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American Catholic responses to the Holocaust: an exchange between David S. Wyman and Eugene J. Fisher.

I

From a review by Eugene J. Fisher of The Abandonment of the Jews, National Catholic News Service, February 15, 1985:
 Wyman scores the U.S. Christian community for its virtual
 "silence" on the subject.... He states, for example, that "no
 major denomination spoke out on the issue," yet the National
 Catholic Welfare Conference, in its most important statement
 during the war, explicitly condemned the "premeditated and
 systematic extermination" and "cruel indignities heaped upon
 the Jews in conquered countries." And Wyman himself lists
 numerous examples of public statements by Catholic bishops
 and direct private interventions by the pope with various
 governments, including Germany, seeking to halt the
 deportations.


II.

April 12, 1985 Mr. Eugene J. Fisher, Executive Secretary U.S. Bishops' Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations United States Catholic Conference Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, DC

Mr. Fisher:

I was interested to read in your review of my book (The Abandonment of the Jews), in NC News Service for February 15, 1985, that during World War II the National Catholic Welfare Conference publicly and explicitly condemned the systematic extermination of the Jews. Would you let me know of a source where I may see this statement in full? I found no record of any such statement in any of the many sources I consulted, including several Catholic sources.

Among other research, I read carefully through Catholic Action, the NCWC's official publication and its record of official actions taken. But I found no such statement in it either. It is possible that I missed it, even though it is just such statements that I was seeking (and anxiously hoping to find, if only to ease my own growing sense of consternation as my research made it more and more clear that Christians had done so very, very little). I will add that Catholic Action was remarkable in that it presented almost nothing in those years on the situation of the European Jews or on the rescue issue.

The other part of your statement that was meant to show that my criticism of Christian inaction was inaccurate was not relevant to the point. You were referring to my criticism of the American Christian churches, as your preceding statements made clear. Your reference to numerous public statements by Catholic bishops must mean the prelates in France. And of course the Pope's actions did not come from America.

There were a few church voices raised in America, both Catholic and Protestant. But only a few, and even they were infrequently heard.

Sincerely, David S. Wyman

III

April 26, 1985 Professor David S. Wyman University of Massachusetts Amherst, MA

Dear Professor Wyman:

Thank you for your letter of April 24. I share, as I hope my review made clear, your own admirably deep moral consternation "that Christians had done so very, very little." The statements enclosed do not for a moment alter such a judgment. But in your book you were a bit more absolute, I felt, than the record warrants. Enclosed are two of the three major statements made by the American bishops during WWII. (The third, "The Essentials of a Good Peace," issued in November of 1943, already looked forward to the post-War situations). You will note that the 1941 statement was issued by the Administrative Board, while the second is "in the Name of the Bishops of the United States." Here you have the beginnings, historically, of the Bishops' conference as we now have it. So you see something of the state of affairs.

Both statements specifically refer to Jewish suffering, the second in much stronger terms than the first (# 16), reflecting increasing awareness of the events of the Holocaust. Haim Genizi's book, American Apathy: The Plight of Christian Refugees from Nazism (Bar Ilan University Press, 1983) puts the refugee situation in perspective, I believe. At any rate, I appreciated your book very much and intended a positive review, with the one caveat. If you ever get to Washington, please look me up. I'll take you to lunch and we can go more deeply in matters of mutual concern--in the light, also, of the more recent "L 'Affaire Bitburg."

Yours in Shalom,

Eugene J. Fisher

IV.

Victory and Peace. A Statement Issued by the NCWC Administrative Board in the Name of the Bishops of the United States--November 14, 1942. [The statement contained twenty-one numbered resolutions. Eugene Fisher wrote on the first page, "See No. 16."]

16. Denunciation of the Persecutions of the Jews'

We express our deepest sympathy to our brother bishops in all countries of the world where religion is persecuted, liberty abolished, and the rights of God and or man are violated. Since the murderous assault on Poland, utterly devoid of every semblance of humanity, there has been a premeditated and systematic extermination of the people of this nation. The same satanic technique is being applied to many other peoples. We feel a deep sense of revulsion against the cruel indignities heaped upon the Jews in conquered countries and upon defenseless peoples not of our faith.

We join with our brother bishops in subjugated France in a statement attributed to them:

Deeply moved by the mass arrests and maltreatment of Jews, we cannot stifle the cry of our conscience. In the name of humanity and Christian principles our voice is raised in favor of imprescriptible rights of human nature.

We raise our voice in protest against despotic tyrants who have lost all sense of humanity by condemning thousands of innocent persons to death in subjugated countries as acts of reprisal; by placing other thousands of innocent victims in concentration camps, and by permitting unnumbered persons to die of starvation.

David S. Wyman comments: This resolution could not have been referring to the Nazi genocide, because before the press reports of November 24, 1942, the bishops would not have known that genocide was occurring, though some information about mass killing of Jews had come out.

V.

The Crisis of Christianity. A Statement Issued by the Administrative Board of the National Catholic Welfare Conference--November 14, 1941.

[The statement contained thirty-one numbered resolutions. Eugene Fisher highlighted sections of nos. 2, 5, and 19.]

2. [Untitled; part of the preamble]

We, the members of the Administrative Board of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, deputed in the annual meeting of the bishops of the United States to express their mind on the crisis of Christianity, declare, as shepherds of souls, that our concern is the supreme interest of religion. Our thoughts, therefore, turn to the two greatest evils today, which would destroy all spiritual values. We find two subversive forces, both in control of powerful governments, both bent on world dominance. They are Nazism and Communism.

5. Systems and Their Victims

His Holiness condemned the aberrations of Nazism, its denial of God in the true Christian sense, its deification of the state, its usurpation of the powers of God, of religion, and of parents, its falsification of Christian terminology, its betrayal of the eternal principles of objective morality, and its rejection of the rights and dignity of every human being. Pope Pius XI, with prophetic vision, declared that "its [Nazism] machinations, from the beginning, had no other aim than war of extermination." He branded the Nazi oppressors of the Church in Germany as "the nullifiers and destroyers of the Christian West."

19. Prayers for Suffering and Oppressed

Our sympathy goes out again to the people of those countries who have been crushed under the heel of the invader, and, indeed, to all upon whom war has
 imposed so heavy a burden of suffering and sacrifice. We cannot
 too strongly condemn the inhuman treatment to which the Jewish
 people have been subjected in many countries.


David S. Wyman comments: These resolutions could not have been referring to the Nazi genocide, because in November, 1941, no one in the U.S. knew about the Holocaust. Persecution of Jews by Germans and others was known, but not systematic extermination. Evidently, during the period from December, 1942, when the Nazi genocide of the Jews was publicly confirmed by the Allies, and May, 1945, when the Allies defeated Germany and the Holocaust ended, there were no public statements by the American Catholic bishops' organization referring to the genocide.

Editors' note. This exchange, which took place in 1985, begins with an excerpt from a review by Dr. Eugene J. Fisher of The Abandonment of the Jews, followed by David S. Wyman's letter to Eugene Fisher. Dr. Fisher's reply follows, along with documents that he sent to Professor Wyman. The exchange includes comments written by Wyman in the margins of the documents that Fisher sent to him.
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Date:Sep 22, 2003
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