As International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches, Simon Caldwell tells the remarkable stories of 10 lesser-known heroes
There are many Catholic heroes of the Holocaust. Poland, a country which suffered grievously under the Nazis in the Second World War, for instance, alone produced more than 4,000 people who have been recognised as Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority in Jerusalem.
Some of these inspirational figures have become world-famous because of their heroism. We only have to think of St Maximilian Kolbe, for instance, or Edith Stein or even Oskar Schindler.
Just over a year ago Pope Benedict XVI declared his predecessor, Pope Pius XII, to be Venerable, meaning the Church believes he lived a life of heroic virtue. Much of this was played out in the war years when the Catholic Church saved nearly a million Jewish people from the Holocaust, more than all the other international relief organisations put together.
Yet many Catholic heroes and heroines of the Holocaust today remain largely anonymous and unsung even though they some of them paid the price of their lives for their good works and their clear consciences.
To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27 we take a brief glance at just 10 of them.
1. The nun
Sister Agnes Walsh is one of just 13 British men and women to be honoured as a Righteous Among Nations, or Righteous Gentile, by Yad Vashem.
The Catholic nun was born Clare Walsh in Hull in 1896 and entered the Daughters of Charity in 1916, working first in Ireland and then in Palestine.
Following a fall she was sent to St Vincent de Paul convent in Cadouin in Dordogne, France, to recuperate and when war broke out she found herself in occupied territory.
In December 1943, during manhunts for Jews in the area, Pierre Cremieux, a French Jew, asked the nuns to hide his wife, seven-year-old son and four-month-old twins.
Sister Agnes, in spite of risks to herself if the Germans found out that she was English, pleaded with her superior, Sister Granier, to shelter the family until liberation.
The family stayed in touch with the nun after the war and their testimony led to her recognition by Yad Vashem in 1990 at 94. She died in 1993.
Curiously, in 2009 her name was the only one of the 13 to be omitted from a list of the rescuers, put together by the Holocaust Education Trust, who may be posthumously honoured by the British Government for their actions in saving Jewish lives. It was later included after The Catholic Herald alerted the trust to its error.
2. The French carmelite
Jacques de Jesus
Fr Jacques de Jesus was a French Carmelite and headmaster of the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus. Born in Bunel in 1900 he died, emaciated and broken by tuberculosis, in Linz, Austria, in 1944 shortly after he was liberated from Mauthausen death camp, having been sent there for sheltering Jewish boys in his school. The priest’s story is recounted in Au revoir les enfants, Louis Malle’s classic movie of 1987.
The priest had turned the boys’ school into a refuge both for young men seeking to avoid forced labour in Germany and for Jews trying to escape the Holocaust. He enrolled three Jewish boys – Hans-Helmut Michel, Jacques-France Halpern and Maurice Schlosser – under false names, and helped to hide three other Jews – including two adults.
He did this by creating jobs for two them at the school and gave sanctuary to the third by arranging shelter for him with a local villager.
He was arrested by the Gestapo on January 15 1944 and the Jewish boys were transported to Auschwitz where they perished. Fr Jacques was honoured by as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in 1985.
3. The German priest
Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg was a German Catholic priest from Ohlau in Prussian Silesia who had served as a military chaplain in the First World War. He was 62 years old and the provost of the Cathedral of St Hedwig in Berlin when Kristallnacht, the notorious Nazi pogrom, convulsed Germany.
He responded to the atrocity by closing each evening’s Mass with a prayer for “the Jews and the other poor prisoners in the concentration camps”.
On October 23 1942 he also offered a public prayer for Jews who were being deported to the death camps of the East, urging worshippers to observe Christ’s commandment to “love their neighbour” specifically in relation to the Jews.
Blessed Bernhard was denounced to the authorities. He stood trial and was sentenced to two years of hard labour in Dachau concentration camp but died “on the way”. His tomb is in St Hedwig’s cathedral.
The priest was also a courageous critic of the Nazi euthanasia programme, writing in protest to the chief medical officer of the Reich.
He was beatified by Pope John Paul II on June 23 1996.
4. The Italian archbishop
Archbishop Giovanni Ferrofino, who died on December 21 2010 aged 98, was an Italian diplomat credited with helping to save 10,000 Jews by aiding their passage from Nazi Europe.
His mission, he claimed, came directly from Pope Pius XII who ordered him to ask the Portuguese president to grant visas for Jews seeking refuge in his country. He was then sent by to the Dominican Republic where twice a year he asked to obtain 800 visas for Jews to travel from the Portugal to the Caribbean country. This would happen through the Pope sending him double-encrypted messages which he would decode. He would travel for nearly two days with the nuncio, Archbishop Maurilio Silvani, to deliver the request by hand to the Dominican leader, General Raphael Trujillo.
Most of the thousands of Jews who successfully travelled to the Dominican Republic found sanctuary later in the United States, Canada, Cuba and Mexico.
Archbishop Ferrofino was a willing partner in saving Jewish lives but he believed most of the credit belonged to Pope Pius XII. In 2008 he recorded his written testimony of their joint enterprise, which has been sent to Yad Vashem.
5 & 6. The Polish couple
Józef and Wiktoria Ulma
Józef and Wiktoria Ulma were among those heroic Polish Catholics who paid with their lives for attempting to save Jews from the Holocaust.
From 1942 they sheltered the Szalls, a Jewish family of six, in the attic of their home in Markowa, in the south-east of the country, along with the two daughters of a Jewish neighbour. Their home was raided on March 24 1944 after the Nazis were tipped off by Włodzimierz Leś, a Ukrainian policeman who had taken over the Szalls’ property. As an example to Poles of the penalty for hiding Jews, the Nazis killed Wiktoria, who was heavily pregnant, and Jozef. Their six children screamed at the sight of their parents’ bodies and they too were butchered.
The Polish Catholic Church opened the cause for canonisation of Józef and Wiktoria in 2003. On the 60th anniversary of the massacre a stone memorial was erected in Markowa to honour the memory of the Ulma family.
The inscription on the monument reads: “Saving the lives of others they laid down their own lives. Hiding eight elder brothers in faith, they were killed with them. May their sacrifice be a call for respect and love to every human being. They were the sons and daughters of this land; they will remain in our hearts.”
7. The English Bridgettine
Mother Riccarda Beauchamp Hambrough was an English Bridgettine nun who responded heroically to the secret order of Pope Pius XII for the religious houses of Rome to open their cloisters to Jewish fugitives from the Nazis.
Together with her abbess, Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad, a Swedish convert from Lutheranism, she helped to smuggle about 60 Jews into her convent, the Casa di Santa Brigida in the historic Piazza Farnese, when the Nazis began to round up the Jews of the city in October 1943 for deportation to the death camps.
Mother Riccarda was born Madaleina Catherine in London on September 10 1887 and was baptised in the Church of St Mary Magdalen, Brighton, at the age of four after her parents, Windsor and Louise, left the Church of England for the Catholic faith.
She was one of the first Sisters to join the newly established Order of the Most Holy Saviour of St Bridget and succeeded Blessed Mary Elizabeth after she died.
In July Pope Benedict XVI declared Mother Riccarda a Servant of God after initial inquiries revealed the extent of her charity towards those she gave sanctuary, with some Jews referring affectionately to her as “Mama”.
Blessed Mary Elizabeth, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2000, was in 2004 recognised as a Righteous Gentile on behalf of the work of all the sisters of Casa di Santa Brigida.
8. The Polish midwife
Stanisława Leszczyńska was a Catholic midwife who worked in the “maternity ward” at Auschwitz concentration camp, delivering more than 3,000 babies in two years, half of whom were murdered by drowning in barrels while a further 1,000 died from hypothermia and malnutrition. The mothers were wanted for labour but the babies were considered to be useless.
In an echo of the Hebrew midwives of the Book of Exodus who refused the order to put all newborn boys to death “because they feared God”, the pious Leszczyńska, from Łódź, Poland, risked her own life by refusing to participate in the infanticide, defying Dr Joseph Mengele to his face, prompting him to bellow angrily at her: “Befehl ist befehl” (an order is an order). But she bravely faced him down. Instead of taking a single life she was later able to claim that under her care not one mother or baby died.
Leszczyńska was sustained by her Catholic faith. She would make the Sign of the Cross and pray before each delivery and when she could she would baptise children before they were killed.
A cult dedicated to Leszczyńska has emerged locally since her death in 1974 and her Cause for canonisation has been introduced in the Diocese of Łódź.
A number of people have already attested to favours at her intercession, particularly in relation to childbirth problems, and she is seen as a patron of the pro-life cause.
9. The German student
Christoph Probst was a medical student, a father-of-three and member of the White Rose, a German anti-Nazi resistance movement, who was executed by guillotine at the age of 23 along with Hans and Sophie Scholl, a brother and sister, on February 22 1943. He converted to Catholicism in articulo mortis – at the point of death.
Born in Murnau am Staffelsee, Bavaria, he grew up in an agnostic household under a Jewish stepmother. He was inspired by the principle of religious freedom and was remembered by his sister as being strongly critical of Nazi ideas that violated human dignity.
He found like-minded individuals in the White Rose, a group which attempted to nurture opposition to the Nazis by circulating a series of six anonymous leaflets, which, among other things, condemned the persecution of the Jews as “the most frightful crime against human dignity, a crime that is unparalleled in human history”.
Probst was caught with a draft of the seventh leaflet, which he had written himself. It described Adolf Hitler as a murderer.
On the day of his execution at Stadelheim Prison, Munich, Probst called for a priest. He was baptised and made his Confession, telling the priest: “Now my death will be easy and joyful.”
His youngest child was just four weeks old at the time he was beheaded.
10. The Italian businessman
Giorgio Perlasca was an Italian businessman who was asked by Angel Sanz-Briz, a Spanish diplomat, to run safe houses in Budapest in which Jews of alleged Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) origin could be sheltered with Spanish protective documents.
In November 1944 he posed as Spanish Chargé d’Affaires after Sanz-Briz was ordered by his superiors to get out of Budapest for his own safety. He took the Spanish name Jorge and in his new capacity (and of his own volition) issued in the space of 45 days 3,000 protective documents on the writing paper of the Spanish Legation.
When Hungarian Arrow Cross soldiers seized a group of Jews from a Spanish-protected house, Perlasca also bravely intervened, berating the commander and threatening to send a cable to Madrid reporting on the grave violation of Spanish rights that would have dire consequences for relations between the two countries and in particular for the officer concerned. All the captives were released.
Perlasca was one of the few neutral diplomats to remain in the city when Soviet forces drew near, working with Raoul Wallenberg to the 11th hour to save as many lives as he could.
Unlike Wallenberg, he was able to return home, where he rarely discussed his activities. He was, however, eventually decorated by the Spanish, Italian and Hungarian governments and honoured as a Righteous Among Nations.