VATICAN CITY -- For decades, the Vatican has defended Pius XII (a World War II-era pope) against accusations that he remained silent during the Holocaust. However, the Vatican insists that he was working quietly behind the scenes in order to save lives. New research, which cites recently opened Vatican archives, shows that the Vatican was most successful in saving the lives of Jews who converted to Catholicism, or were children from Catholic-Jewish "mixed marital" marriages.
David Kertzer's "The Pope at War", a Tuesday publication in the United States, contains documents attesting that there were frantic searches for baptismal records, lists of converts given by the Vatican to Germany's ambassador, and heartfelt pleas of Catholics for the pope find relatives of Jewish descent.
The book is a follow-up to Kertzer's Pulitzer Prize winning "The Pope and Mussolini", about Pius XI. The book draws on millions of documents recently released from Vatican archives, as well as those of Italy, France and Germany to create a history of World War II using the Pius XII papacy's extensive diplomatic network with both Axis- and Allies.
Kertzer stated that the archive contains a lot of material about Jewish baptismal records and could save them.
This 484-page book with its close to 100 pages of endnotes portrays a timid pontiff, who was not driven by antisemitism but was convinced that Vatican neutrality was best and the only way to safeguard the interests of Catholic Church members as war raged.
Kertzer, Brown University's professor of anthropology, Italian studies, and of anthropology, believes that Pius was motivated by fear. He feared for the church and Catholics living in German-occupied territory if, as he believed, the Axis won. And if the Axis lost, he feared the spread of atheist Communism across Christian Europe.
Kertzer wrote that Pius charted a paralyzingly prudent course to avoid any conflict with the Nazis in order to quell this fear. Direct orders were given to L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, not to report on the atrocities of Germany -- and to ensure seamless cooperation between the Fascist dictatorship under Benito Mussolini within the Vatican's backyard.
This meant that he never spoke out publicly to denounce the SS massacres.
Kertzer concludes Pius wasn't Hitler's Pope -- the provocative title given to the last Pius-era blockbuster film by John Cornwell. Pius' supporters claim that he was not the champion for Jews.
Marla Stone, American Academy of Rome professor of humanities, stated that the book "takes an position between the old poles of historical interpretation."
She explained that Pius XII was a 'Hitler’s Pope', deeply sympathetic to Nazism, eager for a Nazi victory, obsessed with defeating the Soviets at any cost, and a dedicated Antisemite. The other historiographic view held that Pius XII did all he could to aid those under Nazi and Fascist persecution and was only constrained by his circumstances.
Two years ago, Pope Francis opened the Pius XII archives earlier than expected. "The Pope at War" was one of many books that began to be published. Scholars now have full access to all the documentation needed to answer any questions they may have about Pius, and to determine what he did during the Holocaust.
Johan Ickx, the secretariat of the Vatican, wrote one of the first entries to the gate. It was understandable that it praised Pius for his humanitarian efforts to care for Jews fleeing war. The document also recounted the hundreds of files of Jews who came to him asking for help.
Ickx stated that the Jews knew Pius XII was their side, and that he and his staff would do everything possible to save them.
The Rev. The Rev. He cites the example of the Dutch Catholic bishops who opposed the deportation and the Gestapo's reaction: Deporting Catholic converts.
Between 1965 and 1981, the Vatican published an 11-volume set, curated by a team Jesuits. This was to counter criticisms of Pius' silence following the 1963 play "The Deputy," in which it was alleged that he had turned a blindeye to Nazi atrocities.
However, even Monsignor Sergio Pagano (the Vatican's prefect of archives), said that while the initiative was "worthy" at the moment, it now needs to be reworked.
Pagano admitted that Jesuits sometimes looked at only half of a document and left the other half blank. He also said that he had discovered some "strange errors" that are now being revealed. He insisted that there was no attempt to conceal inconvenient truths at the time, but only a lack access to all files and the chaos of trying to work quickly in an archive with limited organization.
Kertzer points out two major omissions from his book. The first was transcripts of secret meetings between Pius (the elected president) and Prince Philipp von Hessen (the personal envoy to Hitler). These secret meetings began soon after Pius' election and continued for two more years. Pius was able to get a direct line to Hitler through the secret channel that was previously unheard of, even by high-ranking Vatican officials.
The second was the complete contents of Monsignor Angelo Dell'Acqua's note to Pius. This response to requests for Pius' to say something on the Italian Jews being roundup that took place in 1943's autumn and winter. Although Dell'Acqua's opinion that Pius shouldn't say anything was known in the past, Kertzer claims the antisemitic slurs used by him to describe Jews were removed from the 11-volume Jesuits text.
L'Osservatore Romano is already swinging against Kertzer’s scholarship. He published a 2020 essay in The Atlantic based on preliminary findings from the archives and branded it "strong affirmations but unproven".
Kertzer cites the Oct. 16, 1943 roundup of Rome's Jews as a key example of the Vatican’s priorities. 1 259 Jews were detained that cold morning and taken to a military barracks close to the Vatican to be sent to Auschwitz.
According to the notes of the envoy, the Vatican's secretariat was granted permission by German authorities to send an official to the barracks to verify that the inside contained people who had been baptized, confirmed, and married in a church.
The secretariat of State compiled lists of Catholics over the next few days and sent them to the German ambassador, asking for his intervention. Some 250 of the 1,259 originally detained people were spared deportation.
Kertzer stated in an interview that "this means for me, and I think it is also a novelty, in the book, that the Vatican participates to the selection of Jews." "Who will live and who will die?"