Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Av 5764 - August 5, 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. Tzfatman

Part I

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

It all began with an old newspaper piece, entitled: "Dreadful Episode of Orphans Kidnapped in France." The article was replete with details and names and actions taken to bring about the rescue of the two children of Dr. Fritz Finaly who were kidnapped in France. Something about the story grabbed the attention of this writer. There followed a number of attempts at telephone investigations to follow up on the names mentioned in the story, with a surprise ending that included a meeting with one of the heroes of the story.

As the investigation proceeded, it became clear that, in retrospect, this was an international affair that for some reason never did become immortalized in the public consciousness. Yet not for nothing did the "Finaly children's" saga develop into an international affair. Numerous national components were compressed into this personal story which, in an informal sense, was a covert judgment on Christianity, in its cruel treatment and double moral standard towards the salvation of the Jewish people. This treatment was deeply rooted in the Nazi barbarism during the Holocaust and in the thundering passivity of the Church as a whole.

This affair, which occurred in the deep recesses of the Church, highlighted European antisemitism in France. The screeches of the engines of the Auschwitz death trains which journeyed on the tracks of that hatred had still not aroused the conscience of Europe from its slumber. The affair split the people of France, in a controversy that many people called a second "Dreyfus trial."


Long corridors in the basement of the convent, a taut, threatening silence. The ring of keys. The footsteps of a nun grasping the soft hands of two Jewish children. A knock on a door. Left alone the two brothers, Robert and Gerald Finaly, sat quiet, plunged in the deeper silence of orphanhood.

The window of the room faced a tree swathed in branches. The slight breeze blew away the fallen leaves that had rested peacefully on the windowsill. Other leaves had been blown far away from here, cast about from place to place at the whim of the wind. How miserable and fearful, to be uprooted, at the mercy of others. Had they too once had a firm trunk from which they were cruelly uprooted? How had it happened?

The Viennese sun flooded the streets and, as it went down, the gay sound of laughter from the children of the Jewish school in Castelz Street died with it. Much of Jewish Vienna, like Austria as a whole, was in a prolonged state of euphoria over the Jewish enlightenment assimilation and the German culture. Here in Vienna, the Zionist visionary wove his fantastic dream of mass conversion as an antidote to the spreading antisemitism, and, like other assimilated people, banged on the gates of "the religion of mercy and compassion."

All of a sudden, out of this apparently idyllic symphony, there was a shrieking of the typical Wagner chords and, as if in a nightmare, the delightful "Austrian culture" assumed the garb of the brown shirts. The musical Saltzberg notes played the tune of Deutschland Ueber Alles, as yellowing scrolls on the lineage of the Jewish race were pulled out of old drawers. The old hatred surfaced, or rather, the everlasting decree of, "Vo'Avdil eschem lihiyos Li le'am."

The Finaly family was one of the Jewish families who devotedly observed their heritage. M. Leva, the Finaly family's niece--then a small child of eight -- describes in her memoirs the moment the arrow fell between them and the children of the Aryan race, the moment when her affiliation with the Jewish people was marked by the yellow star:

"Suddenly our lives changed, I was warned not to visit my neighbor Grada, because she was not Jewish . . . "

She recalled the golden life she had led before that fateful day. She had belonged to a large, extended family, where the need to maintain close-knit and conservative family ties was a response to an inner drive to retain, at all costs, their Jewish identity.

"I remember how my parents, brothers, uncles and aunts and cousins -- how we all went on holiday together in one of the villages. I will never forget that very long Seder night in which we read the Haggadah twice, my grandfather read it in German, and my father in Hebrew."

This pleasant, idyllic lifestyle came to an abrupt end with the Austrian takeover by Hitler's wicked dictatorship. Hitler himself was Viennese born and an integral product of that fundamental European antisemitism.

The family, like many others, began to disperse, as each household searched for a different route to escape the terror hovering over them. Two sisters, Fishel and Rothbaum, emigrated with their families to New Zealand, while a third sister--Yehudis Rozner--managed to move to Eretz Hakodesh where she settled in Gedera.

Very different was the fate of the younger brother, Fritz. In his capacity as a doctor he, like many others in Vienna in his profession, chose to escape first to the Czech Republic with his wife Annie (nee Schwartz). When this was conquered by the Axis forces, the couple fled to Grenoble, a small town in the South of France.

It was in Grenoble that their two children were born, Robert (Reuven) and Gerald (Gad). The two boys were circumcised according to halochoh despite the impending threat to their lives that hung over all the Jews of Europe.

By the winter of 1943 (5704), France was already swarming with Gestapo soldiers. The Jews kept themselves tightly secluded, well aware of the danger that was fast approaching. Dr. Fritz Finaly and his wife found out from their acquaintances that the Germans intended to deport the Jews of Grenoble to the camps. They made a desperate resolution to at least save their children, two-and-a-half year-old Robert, and one-and-a-half year-old Gerald.

With trembling hands, they handed over the children to a neighbor. They included a leather bag containing medical equipment that the doctor had used in his work, some jewelry, pictures and documents -- a small collection of items that had been carefully picked out. Such remnants, being closely linked with their identity, aimed to create a kind of personal immortalization. Perhaps they also contained a naive hope that somehow they would one day return.

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.

A kiss, drenched with tears, marked the Finaly's separation from their children.

A few days later, the father was arrested in the street as he was returning from a medical visit. Soon after, his wife was arrested as well, and they were both deported to Camp Drancy in France, and from there to the Auschwitz death camp.

The Holocaust has manifold tragic faces. These were the years when the Angel of Death was given full rein to impose a massive variety of suffering upon the Jewish people. The Nazi death machine created and developed such horrendous schemes that only the most monstrous and demonic heart and mind could conjure them up.

One such scheme was the `Holocaust orphans' -- infants and young children who were left to grow up without any sense of belonging to a father or mother. For them, the very sense of missing was a luxury, since nothing had ever been there for them to miss. Even when they would, at a later date, gaze endlessly at the pictures, the extinct sensation could not be recreated. The natural sense of belonging to a loving father and mother and a warm home was cruelly torn from them.

Orphans in a Storm

Such was the fate of Robert and Gerald Finaly, smiling infants of one and two years old. They grew up in a world where they were carried around by adults from one place to another, without ever being able to depend on a caring, warm look to guide them about what was best for them and what was not.

The Christian neighbor to whom the children were handed over found it difficult to support the children for the long term. Probably, out of fear of the Gestapo, she decided to transfer them to the Notre Dame de Sivan convent so that they could be hidden there.

Some background on this institution: The name "Notre Dame" is probably not unfamiliar to Jerusalemites. The Jerusalem branch is one of the mainstays of the Order, which was established a hundred and sixty years ago by two Jewish brothers who were apostates. It is dedicated to the 'salvation' of Jewish souls, with special attention being directed to Israeli children, Rachmono litzlan.

The toddlers, little Robert and Gerald, smiled genially as they were handed over to the nuns at the convent. Like other small children, they were accustomed to being separated from their parents for periods of time. Their inner security engendered in them the confidence that soon . . . they would once again see the beloved faces of their mother and father.

However, by this time, Fritz and Annie Finaly were already on their way to the crematoria of Auschwitz, having fallen into the hands of the antisemitic disciples of Christian Europe. Robert and Gerald would never see their parents again.

Inside the walls of the convent, there was a fear that since the children were much younger than those commonly found there, they would be delivered into the hands of the Gestapo. They were therefore given over to the principal of the Catholic urban kindergarten of Grenoble, under the management of Miss Baron.

In the evening, when all the kindergarten children had been sent to their homes, Miss Baron's housekeeper picked up the two brothers and brought them to her mistress' private residence. Miss Baron, who lived alone, had collected quite a few orphan children into her home. They were now joined by Robert and Gerald.

The house was permeated with an atmosphere of rigid discipline, while the relationship between the children and Miss Baron (whom they were trained to call "mother") was limited to a fixed nightly routine of saying "goodnight" and then going to bed. In general, the children were at her mercy, although they actually had fond memories of the stereotypical type found in orphanages. (See conversation with Dr. Robert Finaly.)

Hitler's racial doctrine was the brainchild of classic antisemitism, which European Christianity had nourished. According to this theory, the right to life on this earth is the legacy of a specific race; in the original Christian exposition, it is the legacy of a specific religion.

While Miss Baron sat alone in her house and threw an occasional glance in the direction of the little toddlers taking new little steps in their development, did she feel any kind of pity for the children? Since she was a staunch Catholic and her life was bound up with the ecclesiastical institution in Grenoble, she most likely envisioned the `salvation' of their souls before their physical salvation.

The children were raised on the `faith' in a certain person. As believing Catholics, they imbibed the antisemitic interpretation of his being killed by the wicked Jews.

Meanwhile, the war in Europe was drawing to an end.

During the war years, when Europe was still smoking from the burning of bodies in the crematoria and a question mark still hovered over the world as a whole, the survivors were not yet free to count themselves and the remnants who were left alive. When the flames died down and the thick cloud began to dissipate, it became possible to see the scorched earth and attempt to identify the survivors.

After the War

Mrs. Margaret Fishel, the sister of Dr. Finaly who lived in New Zealand, at the beginning of the winter of 1944 (5705) wrote to the mayor of Grenoble, asking if he knew anything about the fate of her brother's children. In his reply, the mayor told her of the expulsion of her brother and his wife and that the children were still alive. He attempted to assuage her worries saying that, "the children are safe and well" and there was no need to be concerned about them.

Mrs. Fishel was beside herself, knowing that somewhere in the field of slaughter there awaited a living memorial of her murdered brother and sister-in-law. In a letter addressed to Miss Baron, she extended open arms to the children. She thanked Miss Baron over and over again in the name of her family for rescuing the children, while assuring her that she would recompense her for all expenses for the maintenance of the children throughout the entire period.

Never for a moment did it occur to Mrs. Fishel that this supposedly kind savior would object fiercely to completing the rescue by restoring the children to their family.

Mrs. Fishel lost no time in notifying the other members of the family about the two-fold tidings: the expulsion and loss of her brother and sister-in-law and, conversely, the joyous news of the rescue of the two children. Longingly and impatiently, they awaited the response which was long in coming. When the reply finally came, Mrs. Fishel was dumbfounded as she read its contents.

The letters leaped in front of her eyes. How could this be? In her mind's eye, she saw the delicate arms of a pair of orphaned children suspended in midair, while hers were stretched out, attempting to clasp them tightly to her and flood them with her hot tears of bereavement and of love. But then the words were there, black written on white. Suddenly . . . the hands were far away, like a nightmare where she was trying desperately to grab hold of them, while the ground was collapsing under her feet. She was trying to run, but her feet were rooted to the ground.

"These are the ties of love that no one has the right to break off needlessly. Your money is completely worthless to me. In a certain sense they are my children and I am filled with abhorrence for the people who wish to take them away from me to split their heritage . . . I am a French woman and a Catholic . . . my children's love is my recompense and I ask for no other. Your nephews are Jewish, that is to say, they have remained in the confines of their religion."

In a lengthy, vociferous letter, Miss Baron expressed her complete opposition to the children's return. Pointing to "the emotional bond" that had developed between her and the children, she declared that they remained "Jewish in the auspices of their religion." That was all an unequivocal lie. If an emotional bond existed, it had no basis in love, it began and ended with the saying of the forced `goodnight,' and the regimented discipline, its motive being the "redemption" of their souls.

When she finished penning her letter, Miss Baron began her legal battle for the custody of the children. The thought that all her years of toil maintaining the children would produce two more Jews loyal to their faith was unbearable to her. She therefore was willing to go to any lengths to keep them in her custody, that is to say, her religion.

At this point, Miss Baron showed how powerful were her connections with the senior clergy in France and the Church as a whole. The affair rapidly developed into an international trial. The tribunal, which constituted a public confrontation between the autonomy of the Church versus the court system, had the effect of highlighting the relationship to antisemitism of the majority of the French people, who were appalled at the situation, occurring as it did in the shadow of the Holocaust.

Miss Baron took her first step to gain custody of the children when she convened the body responsible for the appointing of a guardian for the children, known as the Council for Family Relatives. The Council, which was not informed that there were any family members prepared to accept the children, declared Miss Baron their legal guardian. Unaware of this procedure, the family could not defend themselves against it.

After two years of futile attempts to change the ruling regarding the guardianship, Mrs. Fishel lost heart and her sister, Mrs. Yehudis Rozner who lived in Israel, entered the picture. The geographical proximity to France enabled her and her husband to begin an intensive legal battle which developed into a tug of war. The Rozner family gave power of attorney to a French Jewish activist, Mr. Moshe Klahr, who was a friend of the family, so he could operate on the site. He was to become a dominant figure in the conflict.

When Mr. Klahr applied to Miss Baron on behalf of the Rozner family to claim the children, he was met with an angry reception. To his great dismay, he discovered that he was "too late" since the children had already been baptized.

Thus, Miss Baron had made two well-considered moves in her game plan. She had taken over legal guardianship to enable her to implement the baptism which was a decisive step from the Church's perspective. She thereby added a religious dimension to the affair. She was to argue, with the backing of the Church, that after baptism there could be no going back. It was she who precipitated the process, for the "salvation" of the two "Jew boys" under the auspices of Christianity.

This move restored to the legal-historic vacuum an affair known as "Edgardo Mortara," which had occurred in 1858 in Bologna, Italy. Then, a non-Jewish maid had baptized the child Edgar Mortara while he was sick in order to "save" his soul. When the local church leaders got wind of that, they ordered the child to be taken from his parents to enter the patronage of the Church on the principle that, "once a Christian, always a Christian." That is, once he was baptized he was irretrievably a Christian and could not stay with his Jewish parents. This episode sent out ripples, and activists like Montefiore were sent to Rome to get the boy released. Even Napoleon and the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef intervened. This affair, and the way it developed, had many similarities to the Finaly affair.

In his distress, Mr. Klahr applied to a famous French Catholic lawyer by the name of Morris Garson, who agreed to represent the family. During the years 1949-50 (5709-5710), a number of family councils were assembled and disbanded, once under Miss Baron's orders, and another time from Mr. Klahr's side. The legal battle reached a peak.

During the trial Robert was asked by the judge:

"What is your name?"

"Robert Baron . . ."

"Who is your father?"

"Dr. Fritz Finaly."

"If that is so, then why is your name `Baron?' "

"Because that is what Miss Baron told me to say," the boy replied, without hesitation.

The disputants came forward to present their case with well- considered arguments, hoping to sway the verdict. Finally, 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.

With this seemingly decisive verdict, the struggle of the Church with the sovereign court rose to the level of a real war. The Church was not prepared to give up its sovereign authority, and certainly not its legal autonomy. The clergy echelons, together with all their various branches, rushed to the aid of Miss Baron.

End of Part I


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