The recent news that Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa has been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial is a welcome, and a much-deserved, honor. Dalla Costa, the archbishop of Florence during World War II, “played a central role in the organization and operation of a widespread rescue network,” said Yad Vashem in its November announcement. He “recruited rescuers from among the clergy, supplied letters to his activists so that they could go to heads of monasteries and convents entreating them to shelter Jews, and sheltered Jews in his own palace.”
Numerous witnesses have testified to Dalla Costa’s personal involvement in rescue. Lya Quitt testified that “she fled from France to Florence in the beginning of September 1943 and was brought to the Archbishop’s palace where she spent the night with other Jews who were being sheltered there. The following day they were taken to different convents in the city.”
Giorgio La Pira, a leader of the Italian resistance, described Dalla Costa as “the soul of this ‘activity of love’ aimed to save so many brothers;” and Father Cipriano Ricotti remembers being summoned to Dalla Costa’s office: “The Archbishop asked me…if I believed that I could devote myself to helping Jews. He immediately gave me a letter of instruction he had written, so that I would have the authority to turn to monasteries—many of which may not have opened their gates, had I not such a letter in my possession—so as to find shelter for the numerous suffering persons.”
Dalla Costa’s honor coincides with the publication of two important new books that explore different dimensions of the Second World War, one distressing, the other inspiring.
The first is Complicity in the Holocaust by Robert P. Ericksen, a bleak portrait of capitulation and collaboration during the Nazi era. It is painful (but necessary) reading, for it reminds us how easily and shockingly prominent individuals, including self-professed Christians, fell sway to the radical evils of racism, anti-Semitism and nationalism. The one significant drawback of Ericksen’s book is its partial and often one-sided examination of the Churches. His evaluation of the Catholic Church, for example, is so dark and sweeping that, at one point, he suggests the Holy See—if not Catholicism in general– was naturally inclined toward fascism.
He also repeats some (now quite outdated) errors about Pius XII. For a corrective to this view, one should read “Fascism and Catholicism,” a brilliant wartime essay (1941) by Dietrich von Hildebrand, the great German Catholic philosopher and early opponent of Hitler, who, tellingly, is missing from Ericksen’s narrative, as is von Hildebrand’s praise of Pope Pius XII.
The second work which helps balance the deficiencies of Ericksen’s otherwise valuable volume is The Catholic Bishops of Europe and the Nazi Persecutions of Catholics and Jews by Vincent Lapomarda, S.J., which recounts the courage and compassion of prominent Catholic prelates who resisted Nazism. Father Lapomarda, who heads the Hiatt Holocaust Collection at Holy Cross college, is the author of a previous acclaimed study, The Jesuits and the Third Reich, which established how many members of the Society of Jesus—who took a special oath of fidelity to the pope—actively opposed Hitler and his crimes.
Against the literature which depicts the wartime Church as almost entirely passive or collaborationist, Lapomarda’s work proves that Catholic resistance to Nazism—even amidst collaboration and betrayal—was extensive, and often heroic. In a country-by-country analysis of Catholic resistance in Nazi-occupied lands, Father Lapomarda compiles the many interventions made by the Catholic hierarchy for persecuted Jews during the wartime era, and makes clear (as he did in The Jesuits and the Third Reich) how these rescue measures had the support of the Vatican. This was recognized at the time, even if it is sometimes forgotten or denied today.
When Jean Cardinal Verdier, the archbishop of Paris and outspoken opponent of Nazism, died in 1940, the New York Times commented: “Cardinal Verdier like Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII, was the especial champion of persecuted Jews. Besides extending monetary and material aid to Jewish refugees finding sanctuary in his archdiocese, he also called on all Christians ‘to pray that the evils that the Jews are now suffering shall cease.’ This appeal was made in April, 1933, and was followed by many similar ones.” (New York Times obituary, April 9, 1940.)
It is important that Catholics and Christians acknowledge the failures and complicity of certain Christians during the Nazi era—where guilt is beyond question—but it is equally important that unjust allegations be answered, and that those who did live up to Christianity’s teachings are recognized and applauded. Fortunately, there is increasing understanding and appreciation of this.