By Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School
The question Roman Catholics throughout the world should be asking themselves is why Miep Gies was never made a saint.
Miep Gies, who died in Amsterdam at the age of 100, was one of the small group of Christians who risked their lives to hide Anne Frank and her family in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam for more than two years until they were betrayed to the Gestapo. Anne Frank and her sister Margot perished at Bergen-Belsen. Their mother died in Auschwitz. When Otto Frank returned to Amsterdam after the war, the sole survivors of his family, Miep Gies gave him his daughter’s diary which she had safeguarded after Anne’s deportation.
Miep Gies was born a Roman Catholic in Vienna. She surely exemplified the highest values of Christianity. She was knighted by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official authority for the commemoration of the Holocaust, and the German government. Her heroic attempt to save eight Jews surely qualifies as miraculous, as does her preservation of her young Jewish friend’s diary. Why, then, has the Vatican not deemed fit to put her on the road to sainthood? Why and how is she any less worthy than Pope Pius XII whose record with respect to the annihilation of European Jewry during the Holocaust remains shrouded in controversy? And yet it is Pius, not Miep Gies, whom Pope Benedict XVI wants to fast-track to sainthood.
While Pope Benedict maintains that Pius “secretly and silently” worked to save Jews, there is documentary evidence that the wartime Pope knew of the deportation of more than 1,000 Roman Jews in 1943 and made no effort to rescue them. He certainly did not publicly intercede on their behalf or, for that matter, on behalf of the millions of Jews who were being persecuted and murdered throughout Europe.
Contrast Pius’s silence with Miep Gies’s heroism. Which of them is the true saint?
Pius’s defenders argue that his failure to speak out was a matter of necessity, that confronting the Nazis directly would have been too dangerous. This puts him among the millions of bystanders, hardly a virtue or a badge of honor.
“As long as the archives of Pope Pius about the crucial period 1939 to 1945 remain closed, and until a consensus on his actions – or inaction – concerning the persecution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust is established, a beatification is inopportune and premature,” declared World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder. “While it is entirely a matter for the Catholic Church to decide on whom religious honors are bestowed, there are strong concerns about Pope Pius XII’s political role during World War II which should not be ignored.”
During the summer of 1942, a number of Jews approached Archbishop Jules-Géraud Saliège of Toulouse to ask him to intercede on behalf of Jewish refugees who were being deported from the Toulouse area to the detention camp of Drancy north of Paris. Among them was Emanuel Schlesinger, a refugee from Vienna. Accompanied by his daughter Elly – the mother of my friend Leah Modlin – Schlesinger implored the Archbishop to tell his priests, nuns and parishioners to help and, if necessary, hide the Jews in the archdiocese. As they left, Elly remembers Monseigneur Saliège telling them, “May God bless you.” On Sunday, August 23, 1942, priests in all churches in the archdiocese of Toulouse read a letter from the Archbishop in which he protested that Jewish men, women and children, fathers and mothers were being “treated like cattle” and “dispatched to unknown destinations.” “The Jews are men, the Jews are women,” Archbishop Saliège declared. “Foreigners are men, foreigners are women . . . . They are part of the human race. They are our brothers like so many others. A Christian may not forget this.”
What would have happened if Pope Pius had uttered similar words? How many priests throughout Poland, Hungary and Romania would have defied the Germans as a result? How many devout Catholics in these countries might have found the courage to hide a Jew? How many of the six million murdered Jews of Europe might have been saved?
A few days after Archbishop Saliège’s declaration, Emanuel Schlesinger, his wife and their daughter Elly fled to the Swiss border and, with the help of a Roman Catholic priest, were able to smuggle themselves into Switzerland. Like Miep Gies, this priest was a hero, and in saving three lives, he performed at least one miracle, if not three.
After the war, Pope Pius made Archbishop Saliège a Cardinal, but to the best of my knowledge, no steps were ever taken to have him declared a saint.
Perhaps the examples of Miep Gies and Archbishop Saliège will cause Pope Benedict to reconsider and delay Pius’s beatification until after the Vatican will have formally recognized the true Christian heroes of the Holocaust era, including Gies and Saliège.
And the rest of us, Christians and non-Christians alike, should hold Miep Gies up to our children and grandchildren as an authentic embodiment of saintliness.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is Adjunct Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law, and Vice President of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.