Reb Yisrael Yakov Eilen, z”l, was attending a bris in 1945, when his worst fears were realized. He received confirmation that his daughter, Leah Strzelisker, Hy”d, had been murdered in the Rohatyn Ghetto along with her husband Chaim, Hy”d.
Family members had been told that at least one of their two sons had been hidden with a gentile family. A devoted cousin traveled back to Poland, but was unable to find out anything. When the shattered grandfather was niftar several years later, the fate of his grandsons had still not been determined.
For the next 50 years, Leah’s two sisters who survived the war, wondered, worried and prayed constantly over the fate of their beloved nephews. As devastated as they were over the possibility that these children were killed by the Nazis, the notion that they were unaware that they were living as Catholics, torn away forever from their heritage, was even more dreadful.
As the diabolical intentions of the Nazis became increasingly clear to the Jews of Europe, many parents were faced with an unbearable decsion. Should they try to save the lives of their young children by hiding them with non-Jewish neighbors?
Some parents, fearing that their children would be lost to Judaism forever, rejected the idea. Others, after exacting a solemn promise that even if they themselves wouldn’t survive, the child(ren) would be returned after the war to the Jewish people, agreed to hand them over to the protection of gentiles.
According to the monumental Holocaust textbook Witness to History, in defiance of the Germans’ harsh punitive measures (in Poland, harboring or helping Jews was punishable by death), in every occupied country a courageous minority of non-Jews put their lives and those of their families in peril to protect Jewish children. Some were chassidei umos haolam and acted out of genuine compassion, some did it for the money, others because they hoped to convert the children to Christianity.
When surviving family members or Jewish activists tried to recover the children after the war, they often encountered stony resistance. Even the best-meaning foster families were reluctant to relinquish the child they had risked their lives to save and had now grown to love; others may have been caught up in the wave of postwar Polish anti-Semitism. Families and Jewish organizations turned to the Polish courts to gain custody of surviving children, but they encountered a hostile, beleaguered bureaucracy. Documents disappeared, drawers slammed shut, and public records suddenly became “unavailable.”
Thanks to the heroic efforts of some organizations and individuals, in the postwar period thousands of children were rescued and returned to their heritage. But far too many stayed behind in homes and institutions of gentiles. Too young to remember their real parents, they were never apprised of their true identity.
But the Catholic Church knows who they are.
Unlike children born to Catholic parents, these children were not baptized in infancy, but at some later date. Since every diocese submitted regular reports about baptisms, the Vatican either had lists of these hidden Jewish children, or easy access to this information.
In 2005, the official postwar Catholic Church policy was finally revealed: the Church had ordered that Jewish children “who have been baptized” not be returned.
Among the few Church officials who differed with the policy and encouraged the return of Jewish children to their people was a young priest named Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. In 2001, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, raised the subject during John Paul’s visit to Kiev. He pleaded for the Vatican to release the list of the hidden children.
The pope declined to answer.
Though Vatican officials privately expressed their displeasure about the request, Rabbi Bleich and others continued to put pressure on the Church.
In 2004, in a meeting in New York with high-ranking cardinals, Rabbi Bleich minced no words: “The Catholic Church has the obligation to tell them [that they are Jewish] and let them decide” which faith they choose. “The souls of their parents who were killed cannot rest… their personal Holocaust continues.”
Yet the Vatican refused to budge.
In an interview with Hamodia on Tuesday, Rabbi Bleich reiterated that releasing the information is doable, “but the clock is ticking,” he warned.
Today, these Jews are in their late 60s and early 70s. They live in Poland, Ukraine and various other countries, and still don’t know they really are Jewish. Many of the girls have had children and grandchildren who are Jewish as well.
During these nine days of mourning, as we commemorate the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and the subsequent suffering endured by our people throughout the generations, it is a time for us as a community to ask ourselves what we have done to try to bring home the children of the Kedoshim.
It is a time for a concerted public campaign to pressure the Vatican into releasing the lists of the now-grown children. It is time for a comprehensive effort to raise awareness of this issue within European countries such as Poland and Ukraine. While most of the gentiles who took in these children are now deceased, some elderly immediate relatives privy to this information may still be alive.
We must leave no stone unturned. We owe it to the Kedoshim, we owe to their children, and we owe it to ourselves.