Mr. Poliakov Replies
To the Editor:
I believe Mr. Zens’ argument may be summarized as follows:
A. We are in agreement that the activities of the Holy See during the past war in the saving of Jewish lives in Europe were in every respect worthy of admiration.
B. We are also in agreement on the historical fact, known universally, that in the Middle Ages the Holy See followed a policy of discrimination and segregation towards the Jews. As Mr. Zens very justly observes, the activities of the medieval church in this respect cannot be judged from our modern point of view, given our entirely different pattern of life. We are also in agreement that the papacy in the Middle Ages acted to protect the lives of the Jews and opposed violence and massacres. I will add also that the papal states were among the very few countries of medieval Europe in which the Jews were spared final outrages and mass expulsions.
C. We are very much in disagreement about the attitude of the Vatican in respect to the new measures of segregation and discrimination of the years 1939 to 1945 in Europe (excluding, of course, violent persecutions and massacres). Mr. Zens believes, if I have understood his letter and its implicit thesis, that the Vatican was opposed to these measures of segregation and discrimination, and because I have reached a contrary conclusion on the basis of the materials that I have examined, he accuses me of “insinuations,” “tortured circumstantial evidence,” and “wild exaggeration.” Let us then examine the facts attentively:
(1) Mr. Zens believes that the report of Ambassador Leon Bérard might have been no more than the effort of a diplomat to tell his government what it wished to hear, and he reproaches me for not having considered this possibility. To tell the truth, I cannot well see what would have led Bérard, who before the war had the reputation of being a serious diplomat, to invent out of whole cloth the considerations which, he says in his report, were presented to him at the Holy See. And I find it equally difficult to see what special satisfaction Pétain might have drawn from these considerations. Neither Bérard nor Pétain was personally anti-Semitic if one can rest any judgment on their earlier records (this would apply equally, by the way, to many another important functionary of the Vichy government, including Laval, who said flatly to the Germans: “I am neither a philo-Semite nor an anti-Semite”)—and the real and ineffaceable shame of the Vichy regime lies precisely in its having allowed the persecution of hundreds of thousands of innocent people for motives of mere political expediency, using them as pawns in a cynical horse trade. Let me recall also that Bérard’s report contains the sentence: “The concepts of justice and charity should be taken into consideration in the application of the laws”; I took care to include this sentence in my article.
But there is more to it than this. As I indicated in my article, the Bérard document was published some three years ago in the French press (in particular in the Parisian daily L’Ordre), and I will add that I read it also reproduced almost in full in a long letter to the editor published by the New York Times. The document has then had a fairly large publicity. If it really constitutes a vicious distortion of the position of the Vatican, as Mr. Zens seems to think, how can we explain the fact that no authoritative voice has ever been raised to inform us of this fact and to contradict and castigate the too imaginative diplomat as he would deserve? Perhaps we may still hope to hear such a denial. In that case, as a historian I shall have been guilty of a false interpretation of a historical document; as a Jew and, I may add, simply as a human being, I shall nevertheless rejoice in my inmost conscience.
(2) On the other side Mr. Zens cites the protest of Archbishop Valerio Valeri of July 1942 (and a comment of the Jewish Chronicle). But the text of this protest makes it clear that it relates to arrests and physical mistreatment (that is to say, to point A above, on which we are in agreement), and here again it was necessary that actions of this type should take on openly scandalous dimensions before the Holy See intervened (the first large-scale raids in Paris, in which almost 12,000 Jews were arrested and deported, took place precisely from the 14th to the 16th of July 1942).
(3) On the “question of Jerusalem,” Mr. Zens contents himself with saying, “The question is too large to be discussed here.” I can all the more easily accept this reservation because, if on other points Mr. Zens has brought against me certain arguments which when confronted with my own will permit readers to form their own opinions, on this particular problem, in response to my documented exposition, Mr. Zens confines himself to pure affirmations.
(4) “Poliakov’s position is most feeble,” writes Mr. Zens, “when he refers to the controversy . . . relative to the liturgy.” “His apprehensions . . . are wildly exaggerated.” I do not believe that all Catholics are of this opinion. Thus the Reverend Father Paul Demann, writing on July 17, 1949 in Documentation Catholique (the semi-official publication of French Catholicism) at the beginning of a long article entitled “The Jewish Question and Zionism”:
The prayers said for the Jews in the Latin liturgy of the Catholic Church for Good Friday speak of perfidi Judaei and of Judaica perfidia For centuries these expressions were rather widely understood by analogy with phrases resembling them in the modern Romance languages: “perfidious Jews” and “Jewish perfidy.” Since the large diffusion of missals translated for the use of the faithful, one can usually read in these translations, therefore, “perfidious Jews,” “Jewish perfidy,” or similar expressions according to the various languages into which the prayers have been translated.
These expressions apparently carry a directly pejorative meaning, that of disloyalty, of a lack of good faith, which is not necessarily intended by the original Latin expressions, which mean above all, if not solely, “infidel,” “rejection of faith.” But only a few philologians, historians, and liturgists are capable of taking account of this misunderstanding, while the unfortunate translations of the liturgical phrases exercise a wide and unhappy influence on Christian sensibilities and ways of talking. [Italics mine.]
There have been certain reactions to this situation, as, for example, the article ‘Perfidia Judaica’ by E. Peterson in Ephemerides Liturgicae, 1936, or ‘Pro Perfides Judaeis’ by J. Oesterreicher in Theological Studies and Cahiers Sioniens, 1947. But these discussions have reached only a few specialists. Most of the popular missals continue to propagate expressions implying perfidy, although there are also some praiseworthy exceptions: for example, the missal most widely used in Germany, that of Dom Schott, was revised during the time of the Nazis when the German Catholics had such good reason to become aware of the harmful effects of such expressions.
One sees therefore that this controversy is by no means of concern only to scholars, but, on the contrary, that it holds a very general interest. Perhaps conditions are different in the United States—this is a point on which I am insufficiently documented and perhaps this is the source of Mr. Zens’ disagreement with me. In the United States a certain “radio priest,” Father Coughlin, had to give up his propaganda of hatred thanks to certain interventions to which, I like to believe, American Catholics were not strangers. In Europe, no one within authorized Catholic circles was able to put an end to the propaganda of hatred of a Monsignor Jouin, of a Canon Rohling, or of that Dr. Lueger, founder of the Austrian Christian Socialist party, whose decisive influence on a certain young Viennese idler is described at length in the autobiographical sections of Mein Kampf.
It is true that since the time of Hitler and the war, a certain moral change has taken place in the spirit of Europe. It is towards the promotion and strengthening of this tendency, in the sense expressed in the generous conclusion of Mr. Zens’ letter, that the efforts of all men of good will should be directed.
Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine