John XXIII and the Jews

How the personal experience of Angelo Roncalli during World War II changed the course of Catholic-Jewish relations

The press called him a caretaker pope. Elected on October 28, 1958, at the age of 77, he was expected to warm the Chair of Peter for a few years without making any great waves. They could hardly have been more wrong.

The people called him Good Pope John because of his genial nature, and few popes have been more loved.

His successor, Paul VI, hailed him as “an incomparable pope.”

But the Jews had a special relationship with John XXIII, and it is their love for him that brought Rabbi David G. Dalin to Seton Hall University, in South Orange New Jersey. On March 30, he delivered a guest lecture for the Institute of Judeo-Christian Studies to reveal the fruits of his research into the life and actions of Pope John and his impact on the Jews of the 20th century.

“In the Jewish community,” says Rabbi Dalin, “he has been recognized and revered, together with Pope John Paul II, as one of the 20th century’s greatest papal friends and supporters of the Jewish people. Catholics are anticipating the day of their shared canonization. I think that’s being anticipated with a great deal of reverence, happiness, and gratitude by the Jewish community as well.”

Rabbi Dalin, professor at Ave Maria University and an expert on American Jewish history and Catholic-Jewish relations, has sailed into controversial waters before to tell the true stories of popes and Jews. His book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis (Regnery: 2005) soundly debunked defamatory and grossly inaccurate books by Garry Wills and John Cornwell, who both claimed that Pius did nothing to help the Jews. In fact, Dalin’s research showed that Pius had been instrumental in saving perhaps hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.

Rabbi Dalin didn’t let the issue rest there, but went on to identify the real man who was “Hitler’s cleric,” the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, in Icon of Evil Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam (with John Rothmann, Random House: 2008) and the impact of John Paul II on Jews in John Paul II and the Jewish People: A Jewish-Christian Dialogue (editor, with Matthew Levering, Rowman & Littlefield: 2008).


Rabbi Dalin’s talk was based on research by his good friend, colleague, and co-author John Rothmann , whose article “An Incomparable Pope: John XXIII and the Jews” is being published in the April 2014 issue of Inside the Vatican.

Scholar, diplomat, friend of the Jews

Born into a family of poor tenant farmers on November 25, 1881, Roncalli was ordained in 1904. He began his ecclesiastical career as secretary to the bishop of Bergamo and a lecturer on Church history. Although many are unaware of it, he was one of the most scholarly modern popes, even writing a five-volume biography of an important medieval reformer.

Because of his interest in Church history and his research at the Ambrosial Library in Milan, he came to the attention of its librarian, Achille Ratti, who would become Pius XI. Pius XI launched Roncalli on a diplomatic career, making him a bishop in 1925, and appointing him to his first diplomatic post, Bulgaria, followed by Greece and Turkey. 

He was the preeminent Vatican diplomat in Turkey and Greece during World War II, and played a historic role in saving tens of thousands of Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian, and Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

“During the tragic years of the Holocaust,” Rabbi Dalin observes, “Angelo Roncalli reached heroic heights.”

Pius XII and his Vatican diplomats—with Bishop Roncalli among the most prominent—had some political leverage in Catholic countries, and they used it to halt or significantly delay deportation of Jews by Nazi puppet governments. In Budapest alone, Roncalli rescued at least 50,000 Jews by issuing baptismal certificates. During the German occupation of Greece, he actively aided the local population and prevented the deportation of Greek Jews to death camps. He was instrumental in preventing tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from being deported to Auschwitz. Through persistent diplomatic protests, Roncalli and Pius were able to save thousands in Slovakia.

Since Roncalli had a warm relationship the king and queen of Bulgaria, he wrote to King Boris III saying, “On no account should Bulgaria agree with the horrific and dishonorable demand of the Nazis,” and threatening him with the punishment of God if he cooperated.

Chaim Barlas, head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Turkey, requested, and received, help from Bishop Roncalli. He would later observe of their first encounter: “I realized that I stood before a man of lofty spiritual stature who was truly interested in the suffering that had befallen our Jewish people, and who was prepared heart and soul to assist however he could.”

When Adolf Eichmann attempted to start deporting Slovenian Jews again, Roncalli intervened. The deportations stopped, Barlas wrote to the bishop, “Solely as a result of your intervention and that of the Holy See.”

The most striking case of Bishop Roncalli and Pope Pius intervening was in Hungary. With 750,000 Jews in Hungary, it had the largest Jewish community outside of German control. That ended when Germany invaded in March 1944, and the Nazis began issuing anti-Jewish decrees and beginning deportations.

Working on explicit verbal directives from Pius XII, and with the collaboration of the British government, Roncalli had the Church issue tens of thousands of immigration certificates and transit visas for Palestine.

Meanwhile, the region of Transnistria, in Romania, had become a penal colony for deported Jews. When it was made known to Roncalli that Jews were being moved westward from Transnistria to the death camps, Pius XII intervened to save them.

Alexandru Șafran, chief rabbi of Romania, joined Barlas and others in thanking the man who would one day be pope:

In these harsh times, our thoughts turn more than ever with respect and gratitude for what has been accomplished by the Vatican on behalf of the Jews in general, and of your excellency Bishop Roncalli on behalf of the Jews of Romania and Transnistria. In this most difficult hour of which the Jews of Romania have passed through, the assistance of the Holy See, carried out by the intermediacy of your high person, was decisive and salutary. It is not easy to find right words to express the warmth and consolation we received because of your concern and that of the Supreme Pontiff for the sufferings which had been pointed out to him by you after your visit to Transnistria. The Jews of Romania will forever be grateful to you and will never forget these facts of historical importance.

When the war was over, Bishop Roncalli was a changed man with a new understanding of the sufferings of the Jewish people. When, one month shy of his 77th birthday, he succeeded Pius XII as the 261nd successor to St. Peter, he had a chance to help again.

A new era in Catholic-Jewish relations

Cardinal Franz König would explain how Roncalli “had come to know the distress and moral anguish of the Jews fleeing from their persecutors. He felt an urgent need to set against it the immeasurable and bottomless hate of those days, a lasting new word of love.”

Dalin tells the story of Pope John driving through the streets of Rome on a Saturday, when he suddenly ordered his car to stop in front of Rome’s great synagogue. He got out of the car so he could bless the Jews of Rome as they were leaving: an important symbolic act that earned their gratitude.

“In doing this,” Rabbi Dalin observes, “he began to transform the history of Catholic-Jewish relations in our time, with initiatives inspired by his work on behalf of Jews during the holocaust.”

Pope John began by ordering the word “perfidious” removed from the Good Friday intentions, but he knew a decisive step to heal the rift between Jews and Catholics had to be part of the Council. He could make small changes to liturgy, but more official and authoritative actions were required for the Church to repudiate the charge of deicide and condemn anti-Semitism.

He ordered Cardinal Augustin Bea to prepare an official declaration of the attitude of the Church toward the Jews. Cardinal Bea worked tirelessly to meet with Jewish leaders and begin a new era of dialogue.

The Pope, too, would meet with Jewish leaders, greeting the first delegation from America with the words, “We are all sons of the same Heavenly Father. Among us there must ever be the brightness of love and its practice. I am Joseph, your brother.”

The result was the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, better known by its first words: “Nostra Aetate,” meaning “In our time.”

Section 4 became the most famous part of the document, transforming Catholic-Jewish relations in modern times. After declaring our common patrimony, the document says that the death of Christ “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today” and that the Church condemned “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”

Although Pope John would not live to see Nostra Aetate, his influence, and his wartime experience, is clear in its final form. When he died on June 3, 1963, Jews throughout the world joined Catholics in mourning.

Rabbi Dalin is emphatic about the central role played by Pope John in Jewish-Catholic relations. “Twentieth and 21st-century Jews will forever be indebted to Pope John XIII for his historic role in bringing about Nostra Aetate. It changed forever the relationship between Catholics and Jews.”

His help during the Holocaust, his warmth and affection for the Jewish people, and his determination to move the Church into a new era of Catholic-Jewish relations are why, as Rabbi Dalin says, “he was known as the ‘Pope of the Jews.’”

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About Thomas L. McDonald 4 Articles
Thomas L. McDonald is a diaconal candidate for the Diocese of Trenton. His writing can be found at

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