Did Pope Pius XII and the Vatican really do nothing during the Holocaust to help Jews?
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Six times the Pope appealed to the Slovak leader — the Catholic priest Father Tiso — to halt the deportations. After the sixth appeal, on April 7, 1943, the remaining planned deportations were halted.
On April 8, 1943, the day after his final protest to Father Tiso, Pius XII instructed the Vatican’s representative in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to take “all necessary steps” to support those Bulgarian Jews facing immediate deportation. From Istanbul, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), a former Papal Nuncio in Bulgaria, and godfather to the king’s sons, added his voice to that of Pius XII, urging the King of Bulgaria not to deport the Jews of his kingdom. Roncalli also signed transit visas for Palestine for several thousand Slovak Jewish refugees.
On learning of the plight of Jews in concentration camps in Romanian-occupied Transnistria, Angelo Roncalli contacted Pius XII, who interceded at once with the Romanian authorities, and authorized the dispatch of money to those in the camps. When, in 1957, the Israeli government sought to thank Cardinal Roncalli for his help, the Cardinal replied: “In all those painful matters I referred to the Holy See and afterwards I simply carried out the Pope’s orders: first and foremost to save human lives.”
Such is the historical record. It explains why Rabbi Dalin is so disturbed by the continuing assertions that Pius XII did nothing to help Jews, was an anti-Semite, and effectively acted as “Hitler’s Pope.”
AN IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THIS BOOK is the carefully constructed background to Pius XII’s attitude to the Jews, going back to his early days as a young Vatican official. Indeed, from his schooldays, Eugenio Pacelli — as he then was — was friends with a Jewish student, Guido Mendes, later a distinguished Roman physician. As a result of this friendship, Pacelli was the first Pope to have shared a Sabbath dinner in his youth at a Jewish home. In 1915, then aged 39, he helped draft Pope Benedict XV’s powerful papal denunciation of anti-Semitism in Poland, which insisted that the Christian law to love one another “must be observed and respected in the case of the children of Israel.”
In 1919, as Papal Nuncio in Munich, Pacelli defended the Church against the ferocious onslaught of Communism, then — as in Russia two years earlier — spearheaded by individual Jews who had long since abandoned their religious faith. But anti-Communism did not make him pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic, as his critics claim. In May 1922, Pacelli warned the Jewish politician Walter Rathenau of an assassination plot by German anti-Semites. A month later, Rathenau was murdered. In November 1923, five days after Hitler’s failed attempt to seize power in Munich, Pacelli wrote critically to the Vatican about the Nazi movement, and noted with approval the public defense of Munich’s Jews by the city’s Catholic archbishop.
In 1933, while serving as Cardinal Secretary of State — the Vatican’s Foreign Minister — Pacelli negotiated the “Reich Concordat” with Hitler’s Germany, determined to protect German Catholics from the anti-religious policies of the new regime. Dalin makes a convincing argument in favor of the Concordat as a protective measure, stressing that it was not a moral endorsement of Nazism. Indeed, from the outset of the anti-Jewish persecutions in Germany, Pacelli opposed them.
On April 4, 1933, three days after the one-day boycott of Jewish shops, Pacelli instructed the Papal Nuncio in Berlin to warn the regime against the persecution of German Jews, asking the nuncio to become actively involved on behalf of the Jews. Four months later he twice expressed to the British ambassador to the Vatican his “disgust and abhorrence” at the Nazi regime. The ambassador reported to the Foreign Office in London — on August 19, 1933 — that Pacelli “deplored the action of the German Government at home” including “their persecution of Jews.”
In 1936 Pacelli visited the United States. One result of his mission, Dalin notes, was that, at President Roosevelt’s personal request, he prevailed upon Father Charles Coughlin, the “radio priest,” to end his anti-New Deal — and also anti-Semitic — broadcasts. While willing to meet Roosevelt, Pacelli never met Hitler. When, in a much-heralded gesture of friendship, Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome in 1938, Pacelli deliberately absented himself from the city, together with Pope Pius XI.
While Secretary of State, Pacelli made an astonishing 55 protests against Nazi policies, including, repeatedly, the “ideology of race.” In 1938 Pacelli publicly endorsed and repeated the words of Pius XI, that “it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is inadmissible; spiritually we are all Semites.”
So outspoken were Pacelli’s criticisms that Hitler’s regime lobbied against him, trying to prevent his becoming the successor to Pius XI. When he did become Pope, as Pius XII, in March 1939, Nazi Germany was the only government not to send a representative to his coronation.
IMMEDIATELY UPON BECOMING POPE, Pius XII responded to Mussolini’s anti-Jewish legislation by appointing several Jewish scholars who had been dismissed from the university to positions inside the Vatican. Among them was the distinguished Jewish cartographer, Roberto Almagia, a professor at the University of Rome since 1915. On the day after his dismissal, Almagia was appointed director of the geography section of the Vatican library. While working there he completed an exceptional four-volume study of the Vatican’s cartographic holdings.
Another dismissed Jewish scholar, Professor Giorgio Levi della Vida, a world authority on Islam, was also given a job in the Vatican library, cataloguing the Arabic manuscripts.
In his first encyclical as Pope, Pius XII specifically rejected Nazism and expressly mentioned the Jews, noting that in the Catholic Church there is “neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision.” The head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Mueller, commented that the encyclical was “directed exclusively against Germany.” So outspoken was it that the Royal Air Force and the French air force dropped 88,000 copies of it over Germany.
One strong piece of evidence that Dalin produces against the concept of “Hitler’s Pope” is the audience granted by Pius XII in March 1940 to the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the only senior Nazi official to visit the Vatican during his papacy. After Ribbentrop rebuked the Pope for “siding” with the Allies, the Pope responded by reading from a long list of German atrocities and religious persecution against Christians and Jews, in Germany, and in Poland, which Germany had occupied six months earlier.
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