It was Ghislaine Maxwell’s mother who first introduced me to the subject of surpassing oneself. I met Betty Maxwell, whose face became familiar to the headlines this week following her daughter’s conviction in New York for sex offenses, when she invited me to help her out. organize a conference to analyze the Nazi Holocaust regime. I visited him on several occasions at the home of Maxwell West London, an address that has since become notorious. I was sort of a PR advisor, although the PR work was outsourced.
More importantly to her, I was a Catholic sympathetic to her cause, but still a stranger to the international community of scholars specializing in Holocaust studies and the more general related field of anti-Semitism.
They made up most of the committee she set up to advise her, including big names in the subject such as David Cesarani and Yehuda Bauer. She needed an ally disconnected from these academics, and I did the trick. It became a more personal friendship and we kept in touch after the end of his conference days. (She organized two). For example, she was still very interested in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most damaging fraud in history, and the Dreyfus Affair, a scandal not yet fully resolved. She had a doctorate and wasn’t fooled by anyone. No one outside of his family, at least.
She came from a proud Huguenot background, although her mother was raised in the Catholic religion. Elisabeth spent time in an English convent school, which explained her perfect command of English. From her, I learned that the French Huguenots had a remarkable but largely unrecognized record in protecting Jews during the Nazi occupation. Huguenot villages heroically housed Jewish families and orphaned Jewish children, risking their lives. There were French Catholic families who did the same, but the fundamental difference between the two cases was that the French Church at that time was steeped in anti-Semitism, while these French Protestants were not.
A French Catholic who challenged the Nazis was battling their particular religious and cultural tide; a Huguenot was swimming with it. It should be noted that the French Catholic bishops subsequently recorded their shock and shame at their Church’s failure to oppose the round-ups and deportation of a significant portion of the Jewish population, the vast majority of whom. was murdered. The main center of this operation was at Drancy, an almost infamous name like Auschwitz.
It was only part of Betty’s fascination with the Holocaust. She married a British army officer, Robert, who was himself Jewish and one of the few survivors of a large family network of Eastern European Jews. She researched his family tree and found evidence of at least 300 Holocaust victims with whom he was linked.
I learned, but not from her, that her relationship with her husband was toxic: he was an autocrat and a tyrant, maybe even a psychopath. It seems clear that Elizabeth had no part in or had no knowledge of the crimes that were her subsequent downfall – he siphoned hundreds of millions of pounds from the Daily Mirror pension fund for its benefit. But I suspect that some of Maxwell’s money has been spent on his Holocaust projects, although none is in my direction. We have carefully avoided all of these sensitive topics. Even though she knew I was a Fleet Street reporter, she trusted me enough.
For me, it was an amazing introduction to the realm of Holocaust studies, of which I knew no more than the next. The subject itself was on the verge of a transformation, as official archives from all over Eastern Europe became accessible to Western scholars after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The search for the so-called “smoking gun” was ongoing – a piece of evidence that explicitly and in person linked Adolf Hitler to the launch of this evil campaign of genocide. But as Betty herself pointed out, all the necessary evidence was already there in the pages of Mein Kampf. But the world of Holocaust scholarship was always aware of the need to refute deniers over and over again with every bit of evidence that could be found.
Part of Elisabeth Maxwell’s interest was theological. She understood that anti-Semitism was firmly entrenched in the Christian tradition on the basis of a number of biblical texts. All Jews living and dead were held partly responsible for Jesus’ death, hence the charge of deicide or murder of god.
But it went further than that, touching on Christians’ self-understanding both of themselves and of the place of the Jews in the divine scheme of things. At first she was drawn to various Protestant theologians and their views on this issue, but she quickly became disillusioned. It seemed to her, she told me, that Protestant scholars today were so little committed to anything in particular that making them reject the theological basis of anti-Semitism cost them nothing. Catholic theologians, on the other hand, were subject to a rigorously logical intellectual discipline, and the challenge they faced was daunting. She respected him.
The decisive turning point in Catholic reflection on the Jews came in 1965, with the promulgation of the decree Nostra Aetate by Vatican Council II. It clearly showed that one of the historical roots of the Holocaust was the tradition of religious anti-Semitism known as supersessionism: that the Jewish Alliance had been annulled by the appearance of a new seal in the blood of the Christ. Therefore, Judaism was nothing but a false religion and the duty of the Catholic Church was to convert them to the true one. Indeed, because of their failure to recognize Christ, they had been put away by God and deserved only contempt. It is not difficult to see how the anti-Jewish Nazi ideology found fertile oil in Christian Germany. And if Catholicism was at fault in favoring going beyond, it is nothing compared to the vitriolic hatred that Martin Luther had for the Jews.
All of this has been refuted and anathematized by Nostra Aetate, who quoted the word of Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans to say that God does not withdraw the promises he made. “What happened in his passion,” said Nostra Aetate, “Cannot be imputed against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews are not to be presented as rejected or cursed by God, as if it follows from the Holy Scriptures …
“In addition, in its rejection of any persecution against anyone, the Church, aware of the heritage that it shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the spiritual love of the Gospel, denounces the hatred, persecution, manifestations of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.
Sadly, the phantom of the pre-Vatican II overtaking has not yet been fully extended, and there are still glimpses of it in the Catholic liturgy. It is present in many prophecies and proverbs relating to the People of God in the cycle of biblical readings, in particular the first reading of the Hebrew Bible (even the term “Old Testament” has supersessionist resonances). It is taken for granted that the terms “People of God” or “Israel” can be taken as no longer referring to the Jewish religion and people, but exclusively as metaphors for the Catholic Church. They implicitly treat Judaism as outdated. I guess there isn’t one parish priest in a hundred who has ever explained this to his congregation.
But the notion of two “Peoples of God” side by side, both offering salvation but in different ways, is very difficult for Catholic theology to digest – indeed Catholic identity as a whole. On the other hand, if the idea that the Christian religion has annulled Judaism is one of the causes of anti-Semitism, as Nostra Aetate implies, then this is serious business. This could mean that the infection of anti-Semitism has not been entirely wiped out from Christian theology, and could yet erupt.
This is what worried Elisabeth Maxwell. Despite her disgraced husband and daughter, she deserves to be remembered. If there were to be another Holocaust conference in the future, I would push for it to become the central issue – partly in its honor.