Pope Francis just ordered the Vatican archives to release online 170 volumes containing 2,700 files documenting requests for help by Jews during World War II. Many of these requests were made by former Jews who converted to Catholicism. These documents have been available to historians for two years.
These documents were written by Jews who requested assistance from the Vatican to avoid deportation, freeing relatives from concentration camps, or help to find family members. These requests were made before and during the Holocaust.
“Making the digitized version of the entire Jews/Jewish people series available on the Internet will allow the descendants of those who asked for help to find traces of their loved ones from any part of the world. At the same time, it will allow scholars and anyone interested to freely examine this special archival heritage from a distance,” Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations, said in a June 23 article for Vatican News.
The Vatican has long defended PiusXII against criticism, claiming that he remained silent in the face of the Holocaust in order to implement quiet diplomacy to save lives. But as more historians dispute these claims, the Vatican has relented, opening archives showing Pope Pius was not as active in saving Jews as previously claimed.
“The Pope at War,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kertzer, claimed that Pope Pius was interested in saving Jews who had converted to Catholicism, the offspring of Catholic-Jewish mixed marriages but refrained from helping Jews. Kertzer asserts that Pius refrained from intervening to avoid antagonizing Adolf Hitler or Italy’s Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
The controversy surrounding Pope PiusXII and his actions (or inactions) during the Holocaust has been boiling since the end of World War II. Born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, Pope Pius XII was head of the Catholic Church and sovereign of the Vatican City State from 2 March 1939 to 1958 when he died. Before his coronation, Cardinal Pacelli, like his predecessor Pope Pius XI, was a vocal and active critic of the Nazi party. As Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli, made some 55 protests against Nazi policies, including its “ideology of race” and helped author a critique of Nazi ideology in response to the Nuremberg laws. In 1938, Cardinal Pacelli publicly restated the words of Pius XI on the incompatibility of Christianity and antisemitism: “It is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is inadmissible; spiritually, we are all Semites.” Asa result, the Nazi regime disapproved of Pacelli’s election as Pope.
At the same time, Cardinal Pacelli made official anti-Semitic statements, referring to Jews as those “whose lips curse [Jesus] and whose hearts reject him even today.” His predecessor, Pope Pius XI, was made aware of Kristallnacht, nationwide anti-Jewish violence in Germany in November 1938. Still, Pacelli, the Cardinal Secretary of State at the time, persuaded him to refrain from condemning it. In 2005, Corriere Della Sera published a document dated 20 November 1946 showing that the pope himself had ordered that orphaned Jewish children in war-time France be baptized and kept in Catholic custody rather than turn the children over to Jewish organizations.
But after his coronation in 1939 during the outset of the war and after the Nazis had already risen to power, Pope Pius XII fell strangely silent. As the head of Catholics worldwide, the official policy of the Vatican was to remain neutral during World War II. In October 1941, the Assistant Chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican, Harold Tittman, asked the Pope to condemn the atrocities. The response came that the Holy See wanted to remain “neutral” and that condemning the atrocities would have a negative influence on Catholics in German-held lands.
Due to the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII was dubbed ‘Hitler’s Pope.
As the security of the Jewish population became more precarious, Pius XII did intervene in March 1939 to obtain 3,000 visas for European Jews who had been baptized and converted to Catholicism to enter Brazil. Two-thirds of these were later revoked, however, because of “improper conduct,” probably meaning that the Jews started practicing Judaism once in Brazil. At that time, the pope did nothing to save practicing Jews.
Throughout the Holocaust, Pius XII was consistently besieged with pleas for help on behalf of the Jews, most notably from the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, who petitioned the Vatican several times throughout the Holocaust. In January 1943, Pius XII declined to publicly denounce Nazi discrimination against the Jews, following requests from the Polish government president-in-exile and Bishop Konrad von Preysing of Berlin. In his book Hitler’s Pope, John Cornwell argues that the pope was weak and vacillating in his approach to Nazism. Cornwell asserts that the pope did little to challenge the progressing holocaust of the Jews out of fear of provoking the Nazis into invading Vatican City.
This is not the first attempt to exonerate the Pope, who has been identified with the Holocaust. Forty years ago, the Vatican published 11 volumes of selected archival documents to prove his innocence, claiming he used quiet diplomacy and encouraged convents and other religious institutes to hide Jews.
Perhaps the most damning revelation came last year when a group of German researchers studied the Vatican documents concerning Pope Pius and the Holocaust. The study revealed that one memo was conspicuously absent. The memo revealed that the pope knew from his own sources about the Nazi death camps and Hitler’s attempts to exterminate the Jews, but the pope chose not to reveal this to his contacts with the U.S. government. The decision to withhold this information came at the behest of Secretariat of State’s Angelo Dell’Acqua, who became a cardinal who wrote a memo warning Pius to distrust the report because Jews “easily exaggerate” and “Orientals” — meaning Archbishop Sheptytsky, who also reported witnessing the exterminations— “are really not an example of honesty.”