Article Note: Ion Popa, “Sanctuary from the Holocaust? Roman Catholic Conversion of Jews in Bucharest, Romania, 1942”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 23, Number 4 (December 2017)

Article Note: Ion Popa, “Sanctuary from the Holocaust? Roman Catholic Conversion of Jews in Bucharest, Romania, 1942,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 29, no 1 (Spring 2015): 39-56.

By Doris L. Bergen, University of Toronto

Of the many painful topics around Christianity and the Holocaust, one of the thorniest is conversion. Even basic questions remain unanswered. How many Jews sought baptism? How willing were Christian clergy to help? How did the situation differ across regions and confessions? Did converting actually save lives? Ion Popa’s important article addresses these questions for Romania and in the process reveals the complex tangle of religious, political, military, and diplomatic interests that determined life and death for Jews during the Holocaust.

Popa’s meticulous research deepens and complicates the picture drawn by John Morley, Lya Benjamin, and others. In 1941, conversion of Jews to any other religion was forbidden in Romania, but the state, acting on its perception that the Vatican wielded vast power and eager to keep its options open, made exceptions for the Roman Catholic Church. The papal nuncio, Monsignor Andrea Cassulo, tried to exploit this opening to shelter Jews from deportation and death. But as Popa demonstrates, contrary to claims made at the time (and by some scholars since), Roman Catholics, whom Romanian reports regularly and inaccurately described as “Magyars,” did not baptize tens of thousands of Jews. The actual number, Popa concludes, is impossible to ascertain, but it was small: he estimates perhaps 500 people.

Still, those Romanian Jews who were baptized into the Roman Catholic church “generally” avoided deportation. This was not the case for the smaller number who converted to other forms of Christianity, including the majority Romanian Orthodox church. In fact, Popa shows, many recent converts were rounded up as Jews, some even arrested for violating the law against conversion. Other grim scenes include Romanian Orthodox churchmen whining because they were denied the lavish sums of money Catholics supposedly made by charging Jews for their services. (Popa reserves judgment as to whether converts indeed paid.) In the wake of the Axis debacle at Stalingrad, Antonescu lifted the ban on conversions—but only for the Roman Catholics, and without announcing the decision outside Bucharest for six months. This is a chilling view of leaders who wanted it both ways: when it served their interests, they supported the destruction of Jews, and when it no longer seemed opportune, they might allow others to try to help Jews. Existing scholarship sheds light on conversion in other jurisdictions (Nina Paulovicova’s 2012 dissertation, Rescue of Jews in the Slovak State; Beate Meyer’s many publications on German-Jewish history), but much remains to be done. Popa’s excellent article provides a strong framework for drawing comparisons and analyzing connections.