Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

Part Ten in a series about Jews and the Second World War

Part One: British and French Appeasement of Nazi Germany

Part Two: Soviet Russia as ally of Nazi Germany

Part Three: United States Isolationism from Nazi Germany

Part Four: France: Ally of the West to Collaborator with Nazi Germany

Part Five:Nations That Actively Saved Jews During The Holocaust

Part Six: Jews Who Fought To Defeat The Nazis

Part Seven: Jews in Muslim Lands During The Holocaust

Part Eight: When Did The Holocaust Begin?

Part Nine: The Holocaust and Jewish Martyrdom

Out of desperation to help themselves or their children escape from the jaws of the Holocaust, there were a small minority of Jews who chose to hand over their young children to the Christian Church and its institutions or in some cases stay hidden pretending to be Christians. In cases where those who hid under the protection of the Church or as Christians, once the war was over the question arose of returning to their surviving Jewish families, if they had any, or to the Jewish People, and to regaining their Jewish identity.

Strict Orthodox Judaism requires that a Jew who has taken on or been taken in by Christianity and having been baptised making their conversion to Christianity a fait accompli, and then if that Jew wishes to return to the fold of the Jewish People and be regarded as a regular Jew once again, such a person is required to appear before a Beit Din, a fully authorised Jewish Court of Law and perform what is known as "Kabbalat Chaverut" or "Kabbalat Divrei Chaverut" which is the reaffirmation of their Jewish status in the Beit Din in front of and by the Beit Din's Dayanim (Judges of Halakhah – Jewish Law).

This was common during the times following the Spanish Inquisition and the Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 when many Jews chose to practice Christianity outwardly even though they tried to practice Judaism in secret known as Marranos or Conversos, but if they left Spain and came to safer Jewish communities in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire or to Eretz Yisrael then under Ottoman rule, there were Batei Din that dealt with these cases of Jews who had practiced Christianity to save themselves from the Christian Inquisitions making sure that the return to Judaism was genuine and could be officially recognized and relied upon by the Jewish communities headed by the learned rabbis.

Sadly, there were also considerable numbers of Jews in European countries before the Second World War (1939–1945) who due to assimilation had converted to Christianity. For example, Yad Vashem reports that by 1941 "the Jewish population in Greater Hungary had reached 725,007, not including about 100,000 Jews who had converted to Christianity but were still racially considered to be 'Jews'.” Add this to the estimates that there were over 150,000 converted Jews living in Romania before the Holocaust, so that between Romania and Hungary there are about 250,000 formerly Jewish people in this category not even practicing Judaism in secret, quite a huge number of what Jewish Law would call Meshumadim or apostates in English.

Wikipedia's article about Apostasy in Judaism explains that "Apostasy in Judaism is the rejection of Judaism and possible conversion to another religion by a Jew. The term apostasy is derived from Ancient Greek: ἀποστάτης, meaning 'rebellious' (Hebrew: מורד). Equivalent expressions for apostate in Hebrew that are used by rabbinical scholars include mumar (מומר‎, literally 'one who is changed' [out of his faith]), poshea Yisrael (פושע ישראל‎, literally, 'transgressor of Israel'), and kofer (כופר‎, literally 'denier'). Similar terms are meshumad (משומד‎, lit. 'destroyed one'), and min (מין‎) or Epikoros (אפיקורוס‎), which denote heresy and the negation of God and Judaism, implying atheism."

Regarding the rescue of Jews by Catholics during the Holocaust: "During the Holocaust, the Catholic Church played a role in the rescue of hundreds of thousands of Jews from being murdered by the Nazis. Members of the Church, through lobbying of Axis officials, provision of false documents, and the hiding of people in monasteries, convents, schools, among families and the institutions of the Vatican itself, saved hundreds of thousands of Jews. The Israeli diplomat and historian Pinchas Lapide estimated the figure at between 700,000 and 860,000, although the figure is contested" (Wikipedia)

Handing children over to any Christian Church or institution, or a Jew taking on a Christian identity was not simple at all and is probably a grave sin according to Judaism, because of various factors such as 1) the Church baptising and then being reluctant to return Jewish children 2) finding, locating and identifying Jewish children handed over to Christian institutions 3) how to welcome back into the fold of Judaism those children and adults who had been baptised and practiced Christianity while in hiding during the war 4) estimating and knowing just how many Jewish children and adults were the victims of either forced or voluntary conversion to Christianity while under the Church's watch 5) who was and should be responsible for the task of extracting from the grip of the Church or Christians these lost Jewish souls.

In many ways, the challenge of recovering lost Jewish children from the grip of the Church and Christians in Europe after the war, was similar to confronting the Swiss banks about the assets in their possession belonging to both Jewish victims of the Holocaust, survivors, or their heirs. What Swiss banks have admitted to and what has been recovered from them is only a small fraction, the tip of a much larger iceberg hidden below the surface, of the true assets that were deposited by Jews in secure accounts in Swiss banks before and during the Second World War.

A huge nightmare in Jewish Law is the exact Jewish religious status of those children and adults who were baptised after being given shelter that later would then (hopefully) return to the Jewish People. Apostasy in Judaism is a severe sin violating the Torah itself such as in Deuteronomy 13:7-11. Judaism obligates Jews to give their lives rather than worship another God or convert to another religion. For Jews to die for their faith is an act of Kiddush HaShem, the Sanctification of God's Name. Conversely, for Jews to betray their religion and faith in God is called Chillul HaShem, the desecration of God's Name.

In the Torah there are at least four references forbidding the desecration of God's Name in Leviticus 1) "And from your seed you shall not give to to pass on to Molech, and do not profane the name of your Lord, I am God" (18:21) 2) "And do not swear in my name falsely, and desecrate the name of your Lord, I am God" (19:12) 3) "Speak to Aaron and to his sons...that they not profane my Holy Name" (22:2) 4) "And you shall not profane my Holy Name, and I shall be sanctified among the Children of Israel, I am God Who sanctifies you" (22:32).

Rabbinically there are additional clarifications and commandments and the obligation to refrain from desecration of God's name is one of the 613 commandments in rabbinical enumeration (Mitzvah 295 in Sefer HaChinuch). If the prohibition is particularly severe (such as murder, idolatry, adultery), then the person must give up his/her life, rather than violate the prohibition.

The most famous example in the Talmud is the story of the woman with seven sons. (Wikipedia): "The woman with seven sons was a Jewishmartyr described in 2 Maccabees 7 and other sources, who had seven sons that were arrested (along with her) by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who forced them to prove their respect to him by consuming pig meat. When they refused, he tortured and killed the sons one by one in front of the unflinching and stout-hearted mother....The Talmud tells a similar story, but with refusal to worship an idol replacing refusal to eat pork. Tractate Gittin 57b cites Rabbi Judah saying that 'this refers to the woman and her seven sons' and the unnamed king is referred to as the 'Emperor' and 'Caesar'. The woman commits suicide in this rendition of the story: she 'also went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed'."

Wikipedia has a good article about martyrdom in Judaism citing what the trend was during all of Jewish history: "In Hebrew a martyr is known as a kaddosh which means '[a] holy [one]', and martyrs are known as kedoshim meaning 'holy [ones]'. Thus the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust are known as the Kedoshim. Jewish history is replete with many episodes in which Jews who lived in different times and places chose to become individual and mass martyrs....There have been times of great upheaval between Jews and Christians and hence between Judaism and Christianity starting from the inception of Christianity as a religion independent and apart from its Judaic roots. This has resulted in the death and martyrdom of countless Jews and Jewish communities dating from Roman times to the present...The Crusades took place from the 11th to the 17th century during which time tens of thousands of Jews were martyred....

During the Spanish Inquisition, many of those who were executed were Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. The status of those crypto-Jews who had pretended to adopt Christianity in an attempt to avoid persecution is unclear in Jewish Law that forbids Apostasy in Judaism under all circumstances. True adherents of Judaism were expelled from Spain following the Alhambra Decree of 1492 while remaining in Spain would mean death and martyrdom....

The Khmelnytsky Uprising was known to Jews as Gezeiras Tach VeTat, meaning the "Decree of [years] 408 and 409" (corresponding to 1648 and 1649). Some historians estimate that between 100,000 and 500,000 Jews were slaughtered during the Khmelnytsky Uprising from 1648 to 1658. See the section Khmelnytsky Uprising: Jews for an outline of the discussion about the actual numbers of Jews killed by the Cossacks....

The approximately six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust during the period of the Second World War are regarded as martyrs by most Jewish religious scholars. In Hebrew they are referred to as kedoshim ("holy ones") who died al kiddush Hashem ("for [the] sanctification [of] God's name"). Some famous rabbis who chose martyrdom al Kiddush Hashem ("for the sanctification of God's Name") immediately before they were murdered by the Nazis include Avraham Yitzchak Bloch, Elchonon Wasserman, Azriel Rabinowitz, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Menachem Ziemba, and Ben Zion Halberstam."

Focusing in on some specific issues, the "Jewish orphans controversy was a dispute about the custody of thousands of Jewish children after the end of World War II. Some Jewish children had been baptized while in the care of Catholic institutions or individual Catholics during the war. Such baptisms allowed children to be identified as Catholics to avoid deportation and incarceration in concentration camps, and likely death in the Holocaust. After the end of hostilities, Catholic Church officials, either Pope Pius XII or other prelates, issued instructions for the treatment and disposition of such Jewish children, some but not all of whom were now orphans. The rules they established, the authority that issued those rules, and their application in specific cases is the subject of investigations by journalists and historians. In 2005, Corriere della Sera published a document dated 20 November 1946 on the subject of Jewish children baptized in wartime France. The document ordered that baptized children, if orphaned, should be kept in Catholic custody and stated that the decision 'has been approved by the Holy Father'." (Wikipedia)

Another searing example is "How Many Children Were Saved in Convents in Poland? The subject of the 'convent children' is one of the most sensitive issues in the relationship between the Church and the Jews during and after the Holocaust. It is one that preoccupied much of the Jewish public immediately after the war and for years afterward because not all of these children were returned to the Jewish fold. The convent leaders never disclosed how many children were saved in their institutions, and Jewish institutions had no statistics that could clarify the matter. The issue remains unresolved. Although copious testimonies about children rescued in convents have accumulated over the years, we cannot ascertain their number and doubt that any verifiable figures will ever be forthcoming." (Yad Vashem)

In "The Lost Children" Rabbi Berel Wein relates how after the Holocaust the late Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Yitzchak Herzog (1888–1959) came to speak in Chicago: "This visit, Rav Herzog explained, came after another recent trip where he’d spent several months strengthening the broken remnant of European Jewry in Poland, as well as the various displaced persons camps in the Allied zones of Germany. He had then traveled to Rome, where he sought an audience with Pope Pius XII. There he presented an impassioned plea to return the thousands of Jewish children who had been cloistered in monasteries, convents, and other Catholic institutions by their subsequently martyred parents. The pontiff refused to do so, citing baptismal concerns. As he related this tragedy to his audience, Rav Herzog put his head down on the shtender [lectern] and began to weep.

'I have never before or since seen a grown man crying like that,' Rabbi Wein says. 'Two thousand years of our bitter exile came pouring out in an overwhelming display of emotion and copious tears.' After several minutes, Rav Herzog finally looked up and thundered to the crowd, 'I cannot save those thousands of Jewish children. But I ask of you — how are you going to help rebuild the Jewish People?'" (Mishpacha)

There is a report by Rav Herzog's son, Yaakov Herzog who accompanied his father on mission to save and extricate Jewish child survivors that "According to Yaacov, the mission resulted in the rescue of 1,000 children—thanks to his and his father’s own efforts and to the assistance of many high officials, including heads of government and senior cabinet ministers." (Habricha)

It is a miracle that any Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust who were in non-Jewish and in Christian hands survived and were rescued. Tragically however, the majority of children given over to the Christian Church and its institutions were never fully recovered. As for adults who sought a false refuge under a Christian identity or had become practicing Christians in the years prior to the Holocaust and during the Holocaust itself most were sent to their deaths by the Nazis who disregarded religious beliefs and implemented racist and anti-Semitic policies sending Jews, be they Jewish apostates or practicing Jews to their deaths during the Holocaust.

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is also a docent and tour guide at The Museum of Jewish Heritage A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Downtown Manhattan, New York.

He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.

Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin at[email protected]