The Catholic Church was largely passive during the Holocaust, with priests hesitating to openly condemn Jewish massacres. What was the reason?
Historical records show that 21 priests from Kaunas Archdiocese were suspended by the Nazis, seven of them were murdered. In Vilnius Archdiocese, 163 were suspended and 63 killed.
“The [German occupying] regime in Lithuania was relatively mild, Lithuanians welcomed Germans as liberators since it was already after the Soviet occupation, after the deportations,” says historian Regina Laukaitytė. “Germans were awaited, and priests had been in hiding during the last days of the Soviet occupation, [...] so the Germans were met with relief, which wasn’t the case in Polish territories.”
There are some 150 priests included in the list of people who were saving Jews in Lithuania during World War Two. However, there is little evidence that they all deserve to be there, says Laukaitytė.
“City commandants and prison chiefs were also added to the list. When you look at what kind of people are there, you start having doubts. When you check a particular priest, you often cannot find any evidence that he truly contributed to the rescue, nor that he even lived where it says he did,” says Laukaitytė. “Maybe he knew [where Jews were hiding] and didn't give it away to the Germans, yet there was no direct help, like hiding or looking for shelter.”
Priests who did actively help Jews, most often hid them or asked parishioners to help them. They would also issue fake certificates.
For instance, one priest, Bronius Paukštys, issued some 200 fake certificates for Jews. Meanwhile, priests Želvys and Tamoševičius from Kaunas were arrested for baptising Jewish children.
Between myth and fiction
“There are many stories of teachers shooting their students, and a town’s priest ringing the church bell to drown out the sound of shooting,” says Ruth Reches, headmaster of the Shalom Aleichem Gymnasium in Vilnius.
However, church bells were rung for various reasons, argues Arūnas Streikus of Vilnius University.
“It is known from history that a ringing bell was a sign of an extraordinary event, a special disaster. But it could also be about a joyful occasion, so it can be interpreted differently,” said the professor.
The ringing bell stories are just myths passed from one person to another, according to historian Laukaitytė. She has never heard anyone make such claims and, moreover, bells would not drown out the shots unless people were being shot near the church, she added.
“In memoirs, as well as testimonies of people on trial for participating in the Holocaust, it is often said that when people were being herded to places of execution, local residents were ordered to cover their windows and told that spectators would be shot too,” says Laukaitytė. “The aim was to isolate town communities. A bell would have rung for longer than an hour or two.”
Was the Church silent?
According to Laukaitytė, the Catholic Church would not have been able to reach the masses even if it tried to speak up, since the Soviets destroyed Christian press between 1940 and 1941.
The silence of priests in Lithuania is nothing exceptional, considering that even the Pope hesitated to openly condemn the Holocaust, says Streikus.
Historical records show that the majority of Lithuanian bishops chose to avoid speaking about the Holocaust. One of the reasons could have been that the Nazis had placed restrictions on the right to protest.
Moreover, Catholic priests in several Nazi-occupied countries would use their connections with Nazi authorities to help persecuted people, argues Streikus, which is why they thought that protesting would have done more harm than good.
“It was feared that a public protest, an open conflict with Nazi authorities would completely destroy the conditions needed to help [Jews], as Nazis would start persecuting the Catholic Church, lose trust in priests that they’ve kept pragmatic relations with,” says Streikus. “That would be one of the main reasons.”
Coexisting with Nazis
Some priests did speak out against Nazi occupation during sermons, although the Church generally stayed silent, according to Laukaitytė.
The Church also wanted to maintain a good relationship with Nazis since they were seen as liberators, Laukaitytė adds.
“The Church suffered a lot during the Soviet occupation, its structure fell into disarray, monasteries were closed, all dioceses lost their press, seminaries were closed, curiae were relocated. The Church welcomed the German occupation with a sense of relief,” says Laukaitytė. “Leaders of the Church were, first and foremost, concerned with rebuilding of the entire structure destroyed by the Soviets. A good relationship with the occupants was necessary for that.”
The Catholic Church hoped that Lithuania would have “better living conditions” after the war, therefore decided to put up with the Nazis and wait, according to Laukaitytė.
Priests and bishops were waiting for a call to action from the Pope, who may not have had access to reliable information directly from the Church, says Streikus.
“When there’s no clear signal from the Pope, bishops wait. [...] Some excused their silence and passiveness by pointing out that the bishop was not doing anything, while bishops claimed that there was no word from the Pope,” says Streikus. “Others were, perhaps, just confused, did not know how to react.”
Priests also feared for the safety of church-goers, as public protests could have provoked the Nazis.
The Jewish community in Lithuania was socially and culturally isolated from the rest of the population and was, therefore, dealing with prejudice. Antisemitism could have been the reason for the Church’s silence as well, Streikus believes.
The Nazis further fueled antisemitism in Lithuania by claiming that all Jews were Bolsheviks and belonged to the dreaded NKVD.
“Priests, of course, did not live in a vacuum, they lived in the same society and were influenced by that discourse and Nazi propaganda,” says Streikus. “However, I’d like to point out that during the Nazi occupation, at the beginning of it, when this image and myth were the strongest and most visible in the public sphere, the Jew-Bolshevik or NKVD-Jew clichés practically could not be found in statements or letters by Church leaders.”
What could the Church have changed?
The Church could have spoken out about the Holocaust in June 1941, when Lithuania’s short-lived provisional government was formed, Laukaitytė points out.
“The Church has informal methods of speaking as well, and a lot of influence within communities. However, the way I see it, those non-public methods weren’t used,” says the historian. “For example, in towns, the Jews were first herded to synagogues, to temporary ghettos. Local priests could have rallied the community: let’s help them, bring them food, let’s not steal their property…”
Priests could have told people that stealing from their neighbours went against Christian teaching, but they missed their chance and massacres soon began, says Laukaitytė.
Some priests did condemn Lithuanians participating in the massacres, however, they were either shot or arrested by Nazis.
Among them was priest Ragauskas from Vyžuonos town who was murdered together with Jews, possibly because he condemned those participating in the massacres. Priest Vladas Taškūnas from Telšiai Diocese was also arrested for speaking against genocide.
Catholic priests would also hide Jewish children in monasteries or rectories.
“This was tangible support, we know quite many of these cases. There are some 20 Lithuanian priests included in the List of Righteous among the Nations. That is perhaps the most recognised and reliable proof that priests truly took part in saving lives,” says Streikus.
No help from bishops
People asked Kaunas Archbishop Skvireckas twice to stand up for the Jews, but he refused, according to Laukaitytė.
“He was addressed the first time at the end of June , his reaction was that it could harm the Church and turn Germans against them. The archbishop then suggested going to the Red Cross.”
Skvireckas gave a similar response the second time, in August. No one could have predicted the massacres then, and “there was also enough antisemitism”, Laukaitytė adds.
The Jewish community in Kaunas asked bishop Brizgys for support. During the war, he was a mediator between the Lithuanian Catholic Church and the Nazis.
However, Brizgys also refused to help, claiming that priests would themselves suffer for defending the Jews, according to an entry in Skvireckas’ diary.
“Did Brizgys use antisemitism as a cover, or was he certain that priests should not get involved in a whirlwind of events, as the community would then stop supporting them and oppose them? It’s hard to say,” according to Laukaitytė. “During a period of war, occupation, disorder there can be different interpretations.”