May 27, 2001

When John XXIII baptized Jews


A group of Jewish personalities vindicates the commitment made by monsignor Guiseppe Roncalli, later John XXIII, during the Second World War. His stratagem saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian-Jews.

The chubby monsignor put his chair near that of his visitor’s and in a mid tone of voice asked him: ¿Do you think that Jews would voluntarily accept to be baptized?

It took a few seconds for the interlocutor to answer until with a lot of common sense he said: Look, if that could save their lives, I think they would be willing to do it”. The religious person’s answer was instantaneous: I already know what I am going to do.

The dialogue belongs to whom at that moment was the Apostolic Nuncio in Turkey, monsignor Giuseppe Roncalli, named Pope John XXIII in 1958 and later called ”the good Pope”, and to the War Refugee Board delegate in Istanbul, the American Ira Hirschmann. It took place at the height of the Second World War, and it gave birth to one of the greatest operations to rescue Jews from the horror of Nazism.It was what some people call ”Baptism Operation”, a plan to baptize Hungarian-Jews: thanks to these certificates that proved that they had received the sacrament, many avoided being sent to the concentration camps.According to the testimonies given to the Nuremberg tribunals, this allowed to save 24,000 Jews, though catholic sources state that 80,000 certificates were granted.Nevertheless, for those who this resource reminds them of the forced conversion of Jews, the administration of the sacrament would not be a

sine qua non

requisite to get the certificate. It would be invented if necessary. It neither forced the baptized to profess the Catholic cult. According to the formula chosen by the Apostolic Nuncio in Turkey and the ambassador Hirschmann, diplomats at last, it would depend on the baptized Jews whether they decided to stay in Church or not.Monsignor Roncalli did not seem to be improvising in front of Hirschmann, because he had been thinking of the plan for a while. In fact, he told his visitor that he had reasons to believe that religious women of the Sisters of Sion congregation had already granted some baptismal certificates to Hungarian-Jews. And even that the Nazis had recognized these documents as valid for the bearers to leave Hungary.The last part of the meeting was dedicated to plan the first implementation steps of ”Baptism Operation,” where members of the refugees’ commission made contact with Church dignitaries in Hungary. They would organize Jews baptisms at great scale, which many times would end up being celebrated in unorthodox places, such as the air-raid shelters in Budapest. The plan prepared by Roncalli -who years later, as Pope, would call the Vatican Council II, that actualized Catholicism- was the most important action of the future John XXIII, but not the only one, of a series of actions, of which it is worth mentioning the channeling of immigration certificates to Palestine.

Against the tide

A striking fact is that according to the ecclesiastic history, Roncalli was not considered an outstanding diplomat.Tenenbaum even affirms, that the future Pope was sent to the Istanbul Nunciature as a punishment after having falling out with his superiors for opposing Benito Mussolini. Even more: some people say that the next transfer of Roncalli to the Paris Nunciature, though it meant a promotion for him, had a very different meaning for the Vatican: to snub the French government, that was exerting pressure for a figure close to the regime, with another ”not too bright a diplomat”.The future Pope’s attitude, in contrast with certain condescension towards Nazism that his predecessor, Pius XII, was blamed for having by some sectors of international community, has made a group of Jewish personalities, headed by an Argentine, Baruj Tenenbaum – pioneer of the Jewish-catholic dialogue -, to launch an international campaign for the acknowledgement of John XXIII.This includes the creation of a distinction carrying the name of Roncalli, for the diplomats who stand out by their humanitarian measures, among other initiatives. Postal stamps allusive to the personality of the late pontiff will be issued, memorial murals will be built, courses about his actions will be given and there will also be contests about his figure. And even the creation of a web page on the Internet.In Argentina, Tenenbaum -who presides the International Rauol

Wallenberg Foundation, which carries the name of another diplomat, in this case a Swedish, who disappeared towards the end of the war, who is also believed to have saved many Jews from the Holocaust – has joined in this initiative with the president of the Israeli Confederation in the Argentine Republic, rabbi Simón Moguilevsky, among other Jewish personalities.The Vatican’s Secretary of State, cardinal Angelo Sodano, has already introduced the campaign during the last visit of the cardinal to the UN branch in New York. The organizers already presented the plan in Germany to the president of that country, Johanes Rau. Arrangements are being made for the next step that it is to present it to Pope John Paul II. This gesture takes place in the same year of the journey of John Paul II to Israel and the asking of forgiveness to the Jewish community for the indifference of some Catholics to anti-Semitism. It will allow a new and hopeful stage in the Jewish-Catholic relationships.

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