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Polish priest seeks truth about heroic Catholics

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Father Pawel Rytel-Andrianik makes a point during the annual Marzheuser Lecture at the Bartlett Pastoral Center at the Athenaeum Nov. 24. Father Rytel-Andrianik’s lecture focused on research that showed heroism on the part of Catholic clergy in protecting Jews during World War II. (CT Photo/Steve Trosley)

By Steve Trosley
The Catholic Telegraph 

The passionate pursuit of truth fuels the work of the authentic academic. Thus, Father Pawel Rytel-Andrianik pours his energies into seeking the truth of Catholic heroism in the days of the holocaust.

The master of nine modern and seven ancient languages has used this passion to show that Catholic priests and bishops — and Pope Pius XII — used heroic measures to save Jewish lives in the time before and during World War II when Nazis were perfecting an assembly line slaughter of Jews and other ethnic groups in Europe.

A native of Poland who grew up near the infamous Treblinka concentration camp, Father Rytel-Andrianik delivered the annual Marzheuser Lecture at the Athenaeum of Ohio Nov. 24. He said the material in the lecture came from 17,000 interviews and 10,000 pages of documents.

His conclusions: About 1,000 Catholic priests used their pastoral positions — forging baptismal records or finding hiding places and providing food — to save Jewish lives. At least 30 Catholic priests in Poland were killed for their efforts. Nuns were also punished when it was discovered they were hiding, Jewish children in their convents.

“Sometimes, the people who were saved did not see the people who saved them,” Father Rytel-Andrianik said. He also said that research shows 13 of the 14 bishops in Poland at the time were involved in efforts to protect Jewish lives. “Does anyone really think the priests of a diocese would be taking action without the knowledge and encouragement of their bishop?” he asked. That 14th bishop is still being researched, the scholar said.

Father Rytel-Andrianik also researched the controversy about Pope Pius XII’s involvement. He said that the Pope personally saw to it that Jews were hidden in Castel Gandolfo. Pope Francis said 42 Jewish babies were born in the pope’s apartment at that papal retreat.

Pope Francis, in defense of Pope Pius, has publically questioned why the Allies did not choose to destroy the rail lines that lead to the camps.

Documents from the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, made available to Father Rytel-Andrianik for his research, lists hundreds of testimonies from Jews saved by priests or nuns. But there is not one testimony on file that names a priest or a nun as a collaborator with the Nazis.

The Polish priest believes the number of priests who worked to save Jewish lives would exceed 1,000 but the Jewish population was concentrated in the Eastern and Southern parts of that country, roughly one-fourth of the country’s total area.

Father Rytel- Andrianik told the story of a priest who learned shortly before ordination that his Catholic parents had adopted him when his Jewish mother gave him up to save him from the relentless Nazi death machine. He was baptized by his bishop shortly before ordination “to be on the safe side.”

He said the camp near his home in Treblinka, which he learned of from his mother and which claimed the life of his grandfather, was “the worst. The Nazis could murder a thousand in one hour.  From July 1942 to August 1943, they killed nearly 900,000 Polish Jews and Romani people in the camp.

“Anti-Semitism is one of the greatest anti-Christian heresies,” Father Rytel-Andrianik said. “We cannot understand Christianity without Judaism.  This is why so many people, moved by Christian values, risked their lives and the lives of their family members to save the Jewish people,” during the holocaust.

In all, the Nazi efforts to enforce the “Final Solution” took the lives of six million men, women and children.

This story originally appeared in the January 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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