Catholic Refugee Organizations and Jewish Refugee Organizations
Complicated circumstances and the clash of several different ideologies led to the uprooting and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people in Europe in the years surrounding and during World War II. Not one, but two totalitarian systems-Communism and Fascism-targeted certain groups within society whom they perceived as threats to their agenda and ultimate goals. At different times, Catholics and Jews would fall victim to both Communist/Soviet and Fascist/Nazi persecution, which ranged from censorship and an atmosphere of intimidation to “the Final Solution”, the extermination of roughly six million Jews in Nazi concentration camps.
- How did Communist and Fascist persecution of targeted groups differ? How was it similar?
- How do the authors of these documents react to the concentration camps and the Soviet gulags?
While Catholics and Jews both suffered totalitarian persecution, there are certain key differences in the Nazi treatment of each group. Catholics belonged to a religious group which, however central to their identity, they could always dissociate themselves from if they wished. The Nazis targeted Jews, on the other hand, because of their very ancestry and perceived racial identity, which was hardly something a Jewish person could detach him or herself from. Nazi anti-Semitism, in this way, differed essentially from the anti-Semitism that had plagued European Jews in the past.
In fact, by the 1940s, many German Jews no longer practiced their religion, and had given up many of the distinctive forms of dress, dietary prohibitions, and other traditions that had once marked them out as “other”. If we were there, we would probably be unable to distinguish a German person of Jewish ancestry from any other German. Before the rise of the Nazis, modern Germany had not been a hostile environment for Jews- on the contrary, it prided itself for its tolerance. So successful had the German Jewish population been at assimilating into mainstream society that they had a saying, now jarring to post-World War II listeners, that “Berlin is our Jerusalem; Germany is our Fatherland.”
- What effect did the Holocaust have on Jewish attitudes towards Germany?
- Do these documents speak predominantly of persecution on the basis of race, or focus more on religiously-motivated persecution?
The fact that the Nazis constructed race in a biological way meant that a person could hold Catholic beliefs and still be seen by them as Jewish. Among the Catholics fleeing Germany for America were, in fact, many converts from Judaism, and many others whom the Nazis called “non-Aryans”. A “non-Aryan” was a category created by the Nazis which meant a person with one or more Jewish grandparents.
- What rights did the Nazis deny those who fell into this “non-Aryan” category?
- How are “non-Aryan Catholics” spoken about in these documents, and who are some of the main advocates on their behalf?
- Did the US bishops and other authors of these documents recognize that “non-Aryan” is a term created by the Nazis which says nothing about the real identity of a person, or do they slip into talking about “non-Aryans” as a reality because of Nazi repetition of the term?
As these documents reveal, Catholics and Jews in America were both trying to help their fellow believers in Europe and facilitate their escape during these years. However, as we can also see from these documents, Catholics and Jews were more frequently engaged in parallel and separate efforts at aid than in cooperative efforts. In part, this separation arose simply from the prevalent ethos at the time that religiously or nationally-based aid groups should each help “their own”. Frequently, Jewish refugee aid organizations served as role models or blueprints for Catholic organizations, since they had begun the work of refugee aid several years before most Catholics. After the close of World War II, Jewish participation in transnational aid organizations awakened the anxieties of some Catholics, who feared that the Church, by comparison, was underrepresented, as we can see in a letter from Father Killion to Bruce Mohler, the director of the NCWC’S Bureau of Immigration.
- How do the authors of these documents describe Jewish refugee aid organizations and endeavors? Are they generally critical or admiring?
- Do you see evidence in these documents that Catholic and Jewish organizations also elected to operate separately from one another?
- How have ideas of “one’s own” changed since that time? What other criteria, such as need or a simple duty to humanity, might be used to justify a Catholic charitable organization helping another group?
- Do the authors of these documents try to depict refugees as a primarily Jewish problem? To which factors do they attribute successful Jewish efforts to care for and resettle Jewish refugees?