In a recent Frontline special on Pope John Paul II, broadcast by America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), a Polish Jewish journalist charged that St. Maximilian Kolbe had edited an "anti-Semitic rag" in which he promoted a "teaching of hatred" of Jews. Konstanty Gebert has subsequently come forward to modify and clarify his criticism of the Polish martyr, who sacrificed his life in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1941. But PBS officials are not ready to change their own report to correct the record.
"I think some type of retraction is needed," says Father James McCurry, curator of the Kolbe Archives in Granby, Massachusetts. The charges made against the Polish martyr in the Frontline report are by no means a dead issue, since the broadcaster is now selling a videotaped version of that program through the PBS Home Video division.
But Helen Whitney, the producer of the original Frontline program, declined to discuss specific criticisms of the segments in that program which touched on Kolbe and Pope Pius XII. She insisted that both subjects had been treated "with nuance, complexity, and fairness." Whitney added that she would not re-edit the videobefore it was released onto the commercial market on December 21, saying that "the program stands on its own."
The videotaped version of the Frontline special, entitled "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope," sold briskly enough to suggest that it would become "an all-time bestseller" for PBS. The Frontline broadcast aired in September, and by the time the video reached the market, advance orders had already made it one of the top sellers for PBS Home Video in 1999.
Charges, retraction, rebuttal
"I do not say that Kolbe was an and-Semite or should not have been declared a saint," said Konstanty Gebert, the founding editor of the Polish Jewish publication Midrasz, who in fact affirmed the importance of the saint's various charitable activities. Gebert also retracted his characterization of Kolbe's Rycerz Niepokalanej (Knight of the Immaculata) as an "anti-Semitic rag," explaining that "anti-Semitism was not the main topic of the publication."
But Gebert did hold fast to other criticisms of Kolbe and the Knight—a magazine whose main focus was the promotion of the Catholic faith and in particular Marian devotion. "What I'm saying is not that he personally wrote anti-Semitic articles," said Gebert. "What I'm saying is that the Knight, which was his editorial responsibility, did."
Gebert's modified criticism of Kolbe differs markedly from the standard fare. Months before the saint's canonization, the April 1982 issue of Wiener Tagebuch, an Austrian monthly, charged that Kolbe was a "rabid, racist anti-Semite" and that his publications "kept up a relentless anti-Semitic campaign" in Poland prior to World War II. The publication cited as representative a 1934 article that Kolbe had allegedly written for the Knight.
Daniel L. Schlafly, Jr., professor of history at St. Louis University, and Warren P. Green, director of the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies, joined forces to examine the Wiener Tagebuch charges after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other publications reported on the controversy. In a lengthy report, they revealed that the alleged 1934 article could not be authenticated. In addition, after examining Kolbe's 1,006 extant letters and 396 other writings, they reported that only 31 refer to Jews and Judaism. The great bulk of the saint's written work, they reported, concentrates "overwhelmingly on spiritual and apostolic" matters.
Because of his uncritical acceptance of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion—a fabricated document that many people in the world originally accepted as authentic—Schlafly and Green said Kolbe's writings included several critical references toward Jews, including an occasional mention of a "Jewish-Masonic conspiracy" and a "cruel clique of Jews." At the same time, while he was away in Japan from 1930 to mid-1936, Kolbe wrote to caution the acting editor of the Knight that "when talking about the Jews, I would be very careful not to accidentally arouse or deepen hatred in readers who are already sometimes hostile to them." In a letter to his provincial in 1937, Kolbe also wrote that he could not publish some writings of a certain priest in his Maly Dziennik (Little Daily), because the priest was a "fiery anti-Semite to the point of being a chauvinist."
Schlafly and Green also reported that Kolbe housed up to 2,000 Jews at his friary before his own deportation to Auschwitz; the two American scholars provided testimony from grateful Jews to substantiate their report. In a 1983 letter to the New York Review of Books, Schlafly and Green said that while Kolbe "shared some of the anti-Semitic stereotypes in pre-war Poland," the real test of "his alleged anti-Semitism" came with the outbreak of World War II. In part referring to Kolbe's wartime aid to Jews, they concluded that "when he acted it was in a spirit of respect and charity, as his supreme sacrifice at Auschwitz showed."
New Criticism, new response
While the work of Schlafly and Green has done much to refute Kolbe's critics, Gebert has brought forth some new criticism. Other critics of Kolbe have used excerpts taken from issues of the Knight and Little Daily which were published while the saint was away in Japan, and thus not in control of the publications' editorial content. But Gebert provided English translations of almost a dozen citations from issues of the Knight that were published after Kolbe's resumption of editorial authority—from late summer 1936 until the beginning of the war in September 1939. Some of these excerpts show a critical attitude toward the alleged Jewish impact on the economic and cultural life of Catholics in Poland, speaking of "judaized organizations and judaized political parties which had subverted people's faith and robbed the young of shame." Other citations convey an attitude of religious contempt. "Since jewry's [lowercased in original] most horrible crime against God,i.e., the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus," one summarized, "jewry has been falling ever lower."
Considering such passages along with similar comments that could be found during the same period in the issues of the Little Daily, Gebert, concluded: "It is deplorable that thisaspect of Kolbe's past was not properly aired during his beatification and later canonization." Gebert argues that Kolbe and other Catholic journalists and leaders, by promoting a critical view of Judaism even as they spoke out against anti-Semitic attacks, helped cultivate a climate in which the Holocaust could occur. This was "the logical, unavoidable implication of what he was teaching," Gebert told Frontline.
"I'm not saying this is what Kolbe wanted," Gebert explained. "I do not put the blame of the Shoah at the doorstep of the Church. However, I do believe that the Church has a responsibility in having created a context in which the Shoah was possible."
"That's going too far," says Daniel Schlafly, who argues that neither Polish Catholicism nor the Catholic Church in general is deserving of such blame. "Although there was anti-Semitism in Poland and in the Polish Catholic Church before World War II, this cannot and should not be seen as a cause of the Holocaust, which was the work of the German Nazi authorities." Schlafly adds that after Hitler's invasion in September 1939, there was no recognized Polish governmental authority, so that the death camps located in Poland were administered exclusively by the Nazi government authorities. The attitudes and actions exhibited by Polish Catholics before the war "certainly never, ever could have led to the death camps," he condudes.
Questions of perspective
Claude Foster—a professor of history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and the author of a forthcoming biography on Kolbe—agrees with Schlafly, noting that pre-war events should not be "inflamed" and "distorted" by viewing them through the postwar lens of the Holocaust. He adds that while they were engaged in the systematic murder of Jews, the Nazis also exterminated about 3 million Catholic Poles. "It was not the Poles who introduced and executed the Endloesung—the 'Final Solution,"' Foster says. "Justice and truth are not served by ascribing the crimes of the perpetrators to those who also were victims."
Foster also suggests that the use of the term "anti-Semitism" should be restricted to those who, like Hitler, preach unadulterated hatred. After examining Gebert's citations from the Knight, Foster says that they should be seen in light of a "regrettable" and complicated "cultural rivalry" between Catholics and Jews in pre-war Poland. That rivalry, Foster recalls, included strong religious disagreements; "perceptions" of Jewish economic domination in various Polish industries; and the "conviction" that many "irreligious" Jews were prominently involved in a Marxist revolution which had proclaimed world domination would begin with "a prostrate Poland."
Foster pointed out that in the Frontline program, the only Catholic who was interviewed during the segment about Maximilian Kolbe was Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who has done a great deal of work in Catholic-Jewish relations but admitted to Frontline that he had "never seen [Kolbe's] writings" and "doesn't know anything about them."
In his own writings, St. Maximilian Kolbe distinguished between faithful Jews, whom he respected, and irreligious Jews, whom he had seen engagedin anti-Catholic Masonic and Communist demonstrations. Speaking of a "Jewish-Masonic" conspiracy in a 1939 article, Kolbe said that "true scoundrels, those of evil intent, who sin with full awareness, are relatively few."
Father McCurry, the curator of the Kolbe Archives, said that he hopes the current controversy will foster "mutual understanding," not division, between Catholics and Jews. "The legacy of Maximilian Kolbe is a legacy of charity. He was a martyr of charity" said McCurry. He continued:
Catholics should esteem our Jewish brothers because God chose the Jews to bring the covenant of His love into the world. We Catholics count ourselves humble beneficiaries of the Jewish legacy of love.
Claude Foster, who criticized the Frontline report on Pope John Paul II for its treatment of St. Maximilian Kolbe, also saw an "unbalanced" treatment of Pope Pius XII in the program. The impact of that coverage was magnified by the fact that the Frontline program aired—and the video version of the program hit the retail market—soon after the publication of John Cornwell's book Hitler's Pope, a vicious attack on the former Pontiff.
Helen Whitney, the producer and co-writer of the Frontline program, provided a stereotypical presentation on Pius XII's actions during World War II, Foster charged.
"The war raged on. Neighbors disappeared," the Frontline narrator read in the program. The script continued:
Catholics in Poland and Europe looked to the Vatican for guidance. Could they help? Should they? But Pope Pius XII remained silent. He feared denouncing the Germans would risk more Jewish lives. He privately tried to help Jews, but the Vicar of Christ did not speak out, even when the Nazis stormed the Jewish ghetto just across the river from the Vatican
After presenting a quick quote from an Italian professor criticizing the "silence" of Christians, backed by accompanying video footage of Pius XII, Whitney then has the narrator conclude: "The silence was everywhere. The world turned its back on the Jews."
Those who observed World War II—journalists as well as Jewish and Nazi leaders—reported that Pius XII was not silent and in fact did a great deal to help Jews. In its 1941 Christmas Day editorial, the New York Times proclaimed that Pius XII had "put himself squarely against Hitlerism" with his Christmas message and "left no doubt that: the Nazi aims are also irreconcilable with his own conception of a Christian peace."
Other wartime New York Times headlines about Vatican actions and statements during the World-War II era included:
• "It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical [Summi Pontificatus], the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism," (October 28, 1939);
• "Jews Rights Defended," (March 14,1940); and
• "Vichy Seizes Jews; Pope Pius Ignored" (August 27, 1942).
In his 1942 Christmas message, the Pope decried the gradual extermination of hundreds of thousands for "the single fact of their nationality or race." In Hitler's Pope, Cornwell characterizes that message as "a paltry statement." He charges: "The chasm between the enormity of the liquidation of the Jewish people and this form of evasive words is shocking." But in marked contrast to that appraisal, at the time when the Pope's statement actually appeared, the New York Times editorialized: "This Christmas more than ever [Pius XII] is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent." Nazi propaganda, meanwhile, said that the Pope's message was "one long attack on everything we stand for" and that Pius XII "makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals." The Nazis had previously criticized Pius XII's papal election in March 1939 "because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor."
Dr. Robert W. Kempner, a Jew who served as the Deputy thief US Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, rebutted the "new theory" that Pius XII "never made an energetic protest against Hitler's 'Final Solution of the Jewish Problem,' and that is how the catastrophe came to reach the proportions it did." Writing in Jewish historian Jeno Levai's Pius XII Was Not Silent, Kempner said of that thesis: "Both the premise and the condusion drawn from it are equally untenable. The archives of the Vatican, of the diocesan authorities and of Ribbentrop's Foreign Ministry contain a whole series of protests—direct and indirect, diplomatic and public, secret and open."
When Pope Pius XII died in October 1958, Dr. Joseph Lichten, who served as the Anti-Defamation League's director of intercultural affairs, summarized both the Pontiff's record and the sentiments of Jewish leaders worldwide. Writing in the League's Bulletin, Lichten said that the late Pope's "opposition to Nazism and his efforts to help Jews in Europe were well-known to the suffering world."
Thomas Nash [was] an information specialist at Catholics United for the Faith in Steubenville, Ohio. [He currently works in the Theology Department of EWTN, Irondale Alabama.]
From Catholic Word Report, February 2000. Reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press.