Did Pope Pius XII and the Vatican really do nothing during the Holocaust to help Jews?
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News of the start of the round-ups was brought personally to the Pope early on the morning of October 16 by an Italian Catholic princess, Enza Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, who had been alerted by a Jewish friend. Having received the princess early that morning, the Pope immediately instructed the Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal Maglione, to protest to the German ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsacker (a former German Deputy Foreign Minister).
Maglione did so that morning, making it clear to the ambassador that the deportation of Jews was offensive to the Pope. In urging Weizsacker “to try to save these innocent people,” Maglione added: “It is sad for the Holy Father, sad beyond imagination, that here in Rome, under the very eyes of the Common Father, that so many people should suffer only because they belong to a specific race.”
Following Maglione’s appeal, Weizsacker gave orders for a halt to the arrests. To protect those who were thus still in their homes from a possible German reversal of the halt to the deportations, the Pope gave instructions for the Vatican to be opened to Rome’s Jews, and for the convents and monasteries of Rome to provide hiding places, or provide false identification papers.
As a result of this papal initiative, in Rome a larger percentage of the Jews were saved than in any other city then under German occupation. Of the 5,715 Roman Jews listed by the Germans for deportation, 4,715 were given shelter in more than 150 Catholic institutions in the city; of these, 477 were given sanctuary within the confines of the Vatican itself.
In reporting on the Maglione-Weizsacker meeting to London two weeks later, the British ambassador noted: “Vatican intervention thus seems to have been effective in saving numbers of these unfortunate people.” Of the thousand deportees of October 16, only ten survived. The remaining four-fifths of Rome’s Jews were alive at liberation.
A footnote to these events: fifty-one years after Weizsacker’s decisive intervention, his son Richard was the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany to visit Israel, and there to express his shame at what Germany had done to the Jews in the Nazi era.
AS THE GERMANS began deporting Jews from other parts of northern Italy, the Pope opened his summer estate at Castel Gandolfo to take in several thousand (women had their babies in the Pope’s apartment) and authorized monasteries throughout the German-occupied areas of Italy to do likewise. As a result, while the Germans managed to seize and deport a further 7,000 Italian Jews to their deaths, 35,000 survived the war — one of the highest ratios of those rescued of any country.
There was to be a further decisive papal rescue action after the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. Under the leadership of the Pope’s senior representative in Budapest, the Papal Nuncio Angelo Rotta, the diplomats of eight neutral countries represented in the Hungarian capital — including the Swedish ambassador and his staff, prominent among them Per Anger and Raoul Wallenberg — organized a city-wide rescue scheme.
Under Rotta’s energetic lead, an “International Ghetto” was established in the northern section of the city, in which more than 40 safe houses were established, marked by the Vatican emblem, and other national emblems. Into these safe houses — a series of tall, modern apartment buildings — 25,000 Jews found refuge, and survived. Elsewhere in Budapest, Roman Catholic institutions hid several thousand more Jews in their cellars and attics.
The influence and authority of Pius XII was wide-ranging. In the port of Fiume, the Italian police chief, Giovanni Palatucci — the nephew of an Italian bishop, Giuseppe Palatucci — together with his uncle, saved 5,000 Jews from deportation during the German occupation of the port. They did so by providing the Jews with false identity papers, enabling them to gain safety in the bishop’s diocese in southern Italy. For helping the Jews of Fiume, Giovanni Palatucci was arrested by the SS and sent to Dachau, where he was executed.
Pius XII took a direct part in sending money to support the Jewish refugees from Fiume. He also sent considerable sums of money to other rescuers of Jews in Italy, and to the French Capuchin monk, Father Pierre-Marie Benoit, from whose monastery in Marseille several thousand French Jews were smuggled across the borders of neutral Spain and Switzerland.
AMONG THE LEADING Roman Catholic clergymen who helped save Jews was Archbishop Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. When the government of Israel asked him, in 1955, to accept an award for his rescue work during the Holocaust, Montini replied: “All I did was my duty. And besides I only acted upon orders from the Holy Father.”
When the deportation of 80,000 Jews from Slovakia to Auschwitz began in March 1942, Pius authorized formal written protests by both the Vatican secretary of state and the papal representative in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.
When a second round of deportations began in Slovakia the following spring, Pius wrote a letter of protest to the Slovak government. Dated April 7, 1943, it was outspoken and unambiguous. “The Holy See has always entertained the firm hope,” Pius wrote, that the Slovak government “would never proceed with the forcible removal of persons belonging to the Jewish race. It is, therefore, with great pain that the Holy See has learned of the continued transfers of such a nature from the territory of the republic.”
That pain was “aggravated further,” the Pope wrote in this same letter, since it appeared “that the Slovak Government intends to proceed with the total removal of the Jewish residents of Slovakia, not even sparing women and children. The Holy See would fail in its Divine Mandate if it did not deplore these measures, which gravely damage man in his natural right, mainly for the reason that these people belong to a certain race.”
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