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Issue Date:  May 27, 2005

Roncalli aids Jews in 'Desperate Hours'


When Victoria Barrett, movie actress-turned-producer/director, began making documentaries, she did not expect to meet up with Msgr. Angelo Roncalli. That happened as she brought “Desperate Hours” to the screen.

Ms. Barrett, whose movies include “Russian Roulette,” “Three Kinds of Heat” and “Over the Brooklyn Bridge” as well a guest-star turn on “Cheers,” was delving into Turkey’s relationship with Germany’s Jews during World War II for “Desperate Hours” when Msgr. Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, emerged as a major player in the equation.

She and her co-producer, Jewish historian and scholar Michael Berenbaum, knew that Turkey’s invitation to Germany’s Jews to come and teach in its universities and its diplomats’ risk-taking on behalf of Jews being shipped to concentration camps were exemplary in a world at war that too often turned its back on Hitler’s Holocaust.

What Ms. Barrett hadn’t anticipated was discovering the behind-the-scenes activities of Msgr. Roncalli, who was in Turkey as apostolic delegate between 1935 and 1945. “I met survivors in Istanbul who had a lot of stories. The man was utterly beloved, and I knew very little about him,” she said. Archbishop Roncalli dominates the final third of “Desperate Hours” — though he’s in good company.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Barrett is deep into her next documentary, wrapping up “The Forgotten Holy Land,” which explores Christianity in ancient Asia Minor. But the smiling John XXIII seemingly won’t let her be.

She has drafted the outline for “The Guilt of the Innocent: Angelo Roncalli, Pope John Paul II, and the Jews.” Her twin theses are simple: “In ‘Desperate Hours,’ ” she said, “you have a moment where Christians, Jews and Muslims are coming together to save lives. What lessons can we learn? Roncalli had found a way to acknowledge other religions and still feel the primacy of his own religion. In the times we live in, is this possible?”

Ms. Barrett wants to expand on Msgr. Roncalli’s deeds as a young and courageous papal diplomat in neutral Turkey working to rescue Jews, and from that explore the revolution in Roman Catholic teachings he initiated as pope.

In Turkey, Ms. Barrett said that Msgr. Roncalli, alarmed by what was happening in German-occupied Europe, pressed the Vatican to encourage countries to give temporary havens to Jewish refugees who would be supported by Jewish organizations; to broadcast that the church was against the persecution of Jews; and to persuade German-occupied Slovakia’s Joseph Tiso to release 5,000 Jews on the condition that transit visas could be obtained.

He worked in those years with delegates of the Yishuv, the settlement of Jews living in Palestine prior to the formation of the state of Israel. Simultaneously, as a papal diplomat who had served for a decade in Bulgaria, he pleaded with King Boris not to deport Bulgarian Jews. (Bulgaria did deport Jews from the occupied territories of Thrace and Macedonia, but not Bulgaria proper.)

Later, as Pope John XXIII, Roncalli “transformed Catholic teaching toward the Jews,” Ms. Barrett said. “He ensured the foundations of Christian anti-Semitism were shattered. That transformation was expanded on by Pope John Paul II.”

The documentary’s title comes from the expression: It is a paradox of the Holocaust that the innocent feel guilty and the guilty innocent.

“Desperate Hours” is now airing on 75 PBS stations in 35 states. Call your local station for times. Copies of “Desperate Hours” along with a list of stations that will carry the program are available at

Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 27, 2005

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