Conference Report: “Synagogue and Church: The Role of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 1 (March 2018)

Conference Report: “Synagogue and Church: The Role of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust.” The 10th Annual Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education, Pacific Lutheran University, November 1-3, 2017.

By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Pacific Lutheran University

The 10th Annual Powell-Heller Conference for Holocaust Education conference began with Steve Pressman, documentary filmmaker, showing clips of his soon-to-be released film, “Holy Secrets.” Pressman discussed his process in making the documentary which explores the actions and inactions taken by the Vatican during the Holocaust.

The first panel session continued this theme by exploring the “Pius Wars,” with papers by Robert Ventresca and Jacques Kornberg. Both presented critical re-assessments of Pius XII, suggesting the need for a framework for the proper historical and ethical evaluation of the choices made by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Further panels included the exploration of Catholic antisemitism, with Kevin P. Spicer and Martina Cucchiara co-presenting their recent work on Erna Becker-Kohen, a Catholic of Jewish heritage. Martin Menke presented research on Weimar Catholic leaders who differentiated between being anti-racist and being anti-Semitic.

Jonathan Huener shared his latest research on the Reichsgau Wartheland and the diverse ways in which the Nazi occupation regime persecuted the Catholic Church in occupied Poland. This was followed by Brenda Gaydosh analyzing why Bernhard Lichtenberg resisted and protested Nazi anti-Semitic measures and why he prayed for the Jews.

The final presentation of the first day of panels was a keynote address by John Connelly: “How the Catholic Church Overcame Its Own Theology and Proclaimed God Loves Jews.” Connelly argued that Vatican II’s new teaching about God loving the Jews came about because of Nazi racism. Many of the theologians who advised the bishops at Vatican II were opponents of Hitler in the 1930s. Some of them were converts from Judaism and many had been targets of antisemitism themselves. Yet for them, the Church’s new teaching about Jews was not a revolution; it was a return to the ideas of the Jewish thinker, Saul of Tarsus. Far from a revolution, the new teaching of Vatican II was a return to the Church’s origins.

The final day of the conference featured a panel on post-Holocaust theology and the Jews with a presentation by Zuzanna Radzik, a Catholic theologian specializing in Christian-Jewish relations and feminist theology. Karma Ben Johanan from the Polonsky Academy at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute then presented on the way in which the Catholic discourse on the Holocaust functioned in the construction of the Church’s identity and in the reforging of Jewish-Christian relations from the Second Vatican Council to the present.

Raymond Sun brought the conference into the present by analyzing the rhetoric, symbolism, and historical precedents employed by church leaders in urging Catholics to oppose the persecution or exclusion of targeted groups. He explored possible reasons for the absence of direct references to the Holocaust and pondered the implications of this for Catholic memory of the Holocaust. This was followed by Gershon Greenberg’s presentation on the restoration of Jewish faith in the displaced persons camps, beginning with the survivor’s question: “Why was I still alive?” The survivors’ answer was: in order to study Torah—which in turn nourished life. The fact that Jewish faith was revived necessitates the conclusion that somehow, some way, sacramental existence never totally disappeared, even in the midst of catastrophe.

The conference closed with a presentation from Marie-Anne Harkness, whose family members rescued Jews in France during the war. Mrs. Harkness’s grandmother, Madame Celine Morali, used the family’s hardware store to smuggle Jews out of danger. She and her daughter worked with Monsignor Joseph Moussaron, Bishop of Albi, and other Catholics to rescue Jews.