Introduction: Jesuit Righteous among the Nations

In: Journal of Jesuit Studies
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Although there will be many Jesuits mentioned in this issue, pride of place must be given to those Jesuits who have been honored by Israel as “Righteous among the Nations.” The Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus have never given them the attention they deserve. This issue of The Journal of Jesuit Studies is an attempt to do precisely that, to feature these Jesuits who stand out for their courageous witness during the period of the Holocaust. When the Israeli Knesset passed the Law of the Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Authority in 1953, Yad Vashem was established in Jerusalem as a memorial to the six million Jews killed during the Shoah. Among the duties assigned to the institution was to discover and commemorate those non-Jews who had risked or lost their lives in efforts to save Jews during the period of the Holocaust. These were to be named “Righteous among the Nations,” an expression that was borrowed from the ancient literature of the Jewish sages. The title is awarded only after careful scrutiny of the testimonies attesting to the heroic efforts of individuals on behalf of Jews. Initially, individual trees were planted at Yad Vashem to celebrate these people, but now the lack of space entails that their names are inscribed on a wall of honor. As of January 1, 2017 over twenty-six thousand Righteous (26,513) have been identified and these honored men and women represent only a segment of those who extended heroic assistance to the Jewish people during the period of the Holocaust. This heroism is certainly the brightest light from that dark time and the former Polish courier Jan Karski (1914–2000), who spent his academic career at Georgetown University and who was such a powerful presence in Claude Lanzmann’s (b.1925) film Shoah, has stressed the importance of recalling that courage. Karski pointed out in a later interview that “it is not true that the Jews were totally abandoned. Over half a million Jews survived the Holocaust in Europe.” “I repeat, the Jews were not totally abandoned. They were abandoned by governments, social structures, church hierarchies, but not by ordinary men and women.”1

Among those ordinary men and women are now inscribed fifteen Jesuits who have been formally recognized as “Righteous among the Nations.”2 Five are Belgians: Fathers Jean-Baptiste De Coster (1896–1968); Emile Gessler (1891–1958); Jean-Baptiste Janssens (1889–1964) who was later to become general of the Society; Alphonse Lambrette (1884–1970); and Henri van Oostayen (1906–1945). Five are French: Fathers Roger Braun (1910–1981); Pierre Chaillet (1900–1972); Jean Fleury (1905–1982); Émile Planckaert (1906–2006), and Henri Revol (1904–1992). One is Greek, Father Ioannis Marangos (1901–89). Two are Italians, Father Raffaele de Ghantuz Cubbe (1904–83), and the most recently honored Jesuit cardinal archbishop of Genoa, Pietro Boetto (1871–1946). One is Polish, Father Adam Sztark (1907–42) and another is Hungarian, Jacob Raile (1894–1949). With two exceptions, the alphabetical biographical entries here in this issue are from volumes of The Encyclopedia of the Righteous among the Nations: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, edited by Israel Gutman (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2003–). This ongoing series has been organized in terms of the nations in which the rescuers held citizenship. For Cardinal Boetto and Fr. Sztark, whose entries are set to appear in a supplementary volume, I have selected the accounts written by Mordecai Paldiel, the former director of Yad Vashem’s Department for the Righteous among the Nations.

The five Belgian Jesuits who have been honored by Yad Vashem (Fathers De Coster, Gessler, Janssens, Lambrette, van Oostayen) were all involved in assisting a rescue network organized by Benedykt Grynpas (1902–79). Grynpas was a professor of Semitic languages and archaeology at the University of Leuven, and while he was there, he forged relationships with Jesuits whom he was later to call upon to assist his efforts to rescue endangered Jews. We are able to appreciate the achievement of the Righteous only if we grasp the religious and ecclesiastical culture in terms of which they operated and against which they often had to struggle.

The Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus have been fortunate in having among its leading twentieth-century theologians Father, later Cardinal, Henri de Lubac (1896–1991). We publish here, for the first time in English, his analysis of the French church during the period of Germany’s occupation and of the Vichy government: “Memorandum on French Bishops during the Occupation of France (1940–1944).” He prepared it in late 1944 for his friend Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) who had been named ambassador to the Holy See by Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970) and where the distinguished Catholic philosopher served from 1945 to 1948. Maritain’s appointment was made against the backdrop of intense controversy in the relationship between the post-liberation French provisional government led by de Gaulle and the Vatican under Pope Pius XII (r.1939–58). As a result of the church’s conduct in France during the Nazi years, de Gaulle had insisted on the removal of the Vatican nuncio to France, Valerio Valeri (1883–1963), and the replacement of many bishops. Although Pius resisted any general purge of the episcopacy, he did replace the nuncio with Angelo Roncalli (1881–1963), later Pope John XXIII (r.1958–63). There has been a reluctance on the part of many Jesuits to acknowledge this memorandum as the work of de Lubac who had wanted it to be “strictly confidential” and who wrote so frankly of the bishops’ failure. His analysis is penetrating as he writes of the “spiritual collapse” of the church in France and he places much of the responsibility for that on the bishops’ bureaucratic mentality and the absence among them of a solid theological education. Harsh and alarming as it may be, the voice in the memorandum echoes de Lubac’s consistent tone. In an April, 1941 letter to his superiors, he argued that Nazism aimed not to “destroy Christianity but to debase it” and that Hitlerism was taking root in French society as the result of a “rigorous order of silence.”2 A “collective apostasy” has emerged as well as a “renewal of anti-Semitism” that is already “growing among the Catholic elite even in our own houses.”3 De Lubac laments: “In the face of so tragic a situation, how can we fail to be surprised to perceive only so few signs of uneasiness in Catholic and even ecclesiastical circles?”4 The publication here of his “Memorandum on French Bishops during the Occupation of France (1940–1944)” is an important contribution to our understanding of why some Jesuits chose their own paths of Christian witness.

As a window into the ecclesiastical culture of Germany at the end of the war we are publishing the text of a 1947 report on the attitudes of several German bishops toward criticism of their conduct during the Nazi years. The criticism was voiced by Dr. Eugen Kogon (1903–87), the German Catholic writer who had composed the first major analysis of the Auschwitz concentration camp in his well-known volume published in 1946 as Der SS -Staat and translated into English as The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System behind Them.5 The discussion with the bishops upon which the report is based was written up by the interviewer, Richard Akselrad, an official from the United States Office of the Military Government for Greater Hesse. It was preserved by the Marquette University Archives in the papers of its professor of philosophy John Riedl (1905–92) who had worked as a director in the area of Catholic affairs for the military government (1946–48). This document had been referred to in writings by the Marquette University historian Michael Phayer (b.1935) but was first published only in 2012 in a volume of German documents along with a German translation.6 In another report in the Marquette Archive that we will not publish in this volume, Riedel summarizes an interview in Rome (October 25, 1947) he had with Robert Leiber (1887–1967), the German Jesuit confidant of Pope Pius XII. When asked by Riedel whether he thought social problems were adequately emphasized in German seminary education, Leiber claims that social teaching had been emphasized in the teaching during the years 1925–30. Leiber goes on: “Then came a reaction: the liturgical movement, spirituality paramount, the Church should emphasize the strictly religious and withdraw from other fields. 1933 with the Nazi restrictions completed the work.”7

In her contribution to our issue, Professor Limore Yagil examines the rescue of Jews in France and attempts to account for why so many survived in a society that was often thought to be particularly anti-Semitic. Although she recognizes the inspiration of individuals and their commitment to civil disobedience, the thrust of her analysis is to do justice to networks and the resources they provided for rescuers and rescued. And these networks were not confined to religious collaborators. The individuals whom she takes up are presented in their empowering relations: the Avignon and Paris networks; Lyon and the Jesuit house of studies in Fourière; Pierre Chaillet’s engagement in the important journal Témoignage chrétien; Jean Fleury’s group in Poitiers and Roger Braun’s network in Toulouse. Yagil’s chapter augments the customary emphasis on individual, heroic figures by including the context within which most of them achieved what they did. A testimony to this view came with Father Fleury’s insistence that someone from the Gypsy community be with him when he was honored at Yad Vashem because he wanted to claim publicly that he could not have achieved what he did without that community’s support.

My own contribution, “Rebellion of the Righteous” is also meant to provide context for Jesuit activity, to throw light on the spiritual rebellion that took place among a minority of Jesuits but that was decisive for creating a history that is an alternative to versions of a church silence during the Nazi years. While this rebellious army included the names of the righteous, many others joined: scholars such as de Lubac and the German martyr, Alfred Delp (1907–45). They are early members of the movement repudiating the anti-Judaism and the anti-Semitism that would later attract such luminaries as Augustin Cardinal Bea (1881–1968). Still, it is the Jesuit Righteous who should be recognized as leaders of this rebellion and this issue of the Journal of Jesuit Studies is a long overdue acknowledgement of them. Indifference to them has impoverished Jesuits and Catholics for far too long. The regular modesty the rescuers show toward their activities should make us cautious in how we think of what “ordinary” men and women are able to accomplish. “They affirm rather than transcend their humanity when performing their heroic actions.”8 They teach us a lesson that may be easy to forget: there need be nothing banal about being an ordinary human being. This is how one student of their rescue activities puts it: “Rescuers were heroic not so much because they overcame their fear and their drive to self-preservation—although this may be how we interpret their heroism—but because they had the wisdom to perceive correctly the responsibility that life had unexpectedly thrust upon them, and the courage actually to meet the demands of such responsibility.”9 We become better in coming to know these resisters, either in meeting them personally or reflecting on their deeds. As Professor Mordecai Paldiel (b.1937) puts it: “By identifying with the Righteous, we lay claim to the goodness in us, which is as inherently human as the other less pleasant manifestations in our behavior.”10


The editors wish to express their appreciation to the Revue des deux mondes for permission to publish an English translation of the Henri de Lubac memorandum that originally appeared in their pages. We are also grateful to Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning for financial assistance in arranging for the translation. Professor Bernauer wishes to express his gratitude to Felix Jiménez, PhD, his Kraft Professorship Assistant for many years. Jiménez has been an excellent researcher and linguist.


“The Mission that Failed: A Polish Courier Who Tried to Help Jews” (An interview with Jan Karski conducted by Maciej Kozłowski), Dissent (Summer 1987), 326–34, here 334.


“Letter to My Superiors” (Lyons, April 25, 1941), in Theology in History (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 430, 432.


Ibid., 432. A fuller reference to the same letter in Henri de Lubac, Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism: Memories from 1940–1944 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 27.


“Letter to My Superiors,” 437.


Translated from the German by Heinz Norden (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1950; revised edition 2006). The article by Kogon that prompted the reaction of the bishops was “Kirchliche Kundgebungen von politischer Bedeutung,” Frankfurter Hefte 2 (July, 1947): 633–38.


See Michael Phayer, “The Postwar German Catholic Debate over Holocaust Guilt,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 8, no. 2 (1995) 434–37. The report was published in a volume of the Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, series A, volume 54: Akten Deutscher Bischöfe Seit 1945: Westliche Besatzungszonen 1945–1947, ed. Ulrich Helbach (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2012), 1302–311. Although there are many quotes from the actual interview that had been recorded, other statements from the bishops are reflected in the text.


John Riedl papers, series 1, Box 2, “Catholic Affairs.” Rome trip, Daily Report (October 25, 1947). I wish to thank Marquette University Archives for giving me access to the Riedl archives in its special collections.


Andrew Michael Flescher, Heroes, Saints, & Ordinary Morality (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003), 154.


Ibid., 145.


Mordecai Paldiel, Sheltering the Jews (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 202.

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