Reichspogromnacht / Reichskristallnacht Commemoration Service


70th Anniversary

The Great Synagogue, Sydney
Sunday 9 November 2008 / 11 Chesvan 5769

This morning at St Francis of Assisi parish Paddington, where I am a congregant, we prayed “Lord hear us” to this prayer:

God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob, Rachel and Leah, your covenant with our elder Jewish brothers and sisters remains constant.  As we recall with pain and sorrow the failure of the Christian Church to stand in defence and solidarity with the Jews of Germany in 1938, give us sight to see you in the faces of the Jews of today and to bless you for their fidelity to your Torah.  Let us pray to the Lord.

Today Christians prayed for Jews and asked the Almighty for wisdom and courage to stand for what is true and good.  I stand before you in this august synagogue as a Catholic Christian, as one who this morning remembered.

I also wish to acknowledge the presence of the young people gathered here this afternoon.  Your presence is vital – it is to you that the mitzvah of remembering will pass in the near future.  Young Jews be faithful to the command ‘remember – zachor’!

Seventy years ago on what was a Wednesday morning in Rome, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli made his way to celebrate the Mass.  At the beginning of the Liturgy he, and those with him, prayed the Confiteor

I confess to almighty God, to blessed Mary ever Virgin, to blessed Michael the Archangel, to blessed John the Baptist, to the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and to all the saints that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore, I beseech blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, and all the saints, to pray for me to the Lord our God. Amen.1

'Sin’ in Catholic theology is a deliberate act of shunning the Divine Law.  The Greek word – harmatia – literally means ‘to miss the mark’. In that regard it is close to the Hebrew – aveva – ‘transgression’.  Over time certain parts of Catholic Christianity developed its understanding of sin to incorporate a veritable minefield of possible moral, ritual and physical categories of sin.  Coupled with an increasingly negative view of the world as inherently sinful and alienated from God, much of Roman Catholicism became obsessed with a fearful dread of ‘falling into sin’ or being tainted by association with sinners.  For many Catholics, this attitude encompassed many, if not all, those outside of the orbit of the One True Church; and that included the excluded Jews.  

However, the demands of the Divine Law were not nullified for those outside the Church.  On the contrary, the Catholic tradition made it abundantly clear that believers were to obey the Divine Law with regard to all people – whether they believed or not.  Acts of violence against Jews were to be condemned, not necessarily because the Jews were good, but because the Divine Law as expressed through the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 7.12: “do unto others what you would have them do unto you” demanded it. Therefore murder was wrong under any and all circumstances. To put it very bluntly, Catholic teaching forbad the murder of Jews because it was contrary to the Divine Law.

And lest Christians feel a certain sense of non-obligation towards those being persecuted, the tradition taught clearly, echoing the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 17, that the duty to assist one’s neighbour transcended all concerns of religious difference, and ethnic or national identity. Sins of deliberate omission were as serious as deliberate acts of commission.  Integral to the Catholic understanding of sin were the demands placed on the believer to not only avoid ‘occasions of sin’ but to work towards creating and healing a world where sin would no longer exist – a Christian version of tikkun olam.

It is the sad reality that the vision proclaimed by Jesus has been so badly and poorly treated by many of his followers.  Therefore it is no great surprise that the long history of contempt towards Jews and Judaism led to the creation of mutations within Christian theology.  And from these mutations came even greater evils.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) summarised the reasons why Jews and Judaism were so widely distrusted:

  • The deep and wide racial difference between Jews and Christians which was, moreover, emphasized by the ritual and dietary laws of Talmudic Judaism;
  • the mutual religious antipathy which prompted the Jewish masses to look upon the Christians as idolaters, and the Christians to regard the Jews as the murderers of the Divine Saviour of mankind, and to believe readily the accusation of the use of Christian blood in the celebration of the Jewish Passover, the desecration of the Holy Eucharist, etc.;
  • the trade rivalry which caused Christians to accuse the Jews of sharp practice, and to resent their clipping of the coinage, their usury, etc.;
  • the patriotic susceptibilities of the particular nations in the midst of which the Jews have usually formed a foreign element, and to the respective interests of which their devotion has not always been beyond suspicion.

In view of these and other more or less local, more or less justified, reasons, one can readily understand how the popular hatred of the Jews has too often defeated the beneficent efforts of the Church, and notably of its supreme pontiffs, in regard to them.2  The irony of the a-historical banality of the last statement escaped most Catholics. It is a matter of shame for thinking Catholics that there are some who still hold to such fantasies. And this text was, by no means, exceptional.

Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, former Nuncio to Bavaria and Germany, was, in 1938, the most able and experienced of Vatican diplomats. Since 1930 he had been the Secretary of State to Pope Pius XI.  He had witnessed first-hand the dangerous rise of the politics of extremism from both the right and left-wings of the spectrum.  He understood and loathed National Socialism; he understood, dreaded and despised Bolshevism; he did not understand liberal democracy either in its French and British forms or the Jeffersonian democracy of the United States. But, at the same time, he understood and appreciated as good and beneficial to humanity the authoritarian nature of Catholicism and those common elements shared between the Church and the fascist regimes.  His late conversion to viewing democracy as a positive development was influenced in no small part to the increasingly anti-Catholicism of fascism in Italy and Germany that flared dramatically in 1938.

“Europe in 1938 seemed to be shaken by a gale of madness.”3  The year was punctuated by crises, each growing more dangerous than the last. Hitler’s gambles between 1935 and 1937 had achieved enormous popular endorsement for the Nazi regime and caused a state of paralysis in much of the Catholic Church in Germany. Each victory for the Führer made Catholic resistance harder. Papal teaching and exhortation against “statolatry” mostly fell on deaf ears. Institutional racism and antisemitism was accepted and tolerated throughout Germany and other European states, especially Poland, Romania and Hungary. Italy was preparing to adopt Nuremburg-style race laws and French antisemitism was resurgent and vocal in the face of the stream of Jewish refugees seeking asylum. The Western democracies appeared impotent against both fascism and communism, uninterested in the refugee problem and divided over policies of appeasement. War seemed imminent. Pius and Pacelli swept themselves into a fury of diplomatic and religious activity in attempting to stave off armed conflict. As the odds grew increasingly more risky, Vatican diplomacy became more desperate. Stalin’s purges made the Soviet Union too weak to engage actively in late 1930s continental power politics, but in the mind of the Pope and his secretary this was only a temporary matter. A second European war would surely spell the end of Christendom, the advent of a Bolshevik bloodbath and an unimaginable persecution of the Christian Church.

It was in this climate that Pacelli went to Budapest for the Eucharistic Congress in May 1938. He had been drawn into the Austrian Anschluss débâcle in March and April because of the naivety of the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Innitzer, with the Nazis. Innitzer had greeted the Anschluss in florid language, saying the Catholic Church welcomed integration into the Third Reich. Pacelli had forcefully reprimanded Innitzer and ordered him to issue a renunciation of episcopal support for the National Socialist government in Austria.4

In May 1938 Pacelli went to Budapest for the Eucharistic Congress.  At the formal opening of the Congress, the Cardinal said the theme of the gathering had been given by Christ in his commandment “Love one another as I have loved you”. In both his principal addresses the Cardinal made no direct reference to the political turmoil in Europe or to racism and religious persecution. In a world all too ready to throw off divine law and religious truth, Christians must renew their faith in God and trust that evil will not prevail. Pacelli described the “lugubrious array of the militant godless shaking the clenched fist of the Antichrist against everything that we hold most sacred”.5  Surrounded by those who actively hate the Church and those “who without being personally hostile to Jesus Christ allowed themselves to be tossed by the muddy waves of indifference and frivolity”, Christians must remind themselves of the fate of all other persecutors such as Herod, Pilate and Nero. “Heroic fidelity to Christ alone can give the victory over such a desperate enemy.”6  Few were unaware that the Pacelli was referring to the battle between the Church and its two principal enemies, Bolshevism and Nazism.  Equally so, it was noteworthy that no mention was made of the single largest victim group of National Socialist persecution across the border in Germany and Austria.

At the end of the Congress, the Cardinal spoke of the Church’s duty in the world. “The Church’s duty in the apostolic service of justice is typified by universal love; it is, therefore, impossible for it to take sides and rigidly stand by any party.”7  It would be difficult to see how a diplomat of such political astuteness as Pacelli could not have known of Hungary’s antisemitic legislation and the fundamental injustice that it had wrought on Hungarian society through application of Horthy’s Christian National Principle.8  Jews were being removed from Hungarian public life. Conversion provided a way out, but this was to prove a short-lived experience. European power politics precluded discussion on the “Jewish Question” in Hungary, or anywhere else for that matter.

It was to become another part of the tragedy of European Jewry that when antisemitic laws were passed in Italy two months after the Budapest Congress, the Catholic Church lost its greatest opportunity to speak unequivocally. The voluntary constraints of the Lateran Pacts, widespread European and Italian indifference to the fate of “foreign Jews”, and the Vatican’s insistence on observing diplomatic procedures to the letter meant that the only area of vocalised concern was related to “mixed marriages”.

In Italy, Pius XI was increasingly frustrated and angry at Mussolini’s closer alliance with the Third Reich. In imitation of the Nuremburg Laws, Mussolini approved the publication of the Dichiarazione della Razza on 14 July 1938.9  German-style Jew-hatred was introduced into Italy; a country Il Duce had said had no “Jewish Question”.10  Between July and November 1938, more and more antisemitic newspapers appeared and gradually laws were passed restricting citizenship and professions.  And while it was true that much of Mussolini’s antisemitism was opportunistic, there was an element of xenophobia and savageness behind the linguistic gymnastics that declared Italians to be, not Latins, but Aryans.11  It is reasonable to assume that the Pope was disturbed, in no small part because what had been academic and seen through the lenses of diplomatic reports, newspapers, audiences with pilgrims and refugees, and interviews with bishops and nuncios was now personal and on the Pope’s own doorstep. People known to the Vatican administration were now being forced out of jobs. For the first time, the Vatican was confronted with the flesh-and-blood outcome of theological and academic anti-Judaism and antisemitism.

And then, in the early hours of the morning of 10 November came news from Germany and Austria.  The scale of wanton violence against the Jews resident in the Third Reich shocked the Vatican.  Reports of synagogues in flames, homes vandalized and families torn apart, men and boys arrested and sent to places unknown, and murders sent a horrifying message to the leadership of the Catholic Church that the years of diplomatic negotiation with Berlin gave no surety of protection for anyone.  The Nazi regime was a law unto itself.  But Rome’s first concern was expressed for Catholics.  The shadow of the Reichskonkordat hung over Rome.  Pius XI and Pacelli were unable to break away from the diplomatic patterns of behaviour that had guided their reactions to Hitler since 1933.

In the wake of Kristallnacht, international condemnation rang loud.12  From Rome, Pacelli and the Pope read reports of the Aktion and the anti-Catholic attacks that flowed on from some participants.  Orsengio telegrammed from Berlin with details about the “antisemitic vandalism”.  And in a very frank, and accurate, observation, he added that the “suspicion was that the order or the permission to act came from the top.”13  In particular the Pope was disturbed by the vicious attack on 11 November on the residence of Cardinal Faulhaber whose opposition to National Socialism – a change after his earlier, cautious, support – had earned him the particular ire of the party.14  The pogrom had given some of the more anti-Catholic agitators within the Reich the excuse to settle scores with those they considered to be “allies of the Jews”.15  The Reich Concordat made it diplomatically inappropriate to protest on what was legally a German domestic issue that did not involve the Catholic Church. The Pontiff and his Secretary of State resorted to an active silence as other bishops and cardinals spoke out in defence of the Jews and against Antisemitism with their comments reported in L’Osservatore Romano.16  This would impress on the Nazis that it was not only the Vatican that found the behaviour of the Reich abhorrent.

In Milan, Cardinal Idelfonso Schuster condemned what he called “this new Nordic heresy” and railed against the “racial myth”. “It is in the name of this twentieth century myth that the descendents of Abraham are today expelled from the territory of the Reich, and that the only revealed religion is the butt of its attacks.”17  Cardinals Joseph Van Roey of Malines, Belgium, Jean Verdier of Paris and Manuel Cerejeira of Lisbon unambiguously condemned both the attacks in Germany and the promotion of “racialism”. However, the word “Jew” does not appear in any of the statements.18  Across the western democracies public protests drew huge crowds and days of prayer announced.19  In the United States a national broadcast by leading members of the American hierarchy and laity, condemned the pogrom but also linked persecution of the Jews to the persecution of the Church in Russia, Mexico, Spain and Germany. The broadcast entered into an air of surrealism with the comments of Bishop John Gannon of Erie who urged “the Jews in Germany to pray and sustain the persecution as best they may, following the examples of Christ, who let persecution spend itself on him in order to triumph eventually”.20

This is another problem with making judgements about the papacy’s response to events such as Kristallnacht. It was not uncommon to permit a major bishop or cardinal from another country to make a public statement on an issue that the Pope felt would be more forceful coming from a part of the Church other than Rome. On the feast of the Epiphany in January 1939, the Bishop of Cremona, Giovanni Cazzani, preached against the “pride of race” of the Jews. The Tablet commented that “it seems more than a pity that members of the Hierarchy should make statements which appear to be in conflict with what is still known to be the Vatican view”. A papal reprimand was not likely since Pius XI was deathly ill, but a rebuttal was possible from another bishop. The Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Adeodato Piazza, effectively rebuked the Cazzani by saying that “St Peter never closed the door to his former co-religionists, and in this spirit the Church has ever set the example of moderation”. The sermon was praiseworthy up to that point, but then the Cardinal mentioned that the Church had always shown tolerance towards the Jews even “when she was fighting Jewish schemes and plots”.21  The old suspicions and myths ran deep.

After the pogrom, Pacelli appealed directly to nuncios around the world, in the name of the Pope, to do whatever they could to help converted Jews get out of Germany. Amid the flurry of activity, the ailing Pope intervened and widened the work to include all Jews. Indeed between mid-1938 and the last weeks of Pius XI’s life, when the situation for the Jews of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, the Sudetenland and Italy had turned into state-authorised persecution on a hitherto unimaginable scale, the Vatican finally discarded its ancient Judeophobia and threw itself and its agencies into the work of rescue.22  While it was perhaps a case of too little, too late, the Vatican-sponsored refugee committees were nonetheless an attempt to do something. In comparison, no other government, with resources far exceeding Vatican funds, was as actively involved.

In Britain, church protests were more direct. Dr Cosmo Lang, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to The Times on behalf of all Christians in Britain in giving “immediate expression to the feelings of indignation with which we read of the deeds of cruelty and destruction which were perpetrated Thursday in Germany and Austria.”23  On 22 November, a public meeting in Liverpool was addressed by the Catholic and Anglican bishops. The Catholic bishop, Dr Richard Downey, outlined the concerns of Christians:

I believe in the competence of a sovereign State to order its internal affairs … That is our justification for protesting against the savagery which Germany declares to be her internal policy and therefore purely her own concern. The treatment which she is meting out to the Jews constitutes at once a crime against humanity and a menace to civilisation. Therefore it is the world’s concern.24  (italics original)

I have no doubt that Pacelli shared the dying pope’s growing concern at the pace of anti-Jewish persecution, but with the increasing anti-Catholic menaces of the Nazis along with the other trouble spots directly affecting the Church, his ability to respond to Jewish needs was extremely limited. While there is evidence that his ethical concerns lay with those suffering, his diplomatic concerns precluded responses that lay outside regulated channels. He was further restricted by the reality that the Church could only act and react according to the willingness of its members.  Translating papal condemnations of Antisemitism into action in Germany was never to go beyond the sermons of a few brave clergy such as Father Bernard Lichtenberg, Dean of St Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin.  At Mass on the morning of 10 November he said to the congregation:

What took place yesterday we know; what will be tomorrow, we do not know; but what happens today that we have witnessed; outside [this church] the synagogue is burning, and that also is a house of God.”

The silence of the German bishops during the “Kristallnacht” was loud.25

Pius XI died on 9 February 1939 and was succeeded by his Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, a man of similar mind and heart but a man of vastly different temperament. The new pope was a man who believed that rational diplomacy combined with patience, faith and careful strategy would save the Catholic Church and Europe’s Christian heritage from the short-term scourge of Nazism and the far greater danger of communism. Pacelli’s decision meant that nothing and no one would come between his role as Vicar of Christ on earth and his unshakeable belief that God had called him to lead the Catholic Church in its hour of greatest danger. He could not see the horror that was to be unleashed against European Jewry.  He could not, and he knew it, stir the Catholics of Germany to rise in defence of the defenceless Jews. What then did he have? He had a voice that was listened to across the world. And he used it throughout the course of the war years on behalf of every victim group and nation by name – with the glaring exception of the one victim group for whom a plain word was so desperately needed. The Jews of Europe would always be second to the perceived needs of, and threats to, the Catholic Church. The true horror of the October 1943 round-up of the Jews of Rome was the expectation on all sides, including, and especially the Germans, that Pius would speak. He did not.

Here Pius stumbled, and here he must be held accountable: why, when the fate of Europe’s Jews was known with certitude by the end of 1942 at the latest, did he not speak out and denounce the violation of the Divine Law in clear and unambiguous terms? To say that he ‘kept sturm’ for fear of causing even greater hardship is a nonsense.  By 1942 it was well known that Jews ‘sent East for resettlement’ did not return and were not heard of again – there is only the truly awful spectre of what Saul Friedländer called ‘the lesser victims.’

It is my considered opinion based on my research work over the last ten years that Pope Pius XII was a good and holy man who made some terrible decision and errors of judgement.  His failure to speak clearly in defence of the Catholics of Poland during 1939-1940; and his ambiguous responses to the murderous and officially pro-Catholic regime of the Ustasha in Croatia who were engaged in slaughter of Orthodox Serbian Christians as well as Jews between 1941 and 1944 raises serious problems as to his ability to move beyond his natural inclination to be a diplomat to that of the much needed role of leader.  Of course for the Poles and Serbs there were avenues of hope however slim.  For the Hews of Europe there was no hope, and the one man who had shown a resilience in fighting the Nazis throughout the 1930s was now so prolix and turgid as to be all but mute.

But a final word of caution is necessary. If Pope Pius XII is to be held accountable for what he did and did not do during the years of the Holocaust then so must the whole Church – Pius cannot, and should not, bear the blame for all the sins of Catholicism during those dark years; that is a burden for which the whole Church then, as well as the Church today, must bear responsibility. Endless citing of isolated newspaper articles, symposia with prepared conclusions and good-intentioned, but ignorant believers – Jews and Catholics- do not help. This is not the place for apologetics and sloppy history.  The skills of the trained professional Jewish and Christian historian must work together with the skills of the trained and professional Jewish and Christian theologians. They must work together.

And here we must wait for the archives to reveal the full story, and more importantly, for the Catholic Church to summon the courage to seek forgiveness from the Jews for all her sins of commission as well as those of omission. We have come a long way through the witness and work of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, both of blessed memory. We have come a long way through the growth of positive and genuinely held friendships forged between Jews and Christians that will not allow the difficult and hard words that need to be said go unsaid.

The sages tell us in Pirkei Avot (1.2) “The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of loving kindness”.26  May it be that these words of Jewish wisdom may find a place deep in the hearts of Christians.  And may the memory of the martyrs – those who died Kiddush Ha-Shem­ – be a blessing for us, our children, our children’s children, and the whole world; and let us say “Amen”.

  1. – accessed 01.11.20082
  2. Gigot, F, (1910). Judaism, in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton, New York, – accessed 01.11.2008.
  3. Nazareno Padellaro, 126.
  4. NYT 27.03.1938; 31.03.1938; 06.04.1938; Tablet 09.04.1938; 16.04.1938.
  5. CM 36.853, Eugenio Pacelli, Principal address at the Eucharistic Congress, 06.06.1938 [sic].
  6. Ibid.
  7. Tablet 04.06.1938.
  8. See Ranki, 99–101, 137–8, 168–9.
  9. The Italian text was reproduced in Civiltà Cattolica, 1938.2113, 275–7. An English translation of the text is cited in George Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky, 115–18. Pius made two public statements condemning “racialism”. On 28.07.1938 and 21.08.1938, in addresses to the students of the Propaganda Fide College, the Pope condemned both the biological basis of racism and “exaggerated nationalism” as contrary to Christian faith. Bertetto 3.929,930.10
  10. Mussolini 16.02.1938 cited in Susan Zuccotti (2000), 27.
  11. Bosworth, 334-344, especially 334-335.
  12. E.g. NYT 11–13.11.1938; Times 12–13.11.1938; SMH 12–14.11.1938. Ambassador Dieckhoff in Washington wrote to Berlin, outlining the outrage against Germany that was sweeping the United States.
  13. SV, AES, Germania, Pos 742, fasc 354,ff 40r-41v, Orsenigo to Pacelli, 15.11.1938.
  14. NYT 13.11.1938; 18.11.1938.
  15. ADSS 6, Appendix 4 Nuncio Orsenigo to Cardinal Pacelli 15.11.1938. Faulhaber’s residence was attacked by a Nazicrowd that had been incited by Gauleiter Wagner, who accused the Church of having the “audacity to take the Jews under its protection”. AKF 2.752/I Note of Faulhaber, Munich 12.11.1938, and AKF 2.752/II Note of Buchwieser, Munich,12.11.1938.
  16. The pogrom was reported in detail in L’Osservatore from 11.11.1938 and for the rest of the month.
  17. Tablet 26.11.1938 In the same edition a sermon of Cardinal Faulhaber was quoted. He refuted Nazi antisemitism as an affront to Christianity, since it denied the fundamental Christian principle that membership of the Church was through faith, not blood. He did not speak out in defence of Jews who had lost life and property in the pogrom. I suggest that this would have been politically naïve, something Faulhaber was not. The Chief Rabbi of Munich asked the Cardinal’s help in saving Torah scrolls and other ritual objects from Munich’s main synagogue. Faulhaber responded with immediate help, sending a truck to help the Rabbi and members of the Munich community.
  18. See Peter Kent (1988), 601–2.
  19. NYT, 13.11.1938
  20. NYT, 17.11.1938.
  21. Tablet,14.01.1939; 28.01.1939.
  22. ADSS 6 Annexe 2 Circular Letter of Cardinal Pacelli 09.01.1939; Annexe 3 Cardinal Pacelli to the Representatives of the Holy See 30.11.1938. Both letters were confirmed with a personal letter from Pius XI addressed to the leading cardinals of North and Latin America. Annexe 4 Pius XI to the Cardinal Archbishops of Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Quebec and Buenos Aires 10.01.1939.
  23. NYT, 12.11.1938
  24. Tablet 09.11.1938.
  25. Cited in Lewy, 284. Denounced by several parishioners for continuing to pray for the Jews, Lichtenberg was finally arrested in 1941. Tablet 15.11.1941. He asked to be deported to the ghetto in Lodz in order to minister to non-Aryan Catholics but was sentenced to Dachau. He died en route on 05.11.1943. John Paul II beatified Lichtenberg as a martyr on 23.06.1996.
  26. (Accessed 03.11.2008)