Jewish people living in Poland for hundreds of years were part of its social and cultural landscape. Polish Jews and Christian often lived amiably with each other, but at times also in tension due to anti-Jewish and antisemitic attitudes that could be found in Polish society, including the clergy of the Polish Catholic Church. These tensions heightened during the German occupation of Poland during World War 2.
After 1939, Polish Catholic responses to Jewish persecution were influenced by the Church’s own oppression by the Nazi regime. Nazism emphasized “purity” and “superiority” of the Aryan heritage and viewed organized religion as a potential threat. The Polish Christian population was targeted, and specifically the clergy for their social and religious leadership roles. They were among the victims of Nazi ideology and persecution. In light of the imprisonment and murder of priests, many Catholics called upon Pope Pius XII to issue a response from the Vatican against Nazi crimes. The Pope did not publically respond. The Church’s inaction and silence during the Holocaust remains a controversial issue.
Many Poles were hiding Jews in their homes. Those helping Jews could face the destruction of their property and even death if caught or denounced. The Polish Catholic clergy also made an attempt to rescue Jews. During the event of the arson attack on the Great Synagogue of Będzin, the priest Mieczyslaw Zawadski is remembered for saving the lives of many Jews by sheltering them on the church’s grounds. The Zegota (1942-1945) is another example of the measures some Polish Catholics took to help Jews. It was an underground resistance organization primarily comprised of Polish Catholics who provided aid to Jews. Its members dispensed food, money, medicine, and forged identification documents to the Jewish community across Poland. It is estimated that some forty to fifty thousand Jewish lives were saved by the Zegota.
After 1945, the Jewish population continued to be blamed for many of the social problems in Poland. As part of creating a new national postwar identity, the Church strongly urged the Catholic majority to root their morals in Christianity, thereby continuing the exclusion of Jews from Polish society. This national rhetoric included varying degrees of distrust of the Jewish community, characterizing negatively those Jews who returned from the camps and hiding places. This climate may have influenced the conversion of some Jews to Christianity.
In one of the prominent families of Będzin, the Lustiger Family, the issue of Jewish-Catholic relations became very personal when one of its members converted to Catholicism. One branch of the family had relocated to Paris during the 1920s. There, the 13-year old Aaron Lustiger converted and adopted the name Jean-Marie Lustiger. He eventually became the Archbishop of Paris and a French Cardinal. The epitaph Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger wrote for his tomb in Notre Dame Cathedral evidences that he acknowledged his Jewish heritage until the end of his life.