Born in 1905, Father Giuseppe Girotti was a Catholic theology professor at the Saint Maria della Rose Dominican Seminary of Turin. After the German takeover of Italy in September 1943, he acted to save many Jews by arranging safe hideouts and escape routes from the country. Betrayed by an informer and caught in the midst of helping a wounded Jewish person, he was arrested on August 29, 1944, and deported to Dachau, where he died on April 1, 1945. It is reported that while in Dachau, he continued to write his unfinished commentary on the biblical book of Jeremiah.
In Avon, France, Lucien Bunel (better known as Father Jacques), who headed a Catholic private school, was arrested on January 15, 1944, after being denounced for sheltering three Jewish boys in his boarding school. He was deported to Mauthausen, and died from exhaustion days after the end of the war.
These two religious men were martyred in the cause of humanity, as well as for their belief in the essence of their Catholic faith. They are but a few of the many other Catholic clerics, men and women, honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations - the highest honorific by the Jewish people to non-Jews, who act in the best tradition of justice and morality.
Currently, a heated debate is pitting those who support the beautification and canonization of Pope Pius XII against others who strenuously oppose such a step. The debate centers on the public silence of this pontiff in the face of the mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazis. Returning to our two martyred priests - they certainly did not chose silence and inactivity, but went so far as sacrificing their lives to save Jews from the furnaces of the Holocaust. Would it then not be proper, we ask, for the Catholic Church, that before deciding on the merits of Pius XII, to deal first with the beatification of these two religious heroes?
NOR ARE they the only ones worthy of such honor.
In Slonim, Poland, the Jesuit priest Adam Sztark was active in the rescue of Jewish children by issuing pre-dated Catholic birth certificates. It is also reported that he would sneak into the Jewish ghetto to try to help anyone inside, and he also called on his parishioners, from the pulpit, to extend help to fleeing Jews. He was eventually arrested by the Germans in December 1942, and shot.
Still in Poland, Matylda Getter, the mother superior of the Franciscan Sisters of the Family of Mary, sheltered many children in her Pludy convent, while in Kolonia Wilenska, Sister Anna Borkowska sheltered a group of Jewish underground men from the Vilna ghetto, so that they could organize their resistance better from the tranquillity and security of that convent. And the list does not stop with these brave religious men and women.
In France, as the authorities were delivering Jews to the Germans in the summer of 1942, Jules-GÃ©raud SaliÃ¨ge, the archbishop of Toulouse, in a pastoral letter that he ordered read from the pulpit in his diocese, exclaimed: "The Jews are real men and women. Not everything is permitted against these men and women, against these fathers and mothers. They are part of the human species. They are our brothers like so many others. A Christian should not forget this."
SaliÃ¨ge did not remain silent; he spoke up, and no harm befell the Catholic Church in France because of his strong words. Moreover, historians agree that the resounding appeal of this Catholic prelate had an electrifying effect on other clerics, such as the Capuchin monk Marie-BenoÃ®t, who saved many Jews - first in Marseilles, France, then in Rome, where he was known as Father Benedetto. His rescue exploits are legendary, and after Rome's liberation, he was celebrated by the Jewish community there and dubbed "Father of the Jews."
IN BELGIUM, Hubert CÃ©lis, a priest in the village of Halmaal, near St. Trond, sheltered the children of a Jewish family whose parents had entrusted them to him. He promised them that whatever the outcome, he would return them to the Jewish fold. Suspected of harboring these children, CÃ©lis was arrested. Confronting his interrogator, CÃ©lis raised his voice. "You are a Catholic, and have forgotten that the Virgin was a Jewess, that Christ was Jewish, that He commanded us to love and help one another... That He told us: 'I have given you an example so that you do as I have done'... You are a Catholic, and you do not understand what a priest is! You do not understand that a priest does not betray!" These words had a tantalizing effect on the interrogator and CÃ©lis was released.
Returning to Italy, we note the extraordinary story of Assisi, the hometown of St. Francis, where under the leadership of Bishop Giuseppe Placido Nicolini, this town was turned into a place of refuge for Jews; of Father Giulio Gradassi, in Castigioni (outside Florence), who rode on his bicycle to seek safe sheltering places for the Jewish Pick family, and at the approach of Passover, he offered to bake matzot for them; or of Father Beniamino Schivo, in Cittta di Castello, who hid the Korn family in a Sacred Heart convent, where the Korn women were dressed as nuns, with only the mother superior knowing the truth about them.
AND THE list goes on. All these Catholic clerics were honored by Yad Vashem with the Righteous title. During the 24 years that I headed the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem, I was privileged to play a role in adding to the list of the Righteous some 600 clerics of all Christian denominations for their personal involvement in saving Jews from the Nazis and their collaborators. Some paid with their lives, but most luckily survived by smartly outwitting the Nazis and taking additional precautions to save their Jewish wards and themselves as well. Why, we ask, are men and women of such a high religious caliber overlooked and ignored by their own churches when it should be a moral obligation to bestow on them their churches' highest honor?
The Jewish people has requited itself of its obligation to "beatify" these knights of the spirit of another faith. Isn't it time for the Catholic and other churches to do likewise - to honor, under whatever program they may devise, these knights of the spirit of their own faith, before dealing with the more acrimonious debatable case of the head of the Roman Catholic Church during the Holocaust years?
The writer is former director of the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem and currently serves as director of special projects at the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.