save European Jews from the Nazis.

"Roncalli allowed Barlas to meet him in the middle of the night to draft urgent letters to Pope Pius XII about the plight of Hungarian Jewry," Mrs. Porat said in an interview.     "He told Barlas that he sent cables to [Pope Pius], but did not receive replies. It seemed to him that his ecclesiastical superiors who could act did not, and he wondered why."
   
Mrs. Porat says she found several hand-written letters from Monsignor Roncalli to the pontiff, composed with the help of Mr. Barlas, which included criticism of the Vatican and others for failing to do enough to help the Jews.
   
The men intensified their efforts following the receipt in June 1944 of an report by two Slovakian Jews who had escaped a month earlier from the infamous Auschwitz death camp in Poland. That and a subsequent account describing the grisly mass murder under way there came to be known as the Auschwitz Protocols.
   
Mr. Barlas "translated it into German, drafted a precise summary dated June 23, 1944, and was granted an audience with Roncalli a day later," Mrs. Porat says. "Roncalli wept upon reading its contents and relayed it immediately to the Vatican."
   
Pope Pius subsequently wrote a letter to Adm. Miklos Horthy, a Nazi ally then serving as president of Hungary, urging him to halt the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Poland, which at the time was being expedited by SS chief Adolf Eichmann.
  
"By July 7, 1944, they were stopped," the professor says.  Yitzhak Minerbi, one of Israel's leading experts on the Vatican's conduct and policies during World War II, says the nuncio's contribution goes far beyond alerting the Holy See to the Nazi genocide.

As confirmed by the Barlas papers, he also issued transit passes and approved bogus baptismal certificates that enabled 12,000 Jews to escape Hungary, Mr. Minerbi says.
   
Monsignor Roncalli's efforts have also been lauded by Baruch Tenenbaum, head of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, which is named after the mercurial Swedish diplomat who literally plucked outbound Jews from their deportation trains and hid them in safe houses throughout the Hungarian capital.
   
Asked about Monsignor Roncalli, Mr. Tenembaum said: "He should be cited by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, as the foremost name on its list of Righteous Gentiles."  The honorees are non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews endangered by the Nazis.
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