Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

22 Av 5764 - August 9, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Children who were Rescued from the Convent
Fifty Years after the Case of the Finaly Children

by D. Tzaftman

Part II

The personal saga of two Holocaust children, whose rescue from the clutches of the Church triggered a story of long abuse and an international legal affair centered around the authoritarian-patron conflict of the Catholic Church.

During World War II, Dr. Fritz Finaly and his wife found out that the Germans intended to deport them. They made a desperate attempt to at least save their children, two-and-a- half year-old Robert and one-and-a-half year-old Gerald. They handed the children to a neighbor and included a leather bag containing medical equipment that the doctor had used in his work, some jewelry, pictures and documents. The bag also contained a letter stating that, if the worst came to the worst and they were not able to return, they requested that the children be given over to the father's sisters in New Zealand.

The Finalys were religious Jews. Two of Fritz Finaly's sisters lived in New Zealand and one in Eretz Yisroel.

The young boys wound up, along with other orphans, with Miss Baron who ran the Catholic kindergarten in Grenoble. After the war, the sisters tried to reclaim their nephews, but Miss Baron refused to give them up. Backed by the Church, she was willing to go to any lengths to keep them in her custody, that is to say, in her religion.

At first Mrs. Fisher of New Zealand tried, but after two years of futile attempts Mrs. Yehudis Rozner of Israel, another sister, took over the main effort. The Rozner family gave power of attorney to a French Jewish activist, Mr. Moshe Klahr.

Mr. Klahr found that Miss Baron had made two well- considered moves. She had taken over legal guardianship and that had enabled her to baptize the children, which was a decisive step from the Church's perspective. Once a person is baptized, from the Church's perspective they are considered irreversible members. She thereby added a religious dimension to the affair.

The struggle moved to the French courts. In the middle of the summer of 1952 (5712), the appeals court ruled that Mrs. Yehudis Rozner was to be instituted as guardian in place of Miss Baron. However, the Church was not prepared to give up.


When Mr. Klahr arrived at Miss Baron's house accompanied by a court emissary to claim the children, neither Miss Baron nor the children were to be found. Mr. Klahr right away pressed criminal charges. Miss Baron was summoned to appear in front of the criminal court to answer charges of breaking civil law, in accordance with the decision of the appeals court.

But when she appeared, the criminal court pulled off a shocking reversal. Instead of reprimanding Miss Baron for evading the law, the court chose to reprimand the appeals court for its ruling and ordered that guardianship be restored to Miss Baron.

The surprising court ruling triggered off a wave of protests among both Jews and non-Jews. Some pointed to the influence of the clergy over the court, and that of those who sought Miss Baron's interests. As a result the episode began to overflow into the public domain in France and the interest in the development of the affair became public property.

The mass of protests accomplished their mission. In the winter of 1953, an additional trial was held in response to Mr. Klahr's demand. In a noisy and packed hall, the court abolished the criminal court's ruling, and certified the right of Mrs. Yehudis Rozner to be the children's permanent guardian. The court found Miss Baron guilty of kidnapping and sentenced her to jail.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, in the innermost, dark cellars of the churches, plans were being made. For the Church, it was a religious issue since, now that the children had been baptized they were viewed as Christians for eternity. There was no going back. The Church could not let go of the frail bodies of the two innocent children, according to its own principles.

For the first time, France was forced to preside over a head- on confrontation between basic Christian values versus the private constitutional rights of the individual. The Christian patriarchy did not easily give way, but waged a fearsome battle for its hegemony in Europe. France, though its roots are clearly Christian, has viewed itself as an officially secular country ever since the French Revolution. This was a clear case of Christian values against secular values.

Where were the children being kept throughout all these events? A few days after the court's ruling, the children were discovered in a church boarding school in Babayan (Bayonne), near the Spanish border. The principal of the school was afraid of become embroiled in the affair and he had therefore reported it to the regional attorney. The information traveled around in ministerial circles, as well as in the channels of the Church.

Still, the mills of justice turned very slowly and hesitantly. The Church's influence was very strong.

Three days after these revelations, Mr. Klahr arrived, accompanied by a swarm of journalists and a host of inquisitive onlookers, at the church boarding school in Saint Luz in order to claim the children and end this painful episode. But the visitors discovered, to their complete astonishment, that once again the children had been whisked away.

This time, the affair assumed the proportions of a genuine kidnapping.

The police set up road blocks, and sudden searches in the streets were carried out. Eventually five priests were arrested in Askayam, as well as the head mother of the Antonin Convent. They confessed to complicity in the kidnapping but had no information about where the children were being concealed.

Meanwhile, two little children, heads stooped, were following in the footsteps of a coarse Basque shepherd, along a twisted path high up in the Pyrenees Alps which constitute the border between France and Basque Spain. They walked behind him like innocent lambs watching the footsteps of their shepherd, their eyes glued to the ground.

As the path rose higher and higher across the peak their feet began to tread deeper into thick snow.

The children had begun the trek in the middle of the night, when they were awakened and instructed as to what awaited them in the morning.

They had dressed and walked towards the dining hall, the last in line, as they had been instructed. Suddenly a priest emerged, and motioned them to follow. He handed the children over to the shepherd, an ignorant foolish Basque peasant, who lived in the little town of Saint Jean-de-Luz, and was used to `smuggle' people over the borders.

Now the children followed in his footsteps. Ever since they remembered, they had been following adult strangers. Lacking a mother and father, they accepted their fate as natural. This acceptance had been part of them since their kindergarten days in Grenoble. After that, they had spent a year in Lugano, Switzerland, where they had been given fictitious names: Reuven became Louis and Gad became Mark, with a surname of Kadri. They were even given false spectacles to conceal their identity. They did not care, as long as the adult figures who surrounded them were happy, and the slippery hands of the `cursed' Jews did not get to them.

It is freezing cold now in the Pyrenees Alps. I feel cold as ice, and the cold wind is lashing at my face. Can the fate of orphan children be this bad? I feel this longing welling up inside. Why is our fate worse than those children who are warming themselves by the light of the hearth in the wooden huts scattered between the limestones of the Alps?

I need a blanket. But I want more than anything else for someone to hold me. I wonder who the people were who took away mother and father. What does a Jewish mother and father look like? It is just so terrible. I am freezing, freezing. The only thing I see is the tips of this huge man's boots whom they told us to follow. Gerald, do you feel alright?


Suddenly, they came to a wooden hut illuminated by a lamp. The man with the boots went inside and the children went in after him. They stood hesitatingly by the rough wooden table. Only then did they become aware of the trembling that shook their bodies from the icy cold.

Momentarily, the man stepped into a room and returned with a bottle of old wine. They gulped it down into their stomachs, feeling first a prolonged scalding sensation, and then a kind of a heat that spread throughout their bodies. The boys completed the rest of their journey with their heads spinning, as pleasantly sluggish as drunkards following a bootlegger.

@Sub Title=Hiding in Spain

When they arrived in Spain, the boys were separated. Reuven was hidden in a Basque village in Atria, locked up in a house without permission to go out and play. As for Gad, he was kept in solitary confinement. The loneliness grew to a new degree. The two were brought together only a few times for short meetings, and then were separated once again.

In the meantime, dramatic developments stirred the public controversy even more. A media battle blazed with greater vigor. The freedom of the two children to be Jews turned into a ball game. In the field of the legal affairs, both sides bandied around the terms, `emotional rights' versus `human rights,' each according to its own subjective interpretation.

The public pressure which even came from non-Jewish directions--especially from Protestants who welcomed the opportunity to pressure their Catholic rivals -- led the highest echelons of the clergy, headed by Cardinal Geralia, to publish a statement calling for anyone who knew the whereabouts of the children to bring about their release.

However, Mr. Klahr was not impressed by this `heartwarming' statement. Based on his witnessing Mother Antonin's confession to the police, he related the statement to the Church's desire to minimize the damage the affair was causing to their image, while their leaders knew full well the identity of the kidnappers, if not much more.

End of Part 2. Next week: A family reunion, and a recent interview with Dr. Robert Finaly

Fear of the World Church

D. Tzaftman

While the world conflict raged at full blast, a deep and strange silence came precisely from the direction of the young State. Two Jewish children, Holocaust survivors, who were fighting for the right to be Jewish. A couple, members of the family, who are citizens of the State of Israel, are waging a great battle against powerful enemy fronts. And the young State of Israel is silent. Why?

Here where their vote would carry significant weight, when the French legal system is smack in the midst of the storm (reminiscent of the French government's political situation after the trauma of the Vichy government), the State of Israel decided to remain silent.

"Is this affair a solely French issue? Or is it also an Israeli issue? Why is it not whipping up a storm in Israel at least as powerful as the one occurring in France? Where is the public response, and why are there no speeches from prominent personalities in the State?" shrieked Mr. Moshe Rozner in a letter that he sent out to the Israeli media in those days.

In such terms, Mr. Rozner condemned the Israeli government's silence. He attempted, without success, to break down the wall of silence in Israel, while his wife directed the battle back in France. He needed backing, like the tank units who are waiting for the air force support, but the support fails to arrive. But Mr. Rozner is unable to grasp the extent of the fear the official channels have of the worldwide Church.

The beginning of the letter points out that the disappearance of a child in one of the mountain passes had recently engaged Israeli public opinion. The army and the police were recruited to search for the missing boy and the whole nation followed the proceedings with bated breath. And now with a storm brewing in France over the kidnapping and disappearance of two boys who are Holocaust survivors, here in Israel, aside from a mere dribbling of marginal news, no outcry at all has been heard.

At this stage--with pure intentions--Mr. Rozner attempted to ascribe all this to distorted news reports reaching the country, making it seem as if only the relatives from New Zealand had come forward to claim the children, when in fact they (the Rozners who were now carrying the main burden) were Israeli citizens. At a later stage, it was apparent that Mr. Rozner sensed that there was some reason for the silence, that it was not just a matter of the way things worked out, but stemmed from a latent fear.

It turned out that the fear of world Christianity and the sensitive relations with the French De Gaulle government were in the balance. The antisemitic De Gaulle ("a haughty people made up of charlatans" -- he called the Jews) directed his policy of recognition of the State of Israel with very hesitant steps.

In the highest echelons of the Israeli diplomacy, they were afraid of angering De Gaulle, as well as the Vatican and the Catholic institutions.

Mr. Rozner got the first hint of the way matters were oriented when he applied to the President, requesting an urgent meeting in regard to the affair which was transpiring in Europe. In his telegram he stressed the urgency of what he saw as giving elementary backing to his wife's activism in Europe in the hour of truth.

However, to his great dismay, no response was forthcoming. Finally, after an irritatingly long period, he received a brief and particularly aggravating reply.

"Your application to the President of the State, Mr. Yitzchok ben Zvi, was received by our office in the absence of the President from Jerusalem, and therefore our reply was delayed. We extend our apologies."

This was followed by the following, no more than the minimal requirements of courtesy:

"Your request will be shown to the President immediately upon his return. However, so as not to delay his response, we recommend that you put the details of your proposal in writing, specifying what kind of practical aid you are requesting from the President."

Mr. Rozner was stunned. He did not know whether to laugh or to cry. First of all, they suggested he wait till the President returned, though there were undoubtedly other burning issues which were not compelled to wait until his return. Especially infuriating was the request ". . . to put the details of the proposal in writing."

Could the President's bureau in Jerusalem be so detached from the world outside that they knew nothing about an international incident which affected every Jew . . . especially since a great deal of information had already been published in the national newspapers? In his response, which was more than a little indignant, he related the whole episode. The letter deserves a careful reading, especially for what lies between the lines:

I am applying to you with regard to an extremely pressing matter. I am applying to you with regard to an extremely well- known matter. Two days before I sent my first telegram, there was a front page article in Davar, the issue of 24 February. All the other newspapers as well wrote extensively on the affair of the Finaly children, Jewish orphans who were kidnapped by the personnel of the Church in France.

One must assume that the President was in Jerusalem before and in between his visits to Eilat and Tiberias. Nevertheless, my request was not submitted to him, and I received your reply 21 days after my first telegram, and at the exact time that the President went on leave. I am certain that you are asking too much of me when you request my forgiveness for such treatment of a matter of such vital importance.

I am the person who, as the Finaly children's uncle, began this whole episode six years ago, and I have brought it to its present stage. My wife, Yehudis Rozner, has been sitting in France for three months, fighting with superhuman strength to claim her brother's children. She was even granted an interview with the President of France. There are stormy winds blowing in France, no less fiercely than they did during the Dreyfus trial.

I refer you to the article in Davar. In fact, all the national newspapers have published articles and news reports, and in the most recent Davar Hashavua, there was pictorial material as well. Yet, in the bureau of the president they ask me, after such "efficient" treatment of my urgent requests, to put in writing the details of my proposal -- otherwise I could anticipate a further delay!

In my naivete I thought that in a case in which the French government agrees to an audience at 9:00 p.m. with the highest papal emissary, in which the French foreign minister discusses it with the Pope, and which affects the Israeli citizen Yehudis Rozner from Gedera, and the Israeli citizen Rozner, and which -- however it turns out -- will go down in Jewish history. I am certain that this is no exaggeration! No further details are necessary in order to be received by the President, inform him of the affair and get his advice on possible action to be taken to expedite the affair. After all, it also pertains to Israel!

I am certain that, were it not for your withholding from the President the knowledge of my urgent requests for the rescue of the Finaly children, he would gladly have received me for an interview, either before or after one of his visits, or before his going out on leave. In the meantime, valuable time has gone by and I am once again pleading most earnestly to arrange for the interview without further delay.


Moshe Rozner


Although Mr. Rozner was as yet unaware of the government's fear of a confrontation with the Vatican, he did gain an immediate reply, offering a meeting at the President's house.

It is interesting to note that, Rabbi Y.M. Levin, the chareidi MK from Agudas Yisroel, did bring up a parliamentary motion at the Knesset to discuss "the status of the Finaly children," but there was insufficient response.

The government's fear of expressing an official stance continued even after the children's arrival in the country. The government displayed no official involvement in any demonstrative way.

When it came to the bar mitzvah celebration of the orphans, a ceremony that, more than anything else, was an emotional symbol of their return to the Jewish fold, Mr. Rozner tried to invite a government representative. The then prime minister, Moshe Sharett, explained his rejection of the invitation as stemming from `the tremendous pressure` he was under. He added pertinent reason, which had been mustered by the psychologist of the youth aliyah: "For the good of the children, and for their peace of mind, it is preferable not to have them placed at the forefront of events, and not to trouble them with visits by public and state officials . . ."

Mr. Rozner received a similar response from Mr. Ben Gurion who was then residing in Sdei Boker. At the beginning of the letter, Mr. Ben Gurion expressed his hope "that the matter be forgotten, and that the children would forget that they had once provided the fuel for a serious feud between Judaism and Catholicism."

With regard to the bar mitzva invitation, Ben Gurion responded: "Unfortunately, I am unable to leave my work, there is only one chag that is an exception to the rule -- Yom Haatzmaut, for which I am given a few days leave from the kibbutz."

Rabbi Kaplan, chief rabbi of France, mailed out an enthusiastic reply, in which he stressed that at the time of the bar mitzva he had been in America, but "had I been in France, there is no doubt that I would have come over to participate in your simchah--my simchah. However, since I am here in America, I am sending you a telegram of congratulations from the ship in the heart of the seas."

In retrospect, perhaps the pressures of the official silence caused journalists to relate to the affair in a hostile way, so that they investigated it in a manner that was overly forgiving.

When, in the newspaper Ha'aretz there appeared a historic survey of the affair, Miss Baron was described as someone who struggled with the emotional ties of being a foster parent. Mr. Rozner sent a letter to the editor in which he proved that any attempt to depict her motives as stemming from an emotional attachment were clearly erroneous and did not tie in with the children's evidence and her behavior throughout the affair.


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