Heroic nuns of the Holocaust

I have just been looking once more at an interesting book published by Oxford University Press back in 2008, which, I think, needs to be more widely known. It is entitled Hidden Children of the Holocaust, and its author is Suzanne Vromen, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Bard College.

Professor Vromen is herself the child of European Jews, which must have made the writing of the book a very special task for her. The book’s subtitle is “Belgian Nuns and their Daring Rescue of Young Jews from the Nazis”. It is based on oral testimonies of survivors, both children and nuns, as well as those who acted as escorts and go-betweens. It is an important book, not least because several of the people interviewed in the course of research have since died; thus we have the sensation of reading a story that might easily have been lost to us. In addition, this account fills a gap in our knowledge. It is often asserted (not just by Catholics) that the Catholic Church did much to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe; Professor Vromen’s research tells us who did what and why they did it in one particular corner of the continent. In the arguments about the role of the Church at the time of the Holocaust this book provides us with hard evidence and answers, something which is sadly lacking in much of the discussion.

There were about 59,000 Jews in Belgium at the time of the German invasion, of whom 96 per cent were foreigners, that is to say Jews who had only recently come to the country from either Eastern Europe or Germany itself. About three thousand children were hidden in convents throughout the occupation. A variety of circumstances made this possible. First of all, the Jews themselves were organised into a committee for the defence of Jews; in addition, there was a developed resistance network in Belgium; moreover, the Catholic Church with its social institutions represented a virtual state within a state. Because of these factors, hiding even three thousand children was in a sense easy, though there were huge challenges, not least finding food and clothing for them, when both were in short supply. Vromen identifies the one group without whom rescue would not have been possible. In each convent the Mother Superior had almost total power: once she decided to take in the Jewish children, the matter was as good as done. The decisions to help came from below, made by Mothers Superior, often prompted by lay people or priests, but not by the Church hierarchy, with the exception of the diocese of Liege, whose bishop was actively opposed to the occupation.

The descriptions of daily life in the institutions, whether boarding school, orphanage or reformatory, will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Catholic Church as it was before the Second Vatican Council. Things were pretty austere, there was a war on, and the threat of discovery stoked tension. How much risk were the nuns taking? According to Vromen, not much, in that the Nazis on the whole left the Church alone, though she admits that discovery may have led to arrest and deportation. But the personal accounts show that the nuns and the children’s escorts were frightened, and, in that they were risking the wrath of the Nazis, surely with good reason.

Why did the nuns take risks for strangers? Even now these elderly ladies are reticent about the role they played, which Vromen ascribes partly to their culture of humility. But one sister puts it well: as a Sister of Charity, it was necessary to live up to the name. It is at this point that one can reflect on this simple fact: when one helps another human being, you do it not at the behest of authority (the Pope, the local Bishop, or whoever) but at the behest of the highest authority of all – your conscience. This in turn leads one to reflect that the question of the supposed silence of Pius XII is a rather odd question, as it presupposes Catholics were sitting on their hands, waiting for a Papal order to act, when, all the time, their consciences should have impelled them to act. But as this book shows, in Belgium at least, the nuns acted for conscientious reasons, not because they were ordered to by the Pope, or indeed their Mothers Superior: true, the Mother gave the order, and it might have been difficult to circumvent her, but the wellspring of action was conscience, not obedience to superiors as such.

Forty-eight Belgian nuns have been honoured as Righteous among the Nations, and their names are listed in an appendix to this book; but there must have been many more who answered the call of charity, and whose names are known only to God.

Somewhere there may well be a book, though I have not come across it, that analyses the social and religious backgrounds of the Righteous among Nations, all those Gentiles who took such risks to save Jews in the Holocaust. That too would, like Professor Vromen’s book, make interesting reading.