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Stolen Churches, Stolen Jews

[Michael Freund, Chairman, Shavei Israel]

Summary ... It is bad enough that they plundered Jewish property over the centuries. They cannot be allowed to get away with stealing Jewish children too.

In the old Juderia, or Jewish district, of Segovia, Spain, the Corpus Christi church sticks out like a sore thumb and, as it turns out, not without good reason.

Located northwest of Madrid, Segovia is best known as a popular site for Spanish tourists, who flock to see its imposing Roman aqueduct and the famed Alcazar, a medieval castle of the Castilian monarchy.

Less well-known is its Jewish past, which came to an end in 1492 when the Edict of Expulsion compelled Segovia's Jews to leave. Despite the passage of time, though, the injustice of that act remains very much alive.

For the Corpus Christi compound, which now houses a convent and church, had in fact served as Segovia's Great Synagogue until it was seized by the ecclesiastical authorities like brigands pouncing on booty.

After paying an entrance fee of a few Euros I walked into this building, where Sabbath prayers once echoed and the haunting tunes of Yom Kippur were uttered in awe, only to gaze in astonishment at the Catholic icons hanging incongruously on the wall.

Bewildered and incensed, I walked out, only to find myself standing next to none other than the Mother Superior herself. Noticing the yarmulke on my head, she asked me with a smile if I had come for a visit. Yes, I told her, before politely asking why she would not return the synagogue to the Jews.

The smile on her face quickly disappeared, giving way to a decidedly un-heavenly frown. "Because it is a Christian site," she insisted.

"Yes," I said calmly, "but it was a synagogue before that, so shouldn't you give it back?" "Now it is for all people," she snapped, before turning and walking off.

Somehow, I doubt that the founder of Christianity would have approved of this, as a Jewish house of worship was pilfered from its rightful owners and transformed into something it was never meant to be.

Corpus Christi is hardly unique. There are unfortunately many similar examples to be found throughout Europe, where the Catholic Church frequently helped itself to Jewish property and assets in the wake of various expulsions, massacres and persecutions.

But buildings were not the only thing the Church was interested in confiscating. As a recently discovered document makes clear, the Vatican had its eye on snatching Jewish children, too.

Datelined October 1946, the document in question was a directive sent to the Vatican's Paris representative, Angelo Roncalli, stating that Jewish children hidden from the Nazis should not be returned to their parents if they had been baptized while in the church's care.

"Avoid, as far as possible, responding in writing to the Jewish authorities, but do so orally," the document instructed, adding that its contents had been approved by Pope Pius XII.

Since it was first published in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere Dela Sera on December 28, the directive has caused a firestorm of controversy, and rightfully so.

After everything that the Jews of Europe had endured under Nazi rule, how could the Church possibly be so cruel?

While the Vatican has sought to undercut the document's authenticity, it has also rejected requests by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to open its archives, which would allow researchers a chance to corroborate or rebut the charges.

Similarly, Rome is refusing to publish wartime baptismal records, which might shed light on what became of numerous Jewish children who survived the war.

ADL Director Abraham Foxman, who was hidden and illicitly baptized by a Polish nanny, has noted that as a result of the Church's policy "There may have been tens of thousands of rescued and baptized Jewish children who to this day are not aware of their true origins."

The directive, he said, "which most likely was not limited to France but reached Catholic clergy throughout Europe, adds a level of responsibility for the church to actively participate in revealing the truth about those who were baptized."

Historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen has gone even further, arguing that the document is a "smoking gun" which "proves the pope's and the Church's policy was to systematically kidnap Jewish children."

Just last week the international community marked 60 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, decrying the crimes committed there. But by hiding the truth regarding Jewish children entrusted to its care during the Nazi period, the Vatican is keeping alive the wounds of the war.

This is simply intolerable, and it is time for Israel and world Jewry to turn up the pressure on Rome to come clean. The Vatican must open its archives and release the baptismal records at once.

It is bad enough that they plundered Jewish property over the centuries. They cannot be allowed to get away with stealing Jewish children too.

Shortly after my encounter with the nun at Segovia, I was reminded of the Talmud saying that the Diaspora's synagogues and study halls will one day be physically relocated to Israel (Tractate Megilla 29a). Apparently, their connection with the Jewish people is so strong and so enduring that even the stones and bricks that comprise our houses of prayer will not be left behind in exile.

If that is true of inanimate objects, how much more so does it apply to our fellow Jews?

We must do whatever we can to find these unknown and unknowing Jews and bring them home. The truth, at last, must finally be allowed to come out.

[ Published: February 2, 2005 ]

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