An archivist's discovery rewrites history, showing that Catholic Church leaders protested Kristallnacht within 6 days

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The record had a thick, deep scratch around its aluminum circumference, but that wasn’t the first thing Patrick Cullom noticed. It had been sent to CUA’s archives from Nugent Hall back in the `90s, packed in a sagging cardboard box that didn’t look much different from other boxes that found their way to the archives from the back of some closet or basement storeroom. The box contained antiquated record albums just like the one Cullom held in his hand, discs that needed to be sorted and filed, or tossed.

As the university’s first-ever audiovisual archivist, Cullom had in 2003 begun the gargantuan task of sifting through and sorting 750,000 photos and a century’s worth of records, tape recordings and newspaper clippings. Which explains why, more than a year into his job, Cullom was only just now surveying this particular box and this particular recording.

He had found plenty of records like this one, records that hadn’t been played in 70 years — records that couldn’t be played, not without paying big bucks to a specialist who could transfer their contents to a digital format. And so he might have simply reshelved this one with others like it, if something hadn’t caught his eye. Visible through a hole cut out of the dust jacket was a handwritten label on the center of the record: “Catholic Protest Against Nazis — Nov. 16, 1938.”

Cullom was no World War II expert, but he knew enough about the conflict to realize that there was something curious about the date on the label. 1938 — a year before Germany’s invasion of Poland sparked World War II, and a full three years before the United States would enter the war. The date was much earlier than he would have expected for a stateside protest. So Cullom took a second look.

1938 … Cullom held in his hands a time capsule, and an inscrutable one at that — the label offered just enough clues to tantalize, but the real information was hidden in the record’s aluminum ridges.

This is the story of a recording, but it is also the story of an archive. And being the story of an archive, it is, by necessity, a story about history. As people who study history closely come to realize, one of its constants is that new truths about what happened in the past are always being discovered. Thus, history is always being rewritten.

Archives are often forgotten places. A repository of the “Used to Matter.” The collective memory of a university or city or country, they are brimming with items that some person deemed to be of some value, for some reason or another. Or sometimes they contain objects, papers or correspondence stored away just in case they might prove to be of value in the future, like nuts squirreled away for the winter. Those just-in-case items, an archivist might argue, are often the most valuable of all.

Back in CUA’s archives, Cullom reasoned that if someone wanted to know what was on the old audio recording that he was examining, they were going to have to take it to a professional. Transferring an old record to digital format, when the former is damaged and can only be played on an antiquated, hard-to-find machine, costs a few thousand dollars in labor and repair. All that money, and for what? The promise indicated by a few cryptic words on a record label? There was no way of knowing whether this recording had any real value. It was an archivist’s dilemma. So Cullom took the record to his boss, Timothy Meagher, the university archivist. Meagher, an associate professor of American history, was intrigued. He knew the contents might be of particular interest to his education archivist, Maria Mazzenga, whose field of research is World War II. So he gave Cullom the thumbs up to find out what was on the record.

When the CUA archivists finally got the recording back from an audio restoration company, it was in the form of an MP3, an audio encoding format. Even restored, the recording carried the trademark crackle and static of a 1930s radio broadcast. The announcer spoke in the mellifluous baritone of the radio personalities of that age. He explained what the listening audience was about to hear: a live national broadcast from the CUA campus, carried by both the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), featuring several prominent members of the clergy and a well-known former governor, patched in from their respective locations across the country. The announcer then introduced Rev. Maurice S. Sheehy, head of the university’s Department of Religious Education, who was the broadcast’s organizer. His voice, though grave, possessed the theatrical quality of a moving Sunday sermon.

“The world is witnessing a great tragedy in Europe today,” Father Sheehy began, “and after sober, calm reflection, various groups and leaders of the Catholic Church have sought permission to raise their voices, not in mad hysteria, but in firm indignation against the atrocities visited upon the Jews in Germany…”

In constructing a timeline of the Holocaust, most scholars place Kristallnacht — Nov. 9, 1938 — at its start. “The night of broken glass.” On a raw night in late autumn, thousands of Jewish homes, shops and synagogues were ransacked throughout Germany in large-scale Nazi-orchestrated rioting that would continue for two days. Some Jews were beaten to death that night, and more than 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up for concentration camps.

CUA’s 27-minute broadcast went over the nation’s airwaves just six days after the violence abated, on Nov. 16, 1938. In a pre-Internet, pre-television era, the speed with which these geographically scattered members of the Catholic Church responded was impressive.

Catholic University was not simply a venue for the event. The university’s chief executive, Monsignor Joseph M. Corrigan (later elevated to bishop), was featured in the broadcast along with three of the school’s then current or former trustees: Archbishop John J. Mitty of San Francisco, Bishop Peter L. Ireton of Richmond, Va., and former governor of New York Al Smith, who in 1928 had been the first Catholic to run for president of the United States as a major-party nominee. Bishop John M. Gannon of Erie, Pa., also spoke on the broadcast.

Why these particular men were chosen for the broadcast is a question the archivists are still investigating, but they speculate that the group’s members were chosen not only for their prominence within the Church and Catholic University, but also for their prior radio experience and vocal opposition to anti-Semitism. Smith — the only lay voice on the broadcast — was a savvy choice: He was, thanks to his presidential bid, a household name.

The purpose of this program, Father Sheehy said in his opening address, was to appeal to Christian political leaders in Germany to stop the persecution of the Jews. But it is clear the broadcast was also meant to inspire prayers for the beleaguered Jews and to denounce what Monsignor Corrigan called “a persecution hardly if ever equaled since earlier blood-lusting paganism martyred Christians for their faith in God.”

Father Sheehy, the driving force behind the broadcast, had a special interest in radio. Since the 1920s he had lobbied the university to take advantage of the broadcasting medium, believing it would give CUA a voice in public issues.

After his opening words, he turned the Kristallnacht broadcast over to Archbishop Mitty, who was 2,800 miles away. The archbishop delivered a declaration of solidarity with Jewish people that was rare for that pre-Vatican II era, when, according to archivist Maria Mazzenga, many felt that defending other religions put those faiths on an equal footing with Catholicism. The archbishop likened the violence against German Jews to a “parallel crucifixion” in Spain, where thousands of clergy had recently been murdered during the Spanish Civil War. He asked whether something like that “monstrous story whose record was written month after month in human blood” might be repeated.

Bishop Gannon then continued from Erie, Pa., speaking about the importance of standing with the Jews in protest. “In the face of such injustice toward the Jews of Germany, I express my revulsion, disgust and grief,” he said.

For his part, former Gov. Smith asked if the great country of Germany had fallen into the hands of a band of ruffians, and “If that be true, what about the future of Germany?”

Listening to the speeches, Mazzenga felt the rush of an archivist who has stumbled onto a new sliver of history. She had spent the past two decades studying World War II and the Holocaust, and she had never heard of anything like this early show of indignant solidarity and support that pulsed from the speakers. An expert on America’s perceptions of and reactions to World War II as it was being fought, Mazzenga in 2000 wrote her CUA doctoral dissertation on that subject. Like others with in-depth knowledge of American perceptions of the Nazis, she had held the generally accepted view that U.S. Catholics and the American Catholic Church itself had not paid much attention to Germany’s pre-war persecution of the Jews.

The broadcast she was listening to turned that view on its head. Catholic moral outrage on behalf of a beleaguered group — not indifference — was what the resurrected recording revealed.

What Cullom found most impressive was the collaboration between CBS and NBC, then the only two major broadcasting networks. In order to reach the entire country, Father Sheehy had to get both networks to participate. “That’s unique,” Cullom adds, “because just like today, CBS and NBC don’t like to share things. So you have these two networks and lots of local affiliates broadcasting this and doing it for free. It’s an interesting relationship that the broadcasters had with the university....

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Alonzo Hamby - 1/9/2008

It is good to know about this particular discovery, but the real question is why it should be newsworthy. I guess it is because a wide swath of the intelligentsia and the historical community has bought in to the canard that the Catholic church in Europe and the United States was a firm supporter of Nazism.

It is far more accurate to say that the Church supported Franco in Spain--and did so in response to deadly violence against it by Communists and anarchists on the Republican side.

In Germany, however, many Catholics, especially those associated with labor and liberal movements, were persecuted fiercly by the Nazis, their concordate of 1934 with the Vatican notwithstanding. The upshot was Pius XI's "Mit Brennender Sorge," an encyclical denouncing Nazism in 1937.

The Church's association with Franco was real. He was a devout Catholic, who protected the Church from real enemies.

The Nazis on the other hand were atheists and totalitarians who sought to control the German Catholic Church and and Protestant denominations as well. In general, they wanted to reshape Christianity along the lines of their own pagan vision.

None of this is a secret. William L. Shirer tells the story in detail in RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH--not great history perhaps, but good and accurate journalism.

As for the American scene, Father Coughlin may have become a dominating, cliche figure. The American University broadcast, however, probably represents a more accurate picture of American Catholic reaction to the persecution of the Jews.

And certainly no one should be surprised that Al Smith, who had Jewish advisers and strong Jewish support as Governor of New York, would have been a part of the broadcast.