The Vatican is going to great effort to reconcile with Judaism over its role in World War II, but a recently revealed letter suggests that Pope Pius XII had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were being gassed each day in German-occupied Poland. This contradicts previous claims by the Holy See that the Vatican was ignorant of these atrocities and therefore did not protest the Nazi regime’s actions. In addition, it was revealed that the pope had a Nazi dagger adorned with a swastika in his personal chambers.
Italian news service Corriere della Sera published an article on Sunday about an announcement by Vatican officials of the discovery of a letter dated Dec. 14, 1942. The letter was written by an anti-Nazi German Jesuit named Father Lothar König and addressed to the personal secretary of Pope Pius XII, a German cleric named Father Robert Leiber.
In the letter, König reports that an estimated 6,000 Jews and Poles were being killed every day at the Belzec concentration camp in what was then German-occupied Poland. That region is now part of Western Ukraine. König refers to the operation of “blast furnaces” at the camp and makes a passing mention of the Auschwitz and Dachau camps, referring to another report from König that has yet to be found.
At the same time as the pope was receiving the letter from König, he was also receiving diplomatic notes from the British and Polish envoys to the Vatican with reports that up to 1 million Jews had been killed so far in Poland.
The letter was found as part of a trove from Pius XII’s reign, which ran from 1939 to 1958, made available to researchers by order of Pope Francis in March 2020.
“For a half-century, we’ve argued about indirect documents and sources,” Researcher Giovanni Coco, an official of the Vatican archives who discovered the letter, told Corriere della Sera. “Now we have direct sources, and others probably will emerge. We’re trying to render them as accessible as possible to everyone, so the terrible season in which Pius XII guided the Church can be understood.”
“Everything must come out, without fears or prejudices,” Coco said.
He also told the news service that he had discovered a Nazi dagger adorned with a swastika that had been discovered in Pius XII’s private apartment after his death by his successor, Pope John XXIII. An inquiry by then-Archbishop Angelo Dell’Acqua, who at the time was the substitute in the Secretariat of State, revealed that the dagger had been brought to a papal audience by an SS officer, who had planned to use it to attack the pontiff. Instead, Lehnert said, the SS officer had a change of heart and presented the dagger to the pope as a sign of repentance.
The controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII and his actions (or inactions) during the Holocaust has been ongoing 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 antisemitism. Antisemitism is inadmissible; spiritually, we are all Semites.” As a result, the Nazi regime disapproved of Pacelli’s election as Pope.
At the same time, Cardinal Pacelli made official antisemitic 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 wartime 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.
Belzec was a Nazi German extermination camp in Poland. It was built by the Nazi SS for the purpose of implementing the secretive Operation Reinhard, the plan to murder all Polish Jews, a major part of the “Final Solution,” which in total entailed the murder of about six million Jews in the Holocaust. The camp operated from 17 March 1942 to the end of June 1943. The third-deadliest extermination camp, exceeded only by Treblinka and Auschwitz, between 430,000 and 500,000 Jews are believed to have been murdered by the SS at Bełżec. Only seven Jews performing slave labor with the camp’s Sonderkommando survived World War II.