The Bishops Who Defied the Nazis

Another anniversary has come and gone that should not be forgotten. More than 65 years ago, a group of courageous bishops did what hardly anybody else in the Catholic Church did so frankly: They protested against the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.

On July 11, 1942, the Dutch bishops, together with all Christian denominations, sent a letter to Nazi Gen. Friedrich Christiansen protesting against the treatment of the Jews. The letter was read two weeks later, on July 26, in all Catholic churches throughout the Netherlands, although the Germans were strongly opposed to it. It not only brought attention to the atrocities being committed against Jews, but also asked all Christians to pray explicitly for the Jewish people.

The bishops also included what Jesus said about the fate of Jerusalem, and the faithful were encouraged to understand Jesus’ foretelling of the judgment as directed against the Third Reich. The rest of the text read:

“Ours is a time of great tribulations of which two are foremost: the sad destiny of the Jews and the plight of those deported for forced labor. … All of us must be aware of the terrible sufferings which both of them have to undergo, due to no guilt of their own. We have learned with deep pain of the new dispositions which impose upon innocent Jewish men, women and children the deportation into foreign lands. … The incredible suffering which these measures cause to more than 10,000 people is in absolute opposition to the divine precepts of justice and charity. … Let us pray to God and for the intercession of Mary … that he may lend his strength to the people of Israel, so severely tried in anguish and persecution” (as quoted in Ronald Rychlak’s Hitler, the War and the Pope).

It was ironic that on the same day the bishops published their protest, another Dutch hero, Blessed Titus Brandsma, died in the Dachau, Germany, concentration camp. This Carmelite priest was a renowned university professor and administrator who fiercely opposed the Nazis until the Germans arrested him.

However, the bishops’ letter only led to an increase in deportations. The Germans even began to deport Jews who had converted to Catholicism before Jan. 1, 1941, a group that had been previously spared. One of the most prominent victims was the Carmelite Sister St. Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, otherwise known as Edith Stein. The saint’s sister Rosa, who lived in the same convent, had also become Catholic. On Aug. 2, both were taken from the Carmelite monastery in Echt, Germany, to the concentration camp in Birkenau, where they most likely died on Aug. 9. Edith Stein is said to have uttered to her sister when the SS soldiers led them out of their monastery, “Let’s go — for our people!”

It is still debatable whether the Dutch protest really caused the death of 40,000 victims, as Sister Pasqualina Lehnert, the housekeeper of Pius XII, remembered. It is also still disputed whether Pius XII actually wrote a letter of protest against the deportations that began in August 1942, although Lehnert reports that the late Pontiff burned that draft because of fears he had about possible severe retaliations against Dutch and German Catholics.

Most recently, the German movie The Ninth Day (2004) reiterated this to explain the Pontiff’s behavior. However one interprets the role of Pius XII, what the Dutch bishops and their Protestant colleagues did stands out as an act of courageous Christian witness in the face of oppression and terror, and we should remember this anniversary with gratitude.

We must also not forget the victims, and when we remember them with grief, we should not forget to include Rosa and Edith Stein and Titus Brandsma.

Ulrich L. Lehner teaches Church history at Marquette University in Milwaukee and is author/editor of seven books.

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