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Sunday, 24 January 2021

Papacy versus the Finaly Family: The Battle for the Hearts and Minds of Two Little Jewish Boys

Antoinette Brun watches as her defence lawyer takes down her statement on an Olympia Plana portable typewriter in 1953.
 Brun was jailed for denying the Finaly family their two nephews.

The full extent of Pope Pius XII’s active role in the Roman Catholic Church’s shameful abduction of two Jewish boys was exposed in March last year when the Vatican opened its sealed archives from Pius XII’s 1939-58 pontificate. The children were Robert (Ruben) Michael Finaly, born at La Tronche, Grenoble, on April 14, 1941, and his brother 
Gérald (Guedalya) Pierre Finaly, also born at La Tronche, on July 3, 1942. The Nazis murdered their parents in the Auschwitz extermination camp on March 7, 1944, and until 1953 the lives of Robert and Gérald came to be controlled by a La Tronche municipal crèche director called Marie Antoinette Brun. Brun called herself the boys’ mother, though she was 52 at the time the Finaly brothers, then aged three and two, were placed in her care. In July 1948 Brun had the two orphans baptised Catholics in the full knowledge that they had aunts living in New Zealand and Israel who wanted the brothers returned to their immediate family. This baptism was to allow the church to consider itself above the laws of France in the notorious “l’affaire Finaly”. Brun went to extraordinary lengths to keep the Finaly brothers from their kin, including repeatedly ignoring court orders, constantly hiding the children, frequently changing their names (including using the surname Brun) and orchestrating the illegal transportation of the boys across the French border into Spain, over the Pyrenees to San Sebastian in the Basque region at night, through freezing winter snow. The Catholic clergy had at this point put the lives of the Finaly children in the hands of two Basque smugglers, François Etchecaharetta and Joseph Susperreguy,

Gérald, left, and Robert Finaly in the gardens of André Weil's property
La Moussonnière in Saint-Léonard near Senlis after
they had been returned to France from Spain on June 27, 1953.

Robert and Gérald were the sons of Dr Fritz Finaly, born on March 26, 1906 in Klosterneuburg, Austria, and his wife Anni, née Schwarz, born on February 18, 1915, in Gmünd in Kärnten. Dr Finaly was the head of a clinic in Vienna, but after Hitler annexed Austria on March 12, 1938, the couple made plans to move to Czechoslovakia before that country too was overrun by the Nazis. They then made efforts to emigrate to Bolivia but couldn't get travel documents. Instead, in 1939, they took refuge in France, settling at 8 chemin de Pont Prouiller in La Tronche. However, Dr Finaly was unable to practice because of the anti-Semitic laws of Marshal Philippe Pétain’s collaborationist Vichy government following the German invasion of France in 1940. The last Dr Finaly’s sisters in Auckland, New Zealand, had heard from him was a letter dated September 7, 1942, three months after Gérald’s birth, which Dr Finaly had sent through a friend in the US. On February 14, 1944, Dr Finaly and Anna were arrested by the Gestapo, he in the streets of Grenoble while returning from visiting of a sick French underground operative, she at their apartment. Four days earlier the Finalys had hidden their two sons in the Saint-Vincent de Paul nursery in Meylan, six miles from Grenoble, but the nursery owner, Anne-Marie Fabin, was also forced to flee. The Finalys then asked a friend, Marie Paupaert, to take care of the boys. Paupaert approached the nuns of Notre Dame de Sion in Grenoble to hide the brothers in their convent. Since this institution was an educational one, the Ladies of Zion were afraid that the presence of two children under school age would the arouse the suspicions of the SS. So they entrusted the little boys to Brun.

Any apologies?: Pope Pius XII pictured working at his Olivetti Studio 42 semi-portable typewriter as he replies to letters in The Vatican, January 31, 1955.

The “l’affaire Finaly” caused enormous tension in France. One particularly close observer, Nicolas Baudy, editor-in-chief of the journal Évidences, wrote, “two children [have] became the stakes in a strange struggle that has pitted a sadly tried Jewish family against a woman some regard as a saint and others as a lunatic; Princes of the Church against the Grand Rabbi of France; Jesuit fathers, nuns, and members of the lower clergy against politicians; and French Catholicism in general against that section of the nation which invokes the Rights of Man and the laws of the Republic … the affair is one of a conflict between the passion of faith and the rights of the family and the heart … Not since the Dreyfus case has an issue affecting Jews stirred France as has the ‘l’affaire Finaly’. Public opinion in France, and elsewhere too, has divided into pro and contra, and much along the same lines as in the Dreyfus days. In the opinion of responsible people, however, too large a part of the feeling on one side derives from a plain ignorance of the facts, which is reflected in even the most enlightened organs of Catholic opinion both in Europe and the United States.”

Gérald, left, and Robert Finaly at La Moussonnière in Saint-Léonard in June 1953.

Baudy’s article, “The Affair of the Finaly Children: France Debates a Drama of Faith and the Family”, appeared in the June 1953 issue of Évidences, six weeks before the boys were found in Spain and returned to their Israeli aunt. Typical of the “plain ignorance of the facts” was an item which was to appear in The Catholic Advance in Wichita, Kansas, on July 3, 1953. It said, “Atrocious is the word to describe some press reports of the Finaly case. It was said that Gérald and Robert were ‘abducted’. They were not. They went of their own free will to Spain.” The boys were 10 and 11 years old, for goodness sake, and they had to make a five-hour forced march across the Pyrenees in the dead of night in deep snow! “Free will”? In the hands of Bayonne criminals? The author of this ridiculous nonsense, noted Catholic journalist Paul H. Hallett, went on to claim, “The crassest charge of all was that the brothers were baptised after their relatives applied for return …” This was far from “crass”, it was in fact absolutely true. Hallett added there was an implication that the baptism was forced. “The Finalys were baptised with their clearly given consent …” Was Hallett being serious, or had he lost his mind in the church’s cause? The boys were six and seven years old! What would a six-year-old know about giving “consent to be baptised”? More accurately, Baron Guy de Rothschild, leader of the French Jewish community, in July 1953 described Brun’s baptism as a “forced conversion” and “one of the worst abuses of confidence vis-à-vis their unfortunate parents”.  Maurice L. Perlzweig of the World Jewish Congress called it an “indefensible act of ritualistic kidnapping”.

The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862

Even British newspapers were appalled. The Manchester Guardian found “l’affaire Finaly” “closely followed the pattern of the “Mortara Case”. This was a mid-19th Century Italian cause célèbre which concerned the Papal States' seizure of a six-year-old boy named Edgardo Mortara from his Jewish family in Bologna, based on the testimony of a former servant that she had administered an emergency baptism to the boy when he fell ill as an infant. Mortara grew up as a Catholic under the protection of Pope Pius IX, who refused his parents' desperate pleas for his return, and eventually he became a priest. The domestic and international outrage against the pontifical state's actions may have contributed to its downfall amid the unification of Italy.

The Atlantic's artwork on its David I. Kertzler article
“The Pope, the Jews, and the Secrets in the Archives”

The abduction of the Finaly boys may also have had massive ramifications for the Roman Catholic Church. David I. Kertzler, author of The Pope and Mussolini, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for biography and the Dupee University Professor at Brown University, wrote in The Atlantic on September 22 last year, “Although I am not aware that anyone has made the link, it may not be too far-fetched to suspect that the Finaly case played a role in … the abandonment of the Church’s centuries-long vilification of the Jews.” In his article “The Pope, the Jews, and the Secrets in the Archives”, Kertzler was referring an “historic shift” through Pius XII’s successor John XXIII, “who convened a Vatican Council devoted in part to rooting out the vestiges of medieval Church doctrine on the Jews. The culmination of those efforts came only after Pope John XXIII’s death; in 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued the remarkable declaration Nostra Aetate. Reversing long-held Church doctrine, it called on the faithful to treat Jews and their religion as worthy of respect.” Of the Finaly case, Kertzer wrote, “What was not known at the time - and what, in fact, could not be known until the opening, earlier this year [2020] of the Vatican archives covering the papacy of Pius XII - is the central role that the Vatican and the pope himself played in the kidnapping drama. The Vatican helped direct efforts by local Church authorities to resist French court rulings and to keep the boys hidden, while at the same time carefully concealing the role that Rome was playing behind the scenes.”

Anneke Beekman, left, with Geertruida (Gé) van Moorst in 1961.

“l’affaire Finaly”certainly gained far more worldwide publicity than two comparable cases in the 1950s, one in the Netherlands (“The Anneke Beekman Case”) and the other in the United States (“The Hildy McCoy Case”). Anneke Henriëtte Beekman was born to Jewish couple Elias Beekman and Sara Beekman (née Fonteijn) in the Rivierenbuurt, Amsterdam, on November 21, 1940. On May 27, 1943, three weeks before they were captured by German invaders, the Beekmans had allowed the Dutch Resistance to take Anneke, just 2½, to Hilversum, south-east of Amsterdam. She came under the care of two sisters, Elisabeth Maria (Bets) and Geertruida (Gé) van Moorst. Anneke’s parents were murdered on arrival at the Sobibor Nazi extermination camp on July 9, 1943.  Anneke’s father had asked that if he did not return, he wanted his daughter to be raised as a Jew, but the Van Moorsts had the child baptised a Catholic, and her surname changed to van Laar. In February 1949 the Jewish guardianship foundation Le'ezrath Ha-jeled (The Child to Help) was granted custody in an appeals court, but Elisabeth had fled, taking Anneke with her to a convent in Val-Meer in Riemst on the south-eastern border of Belgium, and later to the Sanctuaire de la Vierge des Pauvres at Louveigné, Banneux in Sprimont, south-east of Liège. They escaped a police raid in 1954 and reached another monastery, this time in France. In 1955 Elizabeth and Geertruida, along with a Mother Superior and a Dominican priest, received prison sentences for their roles in the abduction. Anneke reappeared on her 21st birthday in November 1961, having reached her majority.

Hildy McCoy with Melvin Ellis and his wife Frances in 1957.

Hildy McCoy was born at the Kenmore Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, on February 23, 1951, the daughter of an unmarried young Children’s Hospital School of Nursing student from Marblehead and an intern at the Children’s Hospital. She was offered up for adoption and papers were signed on March 4. But Hildy was only six weeks old when her mother, Marjorie McCoy (later Mrs Doherty, of Hingham, Massachusetts), first demanded Melvin Bentley Ellis and his second wife Frances, a Jewish couple from Brookline, Massachusetts, give her back. Ms McCoy wanted Hildy placed with a Catholic family. In 1953 a Massachusetts probate judge ruled in Marjorie’s favour, rejected the Ellises’ adoption petition and ordered the Ellises to return the child. The Ellises took Hildy from Massachusetts in 1955 and on March 15, 1957, were arrested in Miami, Florida, for kidnapping Hildy and going into hiding with her. But Florida Governor LeRoy Collins refused their extradition and Florida Circuit Court judge John W. Prunty granted the Ellises’ petition to legally adopt Hildy.

Hildy Ellis in 1968.

US newspapers naturally drew comparisons with “l’affaire Finaly” in their coverage of the “Hildy McCoy Case”. The Boston Globe was especially biting in rounding on the Ellises in an editorial on July 15, 1955, saying, “We cannot refrain from noticing the silence from those areas most noisy during the famed Finaly case …” It was referring to the Jewish community’s criticism of Brun’s baptism of the Finaly brothers, when in the McCoy case a Jewish couple was fighting for custody of a girl whose mother wanted her raised a Catholic.

Antoinette Brun, right, in 1953.

Nicolas Baudy, born Miklos Neumann in Hungary in 1904, was more reasoned than the Globe’s editorialist and believed people should think for themselves. While with the Foreign Legion he was captured by the Nazis but escaped from Stalag II in 1940 and joined the resistance in Grenoble, where he would have got to know something about Antoinette Brun. He described her as “a woman some regard as a saint and others as a lunatic”. Notwithstanding the fact that Évidences was published under the aegis of the American Jewish Committee, Baudy’s 1953 article was more concerned with detail and accuracy to that point (at which “l’affaire Finaly” was still unresolved). In it he said of Brun: “She was a native of Grenoble and, after a somewhat chequered youth, a lady of good works. She lacked neither courage nor enterprise. She was a Catholic, yet enjoyed the favour of the Socialist mayor of her city, as well as having numerous other intimates in the magistracy and the municipal administration. A fat, loud, expansive busybody, with an inordinate taste for quarreling. People were somehow a little afraid of her. Behind the respectable façade of small-town life many scandals lie dormant. Antoinette Brun had seen her share of them. With the approach of age she had become devout, yet remained bossy, gossipy, and jolly. Only her charitable work gave her from now on an almost sacred halo. She terrorized some people, fascinated others. Some people would do anything for her. Grenoble was her personal kingdom, her home. Later on she was able to act the role, superbly, of a woman in revolt against the powers that be. A short while ago she, the fervent Catholic, declared to Figaro that she didn’t give a fig for the Pope. But before assuming the role of rebel, she made use of her influence with the powers that be with astonishing skill.”

                                                                    Antoinette Brun in 1953.
Brun, born in La Tronche, Isere, outside Grenoble, on May 12, 1893, was no doubt aware of the October 23, 1946, directive
from the French Apostolic Nunciature, authorised by the Holy Father, which forbade Catholic authorities from allowing Jewish children who had been sheltered by Catholics and baptised to be returned to their families and communities. Attached was a note: “Baptism is what makes a Christian, hence it ‘cancels the Jew’.” Although the boys testified they only saw her once a year, Brun had already begun to follow the dictum with fervour, blocking at every turn efforts by members of the Finaly family in New Zealand and Israel to return to Robert and 
Gérald to their closest relations. One lawyer declared, “Never has anyone seen the provisions of the law for the protection of minors made mock of with such effrontery.” After the boys had been moved to Spain, and Brun - as well as Mother Antonine (Antoinette Jannot), Superior of Notre Dame de Sion in Grenoble, and a number of priests - were arrested and faced imprisonment, the Catholic hierarchy began to look for a way out of an imbroglio which had resulted in hugely damaging publicity for the church in France. The Holy Office told Pope Pius XII that “the Jews, tied in with the Masons and the socialists, have organised an international press campaign”. Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua told the Pope, “the court proceedings in course will finish in favour of the Judaic thesis and the two young boys will end up in the hands of the Jews who, with ever greater ruthless obstinacy, will force a ‘Jewish’ education on them, with the resulting humiliation (at least in the eyes of a part of the wider public) of the Catholic Church … If, then, the Jews do not observe the commitment they assumed (which is likely), the fault will then be theirs and the Church will always be able, with reason, to charge them with hypocrisy.” Dell’Acqua proposed an article “to unmask the Jews and accuse them of disloyalty”. The head of the liberal branch of Judaism in France, Rabbi André Zaoui, meet Dell’Acqua in Rome and said the Jewish community had rights and responsibilities in the case. “Not, however,” Dell’Acqua replied, “of the same kind as those of the Catholic Church.” One of Pius XII’s chief deputies, Giovanni Battista Montini (later Pope Paul VI) said the Finaly affair “had inflicted a serious blow to the Church’s right and also to its prestige in the world”.

Robert, left, and Gérald with their aunt and legal guardian, Hedwig Rosner, 1953. 

Regardless of the Catholic Church’s embarrassment at having a large number of its clergy jailed for ignoring court decisions and continuing to conceal the Finaly boys, the Vatican sought to weasel its way out of the situation with some vestige of honour still intact. In exchange for returning the children to their family from the monastery of Lazcano in Franco’s Spain, the Catholic hierarchy made demands about the boys’ future religious education, and for charges against its clergy to be dropped. Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyon, entered negotiations with Jacob Kaplan, chief rabbi of Paris, so Rome could find a way out of its crisis. French mathematician André Weil became an intermediary and it was to his property La Moussonnière in Saint-Léonard near Senlis that the Finaly boys arrived back in France on June 27, 1953. It had taken more than three months of haggling to get them there. On July 18, their aunt and legal guardian, Hedwig Rosner, withdrew the family’s complaints against Brun and various clergy. A week later Robert and Gérald flew out of Paris on an El Al airplane to Tel Aviv with Mrs Rosner. Robert became a physician, a senior staff member at Soroka Hospital, and he and his wife Ann live in Omer, by Beersheba. Gérald pursued a career in the Israeli military and subsequently became an engineer. He insists on introducing himself as Gadi, is an army reserve officer and enjoys a pension from the Bezek Telephone Company. Gérald lives with his wife Ilana in Kiryat Motzkin after many years in Kiryat Hayim.

Robert Finaly
Gérald Finaly
Brun continued to serve in her role as director of the municipal crèche of Grenoble until her retirement in 1961. She died at Coublevie, north of Grenoble, on October 25, 1988, aged 95.

1 comment:

Jim Greenwood said...

Near the top of this page:

is an image of three single elements.
Can you tell me what typewriter the middle element was associated with?

Thank you,
Jim Greenwood