Pius XII and the Jews: Greatness Dishonored
In March of this year a document was published by the
Commendation criticized by Jewish groups and others
This commendation did not go unnoticed by the press and the Jewish community itself. Indeed the Israeli parliamentary committee asked that there may be a halt to the process which is going on at the moment to consider Pius XII as "blessed." They commented that he "during the time of the holocaust was silent in the face to the horrors." Speaking of the document from the
In his lifetime the Pope was commended for his actions
The first point to be made is that accusations concerning Pius XII's conduct during the war were never made when he was alive. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that no Pope in history received as many manifestations of affection from the Jewish community as Pius XII. The expressions of thanks, of appreciation and of affectionate respect on the part of numerous Jewish organizations are so numerous they could fill an entire book. There is only room here to quote a few. A group of Roman Jews organized a demonstration of gratitude to the Holy Father and desired to offer him a rich parchment. "I yield to the requests of not a few Jewish men who want to see the Holy Father and thank him for his very great work of kindness in their regard" wrote Msgr. Montini (the future Paul VI) of the request of Dante Almansi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. The American Jewish Committee and the Committee to Save the Jews of Europe sent letters to Pope Pius XII after the war expressing their profound appreciation for what he had done and was doing on behalf of the Jews. The grand Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Jerusalem sent a message to the Apostolic Delegate in Istanbul, Msgr. Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) to express his gratitude for the actions taken by Pius XII and the Holy See on behalf of the Jews. The future Pope said "I only carried out Pius XII's orders." Dr. Joseph Nathan, who represented the Italian Hebrew Commission, stated, "Above all, we acknowledge the supreme Pontiff and the religious men and women who, executing the directives of the Holy Father, recognised the persecuted as their brothers, and with effort and abnegation, hastened to help us, disregarding the terrible dangers to which they were exposed." Dr. Leo Kubowitski, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress came to
And I could go on, but I hope the point has been sufficiently made. After their horrific experiences in the war, we hear nothing but gratitude from the Jews for the work of Pius XII to alleviate their sufferings. Indeed, in the climate of the 1960s, when the criticisms of the actions of Pius XII during the war began, significantly we have prominent Jews defending him. Emile Pinchas Lapide, a Jewish diplomat and historian, defending the Pope's actions during the war wrote, " Pius XII, the Holy See, the
Pius XII and his awareness of the evils of Nazism
Pius XII was well aware of the evils of Nazism long before he become Pope in 1939.
As early as August 1933 he reported to a British diplomat that Hitler had initiated a "reign of terror to which the whole nation was subjected," a reign of terror which paled into insignificance compared to the horrors that were to come. In 1934, speaking about Nazism at
The origins of the change in attitude to Pius XII's actions during the war
With what has been said so far, it would seem inconceivable that the actions of Pius XII could be seen as inadequate, even cowardly. Why is there general consensus now from some Jews and others, including prominent Catholic writers, that Pius XII could have done a lot more?
The strange shift in attitude towards the Pope occurred precisely in 1963. It was then that a play, entitled in
The "silence" of Pius XII in the war
Many accusations, including one in the original play which instigated the sea change in attitude, have with subsequent research been shown to be untrue. But there is one issue that keeps coming up time and time again which does need to be addressed, but in a more balanced way than has been done by The Representative and most works after that. The issue is that of the "silence" of Pius XII in the face of the Nazi extermination of the Jews. The charge is that with the attempted extermination of the Jews by the Nazis, Pius XII evaded his responsibility to challenge
Would public protest by the Pope have saved Jews from persecution?
It is true that the Pope decided not to make a public protest. With a little more research, we see that the motives were not born out of cowardice, but that the decision was made due to the concern for innocent life. Would a public protest against Hitler save Jews from persecution? At the time there was clear evidence that a protest would worsen the situation of the Jews and of the Catholic Church in
The silence of Pius XII explained
The facts that persuaded the Holy See not to intervene were various and sad, but three events stand out. Before the war a ferocious denunciation of Nazism by Pius XI was published in 1937, being distributed in great secrecy to priests and read from all the pulpits of
The most conclusive evidence that a public condemnation would have been counter-productive comes from the Jews themselves. Many Jews counseled the Pope to refrain from a public denunciation. Priests who preached often against the Nazi regime, when consulting the Jewish community, were persuaded that it was wiser to keep silent. Why? Because a sermon would have served no purpose, but would have brought certain death for many. Hundreds of Jews who had fled
Evidence of what might have been the result of a public protest by the Pope
What is at question is the point of a public protest to Hitler, a madman who would only react in one way, cruelly and without remorse. The Pope found it intolerable that someone at a safe distance from the torment should thoughtlessly add to the sufferings of those caught therein. The result of the Bishops of Holland's denunciation is a powerful witness to what might have been the effect of a public protest. But one can outline further evidence of how a public protest would have affected those being persecuted by Hitler. There is the powerful testimony given to us by an inmate of
Further evidence of how disastrously counter-productive a public protest would have been is shown when we consider the reply of Archbishop Sapieha of Krakow to the Pope to letters of support which were to be given to the faithful: "We much deplore that we cannot communicate your Holiness' letters to the faithful, but that would provide a pretext for fresh persecution and we already have those who are victims because they were suspected of being in secret communication with the Apostolic see." In 1942 the archbishop decided to write a lengthy letter to the Pope with the full horrific details of the Nazi persecution of the Church. He handed it to a priest, but the priest had scarcely left him when he dispatched an urgent messenger to overtake him and ask him to burn it for fear that it would fall into the hands of the Gestapo, who "would have shot all the bishops and possibly others." The Pope could only follow the example of bishops on the ground. It is a very simple but fundamental conclusion that the Pope had come to, one that was borne out by the facts. If he did speak out, things would only get worse. This was confirmed at the
The Pope's concern for the Jews
Due to limitations of space compared to the facts on offer, what I have provided above is only the slightest summary of a defense of the Pope's actions during the war, and of his reason not to make a public protest. Pius XII was sensitive to his position. Innocent lives were at stake, and no thoughtless bravado action would be made if it just added to the sufferings of those caught therein. But the decision not to publicly condemn Hitler in no way diminished the concern of the Pope for those who were being persecuted and killed. It was a difficult decision for the Pope to take. Fr. Scavizzi, an Italian priest, knew of the conditions in the camps and told the Pope of them, telling him especially about the Jews. The Pope broke down and wept bitterly. "Please tell everyone, everyone you can" he said to the priest "that the Pope suffers agony on their behalf. Many times I have thought of scorching Nazism with the lightning of excommunication and of denouncing to the civilized world the criminality of the extermination of the Jews. We have heard of the very serious threat of retaliation, not on our person but on the poor sons who are under Nazi domination. We have received through various channels urgent recommendations that the Holy See should not take a drastic stand. After many tears and many prayers I have judged that a protest of mine not only would fail to help anyone, but would create even more fury against the Jews, multiplying acts of cruelty. Perhaps my solemn protest would have earned me praise from the civilized world, but it would also have brought more implacable persecution of the Jews. . . . I love the Jews."
In this issue, in the light of the evidence available, what has surprised me is the lack of the defense in the media of Pius XII's actions in the war. There is so much evidence which is contrary to the general myth of the "cowardice" of the Pope that I feel a more robust defense of such a holy man should be made wherever possible. While we all know of Schindler's List, due to the film, and know of the many Jews he saved, hopefully one day in the near future the tide will turn and Pope Pius XII will be recognized for what he was, a great compassionate Pope whose concern was not for his own reputation, but for the lives of all innocent people, and against the most evil of adversaries, was able to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. We are talking here of greatness dishonored. And in the history of this debate it has not only been interested Catholics who have defended the Pope, but also many Jews who have wished to uphold the good name of Pius XII and defend his actions at this torrid time in their history.
I shall end this article with the wonderful witness to the stand made by Pius XII and the Church against Nazism both before and during the war written by the renowned scientist Albert Einstein, in the American magazine Time, on December 23, 1940. "Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in
1 Pius XII, Greatness Dishonoured, A documented study, is a book by Michael O'Carroll on this topic (Laetare Press, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 1980). Other sources consulted for this article include the excellent lead story in the June 1997 edition of the magazine Inside the Vatican (New Hope, Kentucky 40052 USA): the article by Fr. Pierre Blet S.J., "Myth vs Historical Fact," to be found in the English edition of L'Osservatore Romano, N.17-29 April 1998; Why I became a Catholic, by Eugenio Zolli, Former Chief Rabbi of Rome (Roman Catholic Books, Post Office Box 2286, Fort Collins, CO 80522); Pius XII and the Holocaust (A Catholic League Publication, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1988); P. Lapide, The Last Three Popes and the Jews, (London, Souvenir Press, 1967).
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