the new zealand jewish archives




JULY 1953 / AV 5713


a child abduction in europe with a new zealand connection  

the finaly affair


A Distressing Precedent


In 1854, in Bologna, Italy, a family maidservant baptised a young Jewish child during an illness. Four years later the child was abducted by the Papal Guard and secreted in an institution, there to receive a Catholic upbringing and an education towards the priesthood. This occurred despite the intervention of European Governments, including the British, which authorised Sir Moses Montefiore to intercede at the parents’ request. Montefiore was refused audience with the Pope. Edgar Mortara (for this was the child’s name) lived to be a scholarly priest, conscious of his origins but acknowledging only the Christian faith. He died during the recent war.

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Ritual Abduction in 1953


Today, just on one hundred years later, a similar case has arisen in France. Enough has been reported in the local Press for most New Zealand Jews to be aware of the details of the Finaly Affair, and appreciate its particular significance in this country, for Mrs M. Fischel, of Auckland, and Mrs E. Rothbaum, of Wellington, are aunts of the abducted boys. 

In 1938, a brother, Dr Fritz Finaly, came to France with his wife as a refugee from Austria. Two sons were born to this couple in wartime France, and were circumcised according to the Jewish rite. When Robert was aged three and Gerald two, the parents were deported by the Germans, but not before they had entrusted the children to a friendly neighbour, stating that they should be cared for by the doctor’s sisters in New Zealand in the event of their being orphaned.


From the time of their parents’ death in 1944 the boys became charges of a Mlle. Brun, Catholic social worker directing the municipal creche in Grenoble, which sheltered many Jewish children during the occupation. Here they were nursed and protected for one and a half years until the end of the war allowed their aunts to trace them. In 1946, a London relative and their mother’s brother in Vienna, were also able to contact for boys. 

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Mlle. Brun Breaks the Law


The first correspondence between Mrs. Fischel and Mlle. Brun was friendly, but when arrangements were made, and a New Zealand Government permit issued for the children’s voyage to this country, Mlle. Brun falsely took steps to have herself appointed legal guardian of the orphans. She did this by concealing the fact of the relatives’ existence. Then commenced strenuous efforts by the aunts to gain custody of the boys. But all approaches through the channels of the Red Cross, the “Save the Children Fund” and the French Legation, were ignored in France. 

In 1948, the Catholic Bishop of Auckland intervened, but at this stage Mlle. Brun had the children baptised in her efforts to keep them. The relatives reacted by deputising authority to a Jewish engineer of Grenoble, M. Keller (who took the case to further courts) and nominating a third aunt, Mrs H. Rosner, of Gedera, Israel, as the prospective guardian. The defence of Mlle. Brun against these claims for the children was that between 1945 and 1948 the relatives had made no attempt to reach the boys. She also attempted to solicit by bribery from the uncle in Vienna, an authority legally delegating guardianship to her. During the latter hearings she arranged for Robert and Gerald to be hidden for some time in Italy and Switzerland. Late in 1952 the court gave its decision in favour of Mrs. Rosner, which was irrevocably confirmed this month by the Appeal Court. 

The Church An Accessory 

At this stage, Mlle. Brun enlisted the aid of a section of the local Catholic clergy, which, inevitably, honoured the irregular baptism, execution of which is specifically forbidden by Canon Law in the case of minors without consent of parents.

But the boys had undoubtedly been baptised, however sinfully, and so they were spirited away once more, this time via Paris, Marseille and Bayonne, to “asylum” across the Pyrenees in most Catholic Spain during February of this year. For months there was no certain word of their whereabouts. Behind them many clerical and laypersons were in “preventive detention“ then released to await their own trial and possible further litigation in the High Court. 

Negotiations preceded between the French and Spanish governments. The relatives agreed that they would not remove their legal wards from France if the boys were returned to a religiously neutral atmosphere. The French primate gave Rabbi Kaplan, acting chief Rabbi of France, an undertaking to find the boys by June 5th. 

Momentous Cablegram 

On June 27th, M. Keller cabled Mrs. Fischel and & Mrs. Rothman, “Children arrived France good health.”  

The next day the NEW ZEALAND JEWISH CHRONICLE discussed the case with Mr. and Mrs. Rothbaum whose quiet joy at the news expressed their justification in pursuing the matter for eight years. Mrs. Fischel undertook most of the overseas negotiations for the relatives in New Zealand during this period. They believe, now, that the efforts of M. Keller “made the impossible, possible”. Because of his faith in the principles which were threatened by the affair, he worked at the expense of his own family, even jeopardising his business, though most of the £5000 which was spent by the Jewish interests was money privately donated to a special committee by individual French Jews. 

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A Tribute to Mrs. Rosner


When the aunt in Israel was nominated as guardian, the New Zealand immigration permit had lapsed due to Mlle. Brun’s procrastination. Of the three sisters of Dr. Finaly, Mrs. Rosner was closest to France. In confirming her as “tutrice” the court acknowledged “that the family circle guaranteed, morally and materially the best upbringing and education, in the interests of their nephews, assuring the realisation of the father’s wishes.” Mrs. Rosner trained for four years as a nurse in Austria, and her husband as a farmer with the express aim of settling in Palestine about 1928. She has written to New Zealand of a recent trip to France, but emphasises the relief she experienced after her return to Israel where the complex aroused by the Affair in Europe seemed so anomalous. Her sister describes her as “The ideal person to care for the boys. She is experienced and wise; kind, patient and even-tempered.” It is not unnatural that the boys will at first be loathe to trust their family, for distrust has been fostered in their environment of the last eight years. A home has been placed at Mrs. Rosner’s disposal in the South of France, while the boys accustom themselves to their new situation.


Mr Rothbaum pointed out that many other Jewish children were found by the Jewish Brigade in foster homes after the war and were transported to Israel Israel by Youth Aliyah. It was tragic that his nephews should have been through their experiences before being free to go to Israel. As a lawyer, he did not think the last decision could be reversed, and once the boys were safe he felt the charges against Mlle. Brun should not be pressed. “The family remains ever grateful to her for the risk she took in caring for Robert and Gerald.”

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