Green Room

The Pope’s Jews: Rethinking Pius XII

posted at 12:04 pm on February 16, 2013 by

For much of the post-WWII period, Pope Pius XII came under considerable fire for supposedly appeasing Hitler and the Nazis during the war.  Thirteen years ago, a book titled Hitler’s Pope claimed that Pius XII turned his back on Jews due to anti-semitism.  However, a Protestant researcher granted access to Vatican materials has reached a very different conclusion in a book titled The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis.  The Guardian profiles the book, author Gordon Thomas, and the network the Vatican put in place (via The Anchoress):

Gordon Thomas, a Protestant, was given access to previously unpublished Vatican documents and tracked down victims, priests and others who had not told their stories before.

The Pope’s Jews. . . details how Pius gave his blessing to the establishment of safe houses in the Vatican and Europe’s convents and monasteries. He oversaw a secret operation with code names and fake documents for priests who risked their lives to shelter Jews, some of whom were even made Vatican subjects.

Thomas shows, for example, that priests were instructed to issue baptism certificates to hundreds of Jews hidden in Genoa, Rome and elsewhere in Italy. More than 2,000 Jews in Hungary were given fabricated Vatican documents identifying them as Catholics and a network saved German Jews by bringing them to Rome. The pope appointed a priest with extensive funds with which to provide food, clothing and medicine. More than 4,000 Jews were hidden in convents and monasteries across Italy.

During and immediately after the war, the pope was considered a Jewish saviour. Jewish leaders – such as Jerusalem’s chief rabbi in 1944 – said the people of Israel would never forget what he and his delegates “are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters at the most tragic hour”. Jewish newspapers in Britain and America echoed that praise, and Hitler branded him “a Jew lover”.

However, his image turned sour in the 1960s, thanks to Soviet antagonism towards the Vatican and a German play by Rolf Hochhuth, The Deputy, which vilified the pope, accusing him of silence and inaction over the Jews. It was a trend that intensified with the publication of Hitler’s Pope, a book by John Cornwell.

However, as the Vatican’s secretary of state before the war, the future pope contributed to the damning 1937 encyclical of Pius XI, With Burning Anxiety, and, as Pius XII he made condemnatory speeches that were widely interpreted at the time – including by Jewish leaders and newspapers – as clear condemnations of Hitler’s racial policies. Due to the Vatican’s traditionally diplomatic language, the accusation that Pius XII did not speak out has festered.

Professor Ronald J Rychlak, the author of Hitler, the War and the Pope, said: “Gordon Thomas has found primary sources … He has tracked down family members, original documentation and established what really was a universal perception prior to the 1960s. He’s shown what the people at the time – victims, rescuers and villains – all knew: that Pius XII was a great supporter of the victims of the Holocaust.”

Asked why the Vatican had not made the new material available until now or, where stories were known, disseminated them more widely,Thomas said: “The church thinks across centuries. If there’s a dispute for 50 years, so what?”

Given all this week’s events, the timing of the new book seems propitious, especially for the author and publisher.  History takes its own time to unfold, and often touches off bouts of revisionism and re-revisionism.  Thomas appears to have done his homework, and without an ideological or denominational dog in the fight.  I’ll add this to the List Of Books I Want If I Ever Get Time To Read Books Again.

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