“Betrayal or Salvation? Religious Conversion During the Holocaust”

Doris Bergen, The Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies at University of Toronto, delivered a keynote lecture on religious conversion during the Holocaust at the 2019 Annual Interfaith Forum.

Founded in alignment with Loyola Marymount University’s Jesuit-Catholic heritage, the Annual Interfaith Forum is an opportunity for collaborative and compassionate inquiry and knowledge building.

“Betrayal or Salvation? Religious Conversion During the Holocaust,” took place on February 26 and explored a complex chapter in the history of the Holocaust. Bergen pointed out that the topic has been largely neglected because it often times leads to uncomfortable conversations and almost always generates more questions than answers.

In her lecture, Bergen provided insight into three main questions: how many Jews converted, were the conversions real or fake, and did conversion make a difference? She humanized these questions by inviting audience members to read selected excerpts of nine converts and survivors. Hearing the different voices and perspectives was a powerful way to connect the audience with the bewilderment that these conversions and de-conversions inflicted.

In spring 1942, deportations of Jews from across Europe to death camps began in earnest. Ultimately, approximately 100,000 Jews turned to Christianity during the Holocaust era as a means for survival. There were many cases of complicity, but also individuals who capitalized on the business of conversions.

Bergen provided the first-hand account of Edith Sommerfield. Edith Sommerfield’s father found and paid a priest who provided documentation and Romanian name to the family. He then went down to the local pub and bragged about what he had done. It was not long before the police arrived and arrested the whole family.

Bergen estimated that only about 15% of these conversions were “real” in that they were performed with proper ceremony and carried on after the Holocaust. There were, however, many Jewish children who internalized the Christian faith and took refuge in the cross and with Catholic families. Conversely, many Jewish children converts never felt fully accepted as Christians. There were even instances where these children experienced public and private humiliation at the hands of their Christian rescuers. Rachel Falconer was housed by a Christian family, but when the father became annoyed with her he would lash out with anti-Semitic comments.

“So many people converted…thinking that if you could show false papers, or birth certificates…it would save you, but nobody was saved.” – Olga Steward.

While converting did not guarantee survival, it did buy time. Especially when a conversion was combined with other factors such as the right appearance, money, influential friends, or intimate knowledge of Christian tenets of faith and rights. After the war many people retracted their conversions, while others remained Christians, and many were shaped by elements of both faiths and later served as bridges between the two religions. These hybrid identities add another interesting dimension to the deep connection between Judaism and Christianity.

Following the presentation, Allan Figueroa Deck, S.J., professor of theological studies at LMU, and Rabbi Mark Diamond, lecturer in Jewish Studies at LMU, offered a response to Bergen’s work.

Citing Bernard Lonergan, philosopher and theologian, Deck described the many ways to understand and describe conversion: religious, intellectual, moral, or psychic.

He urged the audience to not pass judgement on either side and to carefully consider the complex context of the situation. “It is hard to know what was going on in the hearts and minds of those converting,” emphasized Deck.

Rabbi Diamond echoed this sentiment, stating “When we speak about judgement in the Holocaust, I subscribe to the view that we do not have the right or the authority to stand in judgement. Judgement is best left in the hands of a merciful God.”

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