In February 1944, a German Jewish couple living in southern France left their two young boys in a nursery, telling only a single Gentile friend about their whereabouts and identity. The parents died at Auschwitz, but when relatives returned after the war to look for the children, the nursery’s director—who had baptized them—refused to hand them over. Soon a national controversy, resembling the 19th-century case of Edgardo Mortara, erupted, as local clergy helped hide their two young charges to ensure that they be raised as Catholics. David Kertzer writes:
What was not known at the time—and what, in fact, could not be known until the opening, earlier this year, of the Vatican archives covering the papacy of [then-Pope] Pius XII—is the central role that the Vatican and the pope himself played in the kidnapping drama. The Vatican helped direct efforts by local Church authorities to resist French court rulings and to keep the boys hidden, while at the same time carefully concealing the role that Rome was playing behind the scenes.
There is more. At the center of this drama was an official of the Vatican curia who, as we now know from other newly revealed documents, helped persuade Pope Pius XII not to speak out in protest after the Germans rounded up and deported Rome’s Jews in 1943—“the pope’s Jews,” as Jews in Rome had often been referred to. The silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust has long engendered bitter debates about the Roman Catholic Church and Jews. The memoranda, steeped in anti-Semitic language, involve discussions at the highest level about whether the pope should lodge a formal protest against the actions of Nazi authorities in Rome.
The case of the two boys, Robert and Gérald Finaly, dragged on for years. In 1953, the Vatican decided to take its perspective to the press:
Pius XII authorized a news story to be planted by the Holy Office in a Roman Catholic newspaper. A journalist at the Vatican’s own L’Osservatore Romano was charged with drafting it, and the final text was edited by the Holy Office. The article . . . took a swipe at France’s Jewish community: . . . “Even the chief rabbis lent themselves to these harmful suspicions with words that, apart from every other consideration, betrayed the most absolute lack of recognition for all that the Catholics had done in these years for the Jews, running the risk of the most serious personal dangers and without asking for anything, simply out of Christian charity.”
And after the boys’ aunt was finally able to take them to Israel, Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, a high-ranking Vatican official specializing in Jewish affairs, suggested turning again to the media:
The Jewish press, Dell’Acqua wrote in a memo for the pope on July 29, was casting the outcome of the Finaly affair as a victory. “I wonder if it is not the case,” Dell’Acqua proposed, “to have an article prepared for La Civiltà Cattolica to unmask the Jews and accuse them of disloyalty.” The pope apparently thought this worth considering, at least in some form. . . . Yet in the end, following the advice of the new nuncio in Paris that an article such as the one being proposed would be widely read as a condemnation of the action of the French episcopate, . . . the plan was dropped.
Not long ago, I was able to reach Robert Finaly by email in Israel, where he and Gérald—now known as Gad—have lived since they were taken there by their aunt. . . . Gad pursued a career in the Israeli military and subsequently as an engineer. Robert became a doctor, just like his father.