Testimonies and stories

In this section there are accounts by those who eye witnessed Monsignor Angelo Roncalli´s humanitarian actions in favour of Jewish refugees during the Holocaust or by those people who learnt about salvage actions by means of reliable sources.

Rabbi Arthur Herzberg

Visiting Professor of Humanities at New York University in charge of the Bronfman Chair. Author of nine books, among them ”the Zionist Idea” and with Aron Hirt-Manheimer, ”Jews: the essence and character of a people”. He recalls a touching comment heard from the Great Rabbi of Palestine during the British Mandate, Isaac Herzog, about the humanitarian disposition of Monsignor Angelo Roncalli.

”In the fall of 1941, the then chief rabbi of the Holy Land, Isaac Herzog, traveled from country to country on a mission to enlist the support of world leaders in stopping the slaughter of Jews in Europe. When the chief rabbi reached New York, his friend and my teacher, Professor Saul Lieberman, asked me to assist him. Late one night, after everybody had gone, Rabbi Herzog, who was a truly holy man, was sitting in a chair by the window reciting psalms. When he finished, he sighed and said,

”Hertzberg, I want to tell you a story. Before arriving in America, I traveled throughout the Mediterranean on neutral ships, stopping in Malta, Cairo, Istanbul, and other cities to enlist help in saving our people. Wherever I went, I met with the papal legate and always I was told, ‘What can I do? My hands are tied.’ Everywhere, I met with indifference or helplessness. The one exception was Istanbul, where I went to see the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey, Archbishop Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. As I told him of the mass murders, he started to cry, rose from his chair, put his arms around me, and said, ‘Rabbi, what can I do to help?’”

Mordechai Arbell

Historian and researcher. Author of several publications, former consul of the State of Israel in Istanbul and international director of Sephardic institutions.

”My great grandfather Samuel Nissimoff was a wealthy man. He donated one of his mansions to the Bulgarian Jewish community. The residence is still today the headquarter of the communitarian centre. A second mansion was rented to the apostolic delegate Roncalli. He was a neighbour of the Nissimoff´s and became close friend of Samuel’s children, Nissim and Albert. When Roncalli knew that they were having trouble with their Latin he helped them study and thanks to this action the boys passed their exams.

By the time Roncalli left Bulgaria he had become a close friends of the family. Both Nissimoff brothers emigrated to Israel and they were deeply surprised when Nissim Nissimoff received an official invitation to the investiture of Roncalli as Pope. Apart from the Nissimoff family, Roncalli´s friends in Bulgaria were largely Jewish. Queen Joanna of Bulgaria, wife of King Boris II, was Italian, daughter of King Victor Manuel. She became great friend with Monsignor Roncalli, to the point that the relationship remained fluent even when he established in Istanbul. The story goes that Roncalli informed the Queen that he had information about the imminent deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the extermination camps in Poland. I understand this was registered in the book of the then Protocol Chief of Bulgaria, Gruev, and in a biography about the Queen Joanna”.

Professor Michael Berenbaum

Professor Berenbaum is former President and CEO of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, former Director of the Research Institute at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and author of numerous book on the Holocaust and contemporary Jewish History.

MainStreet Media, in association with the Berenbaum Group and Shenandoah Films, has produced Desperates Hours, a film on the Holocaust in Turkey, which first gave rise to telling the story of Monsignor Roncalli/Pope John XXIII. The producers have interviewed scholars on three continents and in five countries regarding Roncalli, including Church historians and theologians, survivors and eyewitnesses, Church officials and Rabbis.

”It is a paradox of the Holocaust that the innocent feel guilty and guilty innocent. Nowhere is this observation better illustrated than in the service of Monsignor Angelo Roncalli who, as the Apostolic Delegate in Istanbul in Turkey during World War II, was actively engaged in the rescue of Jews, and who later as Pope John XXIII, transformed Roman Catholic teaching toward the Jews to ensure that the foundations of Christian anti-Semitism were shattered.

This film is rooted in the little known story of Monsignor Roncalli in neutral Turkey during World War II and the Holocaust. Because of Turkey’s strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and because it was a neutral country for most of the war, Turkey became host to scores of Allied and Axis diplomats, spies, traders, defectors, assassins, journalists and seemingly everyone in-between. To all, it was an indispensable listening post to the war in Easter Europe. And for a small band of Jews in Istanbul, it became a base of rescue operations near the heart of the inferno.

In the early years of World War II, Monsignor Roncalli worked with Jewish emissaries from Palestine to ascertain information regarding the fate of the Jews under German occupation. He was an ally when the Jews had few, and was one of the very few who would offer them assistance while asking nothing in return. According to those who knew him, he was not motivated not by any particular affection for the Jews by his love for all humanity – without excluding Jews – and by his belief that all human beings were created in the Divine image – including the Jews.

He wrote the following from Istanbul : ”Poor children of Israel. Every day I hear their moans all around me. I sympathize with them and I do my best to help them. They are the relatives and the fellow countrymen of Jesus. May the Divine Savior come to their aid”.

Chaim Barlas, the chief Jewish delegate from Palestine, wrote that Roncalli cried when told about what was happening to Jews. He said, ”I am going to fast and to pray for the people and our people”. Teddy Kollek, a delegate from Palestine in Istanbul during the darkest years of the Holocaust who for three decades was mayor of Jerusalem recalled : ”He commiserated together with us. He wasn’t able to do very much. But what he could, he did”.

Alarmed by what he had learned about the Jewish plight in German-occupied and German-allied Europe, he asked of the Vatican three things : to encourage countries to give temporary havens to Jewish refugees who would be supported by Jewish organizations ; to broadcast by radio that the Church was against the persecution of Jews – which in some countries played an important role in the persecutions and killings; and that the Vatican beseech Joseph Tiso, the ruler of Slovakia under the Germans and a Roman Catholic priest, to let 5000 Jews go on the condition that transit visas could be found for them. Roncalli worked with Church officials in Hungary who issued papers to individuals Jews, which said they were under the protection of the Holy See. He pleaded with King Boris of Bulgaria, in whose country he had server for a decade, not to deport his Jews. And while Bulgaria cooperated in the deportation of the Jews of Bulgarian-occupied Trace and Macedonia, it did not consent to the deportation of its native Jews.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Memorial to the Holocaust is still examining whether Roncalli issued documentation such as false baptismal certificates that allowed Jews to pass as non-Jews, thereby saving their lives. But it is certain that he passed on certificates to Palestine and quasi-official documents indicating that the bearer was a fellow countryman of Jesus, his way of truthfully providing the limited protection he could without making a false statement. Yehuda Bauers, Israel’s most distinguished Holocaust historian, reports, ”There is no doubt that he exerted every influence he had to rescue Jews in Greece, in Bulgaria or other places. We don’t have documentation. We have personal reports of individuals who met with him ; we have testimonials of survivors who know that he intervened in their favor.” Again, Archbishop Roncalli asked nothing in return. He provided these documents a s life-saving passport to freedom without any religious coercion, such as requiring conversion.

In 1944, the United States belatedly dedicated itself to rescue. Ira Hirschmann, the representative of the War Refugee Board was dispatched to Turkey with special instructions. He could deal directly with the enemy, a trust not even enjoyed by American Ambassadors including Lawrence Steinhart in Ankara. He used his authority to press to Romania to dismantle camps in Transnistria and to send some 3000 children to Palestine via Turkey. Working with the Jewish envoys and with Roncalli, by wars’end, some 20.000 Jews were transported to Palestine via Turkey.”