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Catholic University of Lublin: on the rescue of Jews by Polish Catholic clergy during the Holocaust

During the Holocaust help to Jews were offered by nearly 100 religious orders and congregations in over 500 venues and over 700 diocesan priests in at least 580 locations across the territory of Nazi-occupied Poland. These are the findings of the lawyer and documentalist Ryszard Tyndorf, who on 23 March 2023 introduced his two-volume publication Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy at the Catholic University of Lublin. Scholars from Poland and Israel also discussed the role of the Polish clergy in saving Jews, on the eve of the National Day of Remembrance of Poles who saved Jews under German occupation. The book can be downloaded free at:
The exact number of Jews who received help from the Polish Catholic clergy is difficult to estimate. However, according to the analyses published in the book by Ryszard Tyndrof, a resident of Canada who has been working on issues concerning the attitudes of Catholic Church people towards Jews for many years, the numbers are likely to be in the thousands. The monograph Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy is available online.
"Our meeting today is the crowning achievement of many years of intense work; the text we will explore has been several decades in the making. It also concerns an important area of reality from the period of World War II and the German occupation of Poland. This is a beautiful page with which we want to reach every reader through this English-language publication," stressed the Rector of the Catholic University of Lublin, Fr Prof. Mirosław Kalinowski, who welcomed the guests. He also recalled the words of Karol Wojtyła; during his visit to the Catholic University of Lublin in June 1987, Pope John Paul II spoke the significant words: "University, serve the truth. If you serve the truth - you serve freedom, the liberation of man and nation, you serve life".

"Importantly, the publication presented today contains many accounts of both those who rescued Jews and those who were rescued. It is very interesting that two sides speak on this subject," pointed out the Rector of the Catholic University of Lublin.
A special letter was addressed to the participants of the meeting by Poland’s Minister of Education and Science, Przemysław Czarnek, who thanked the Abraham J. Heschel Centre for Catholic-Jewish Relations of the Catholic University of Lublin for organising this extremely important conference. "I am glad that it brings together recognised international historians, experts on Polish-Jewish relations during World War II," said the minister, whose letter was read out by Jakub Koper, Minister of Education and Science's representative for students. The head of the Ministry of Education and Science also expressed the hope that Ryszard Tyndorf's publication would contribute to furthering research and strengthening Polish-Jewish dialogue.
The academic conference “Rescuing those condemned to non-existence. Help given to Jews by priests and nuns during the Holocaust in occupied Polish territories” began with an address by Professor Limore Yagil from the Institute of Holocaust at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, who also lectures at the Sorbonne in Paris. The researcher discussed the issue of Catholics rescuing Jews in France between 1940 and 1944. Citing historical research, she stated that approximately one-fourth of the Jews living in France were deported during World War II, and of this entire population, most of them (220,000 out of 320,000) survived the war. In doing so, she pointed out that a much larger number of Jews were deported from the Netherlands and Belgium.
"Despite the fact that xenophobia and anti-Semitism were rampant in France in the 1930s, my research indicates that the survival of the Jews was largely due to the efforts of bishops, priests, seminarians, monks, nuns, and lay Catholics," stressed Prof Limore Yagil, who also discussed in detail the role of Pope Pius XII in saving Jews during the Holocaust. "Pius XII himself condemned Nazism and the deportation and murder of Jews but preferred to act diplomatically and with discretion. From 1939 onwards, the Vatican regularly sent financial and logistical aid to help Jews escape from France," concluded the researcher, who was in the past affiliated also with the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem.
Director of the Second World War Museum in Gdańsk, Prof. Grzegorz Berendt, who presented the state of research on rescuing Jews in Poland, recalled that the German National Socialists chose the area of occupied Poland as the place to annihilate the majority of European Jews. "As a consequence, at least 90 per cent of the approximately 3.4 million Polish Jews and nearly one million citizens of other countries were annihilated in our country. The crime proceeded in stages, gradually, but its beginnings can be traced back to September 1939 and the main stage to the period of about two years between June 1941 and November 1943," indicated the historian, noting at the same time that the ferocity and unprecedented nature of the methods used by the German Nazis, and above all the scale of the crime, surprised Polish society.
Emphasising the value and importance of the research of, among others, historians from Lublin, including those from the Catholic University of Lublin (KUL), Prof. Grzegorz Berendt pointed out that the involvement of the Catholic Church in various forms of assistance to Jews during the occupation must not be underestimated. "Of the 20 Roman Catholic bishops still in office in the occupied country, seventeen, i.e. the vast majority, were directly or indirectly involved in providing aid. The issuing of the ecclesiastical documents necessary for the Aryan legalisation of the struggling Jews was done not against, but with the consent of the bishops. The same applied to the provision of shelter in buildings belonging to the Church," pointed out Berendt.
Referring to the research of Ryszard Tyndorf and his latest, monumental publication, the historian emphasised that the author deserves recognition and acknowledgement for several decades of effort, which yielded an extensive database. "On the other hand, we must remember that his work does not in the least conclude historical research. It represents another node on the axis of the cognitive process. There is still much to be done, especially the research concerning the recognition of events on the territory of the eastern provinces of occupied Poland," added the director of the Museum of the Second World War.
In turn, Prof. Sebastian Piątkowski, a historian from the Institute of National Remembrance in Lublin (Radom Branch Office) and specialises in research on the social and economic history of central Poland in the 19th and 20th centuries, spoke about archival records concerning the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. The researcher outlined the specificity of the historian's work with archives, especially those relating to the occupation period. "Unfortunately, the work of a person dealing with such topics resembles putting together a jigsaw puzzle. We pick up some loose threads, a name, or a detail and subsequently we try to put them together in order to construct a story," said the researcher. In this context, he pointed to the work of lawyer Ryszard Tyndorf, estimating that he had built "a gigantic mosaic": "This book proves how much effort must be invested in the preparation of such a work and how information can be gathered from various sources to build an extremely interesting, and at times even passionate, story," added Prof. Piątkowski.
Further on, the two-volume monograph Wartime Rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic Clergy (Polish: Ratowanie Żydów w czasie II wojny światowej przez polskie duchowieństwo katolickie), published by the Publishing House of the Catholic University of Lublin, was introduced by Prof. Wacław Wierzbieniec from the University of Rzeszów. The book is a study of rescue efforts of the Catholic Church and its clergy in German-occupied Poland during World War II. The study is based primarily on the testimonies of Jewish survivors and Poles offering rescue, supplemented by church records. According to Ryszard Tyndorf's publication, various forms of assistance to Jews were provided by 66 congregations of women religious in about 450 institutions (mainly convents), 25 male orders in about 85 institutions, and more than 700 diocesan priests in at least 580 locations in German Nazi-occupied Poland.
The book succinctly sums up the extent of the rescue of Jews by the Polish Catholic clergy. Its core consists of a narrative based on testimonies of Jewish survivors and the Poles who saved them, supplemented by church records," said attorney Ryszard Tyndorf, who was a guest of honour at the meeting. The author explained that he was not an academic: "I have not written an academic textbook. The book does not address every single aspect of the Catholic Church related to the Holocaust. However, I hope that the book will contribute to rectifying some of the unfavourable and unjustified opinions that appear in the literature on the Holocaust. The sources collected show that the rescue carried out by the Polish clergy can be regarded as the pars pro toto of the rescue of Poles on behalf of Jews. The stories are very often complementary or overlapping," indicated the Canadian lawyer and documentalist.
Ryszard Tyndorf’s monograph is the first publication in English which reviews the comprehensive literature on the subject in the Polish language. As such, it is an important contribution to the body of scholarly work and calls for a reappraisal of the historical record of the rescue provided by the Catholic Church in Poland at a time when its own clergy fell victims to persecution unprecedented in German-occupied Europe, and where mandatory punishment for helping Jews in occupied Poland was death. The Heschel Centre at the Catholic University of Lublin also recalls that a multimedia encyclopaedia on the subject of rescuing Jews during the Holocaust is forthcoming, with the aim of popularising figures who set an example in times of moral collapse, war and oppression.
The National Day of Remembrance for Poles Saving Jews under German Occupation is celebrated yearly on March 24, the anniversary of the death of the Ulma family from Markowa, who were executed by German gendarmes for providing rescue to Jews. This day honours all Polish citizens, regardless of their nationality, who helped Jews subjected to genocidal extermination by the German occupiers.