Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Pius XII and the Jews: Greatness dishonored

by Stephen Boyle


Stephen Boyle explains how Pope Pius XII has been unjustly accused and presents the historical reality of all he did to help the Jews during the Holocaust.

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Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, April 1999

• In March of this year a document was published by the Vatican entitled, "We remember: A reflection on the 'Shoah."' The document spoke of the tragedy of the Holocaust, when the Nazi regime attempted to exterminate the Jewish people. It mentioned also the tormented history of relations between Jews and Christians from the earliest times. Referring to the time of the Nazis, regret is expressed for the errors and failures of Catholics to speak out and help Jews in their time of need. Pius XII however was commended for his actions which helped to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.

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 Vatican it was said "we didn't expect a condemnation of Pope Pius XII. But it is not possible that he is portrayed as someone who fought against racism." And it seems that there is a general consensus of opinion that if Pius XII is not to be considered culpable in some way, he certainly could have done a lot more for the Jews in their hour of need. In what follows, I intend to outline just how such a view has no relation to the facts, and dishonors the integrity of a very holy Pope.

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 Rome to present "to the Holy Father, in the name of the Union of Israelite Communities, warmest thanks for the efforts of the Catholic Church on behalf of Jews through Europe during the war." The Pope met about 80 representative of Jewish refugees from various concentration camps in Germany, who expressed "Their great honour at being able to thank the Holy Father personally for his generosity toward those persecuted during the Nazi-fascist period." In 1958, at the death of Pope Pius XII, Israel's Golda Meir sent an eloquent message: "We share in the grief of humanity. When fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the Pope was raised for its victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace."

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 Vatican's nuncios and the whole Catholic Church saved between 700,000 and 850,00 Jews from certain death (during the Nazi period)."

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 Lourdes, he said, "Possessed by superstitions of race and blood. . . their philosophy is essentially opposed to the Christian Faith." The Nazis themselves were well aware of the Pope's work. When he was elected on March 3, 1939, the next day a Nazi paper wrote, "The election of Cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism." In 1942, reporting on Pius XII's Christmas Sermon, the Gestapo reported "In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European order. . . . It is true, the Pope does not refer to the National Socialists in Germany by name, but his speech is one long attack on everything we stand for. . . . Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews." In an excerpt from the diary of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, on July 27, 1943, we read, "Again and again reports reach us that the Pope is feverishly at work during this entire crisis." In 1941 in the editorial of the New York Times for Christmas day we read, "The last tiny islands of neutrality are so hemmed in and overshadowed by war and fear that no one but the Pope is still able to speak aloud. . . . The Pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism . . . he left no doubt that the Nazi war aims are also irreconcilable with his own conception of a Christian peace." The Pope was on record as saying that a Nazi victory could mean the extinction of Christianity in Europe.

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 England, The Representative and in the States as The Deputy was published by a German writer called Rolf Hochhuth. The play portrayed Pius XII as indifferent, cold and heartless, who only had limited concern for those who were being killed. From the beginning the play had its objectors, but for a preface it had a letter from Albert Schweitzer, a respected German doctor who gave up a profitable practice to help the poor in Gabon, Africa. Shortly after, Catholic and Jewish protests to the play were forgotten, and the play turned out to be only the first in a long series of subsequent artistic plays, books, movies and television productions which gave negative presentations of Pius XII's actions. Even prominent Catholic writers started attacking his conduct, and the wheel has turned so much that now Pius XII is even accused of being anti Jewish and pro-Nazi, and that the Nazis welcomed his election as Pope (which we have seen is not true).

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 Germany openly, directly, dramatically, and that it was his duty to issue such a challenge, even if it would have resulted in additional deaths. It is true that Pius did condemn the Nazis, but in an elevated, careful and stylized language of all Vatican statements of the time. There wasn't an out and out condemnation of the Nazis, and it is basically the charge that Pius XII was cowardly, for having "kept silent" instead of speaking out against Hitler.

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 Germany and in all the countries occupied by the Nazis. Pius XII reached the conclusion that an act of protest on his part would not have achieved the slightest result, and indeed would have aggravated the persecution, and that therefore it would be irresponsible of him to do so. A public protest, moreover, would have prevented the Church from carrying out the hidden work of assisting the Jews. This conclusion was shared by many Jews themselves at the time.

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 Germany. The result of such a denunciation was that the measures made against the Jews were made harsher, Hitler being beside himself with fury. The printing presses which printed the document were confiscated by the Gestapo and many Catholics ended up in prison. The Jews, as well as the Catholics, were made to suffer due to such effrontery of the Catholic Church. Worse was to follow.

In 1942 Holland was occupied by the Nazis who began the deportation of the Jews. All the leaders of the churches—Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics—agreed to read a public protest against the deportation of the Jews on a certain Sunday. The plan came to the attention of Dr. Karsten, head of the Gestapo in Holland, who made it clear to all the heads of the churches that, if the protests went forward, the Germans would deport not only the Jews who were so by blood and religion but also the Jews who had converted to Christianity and been baptized. Faced with this threat, all the heads of the churches backed down except those of the Catholic Church. In all the Catholic churches of Holland a letter of protest was read. As a consequence, the deportation of the Jews of blood and religion was accelerated, and the baptized Jews were also deported, including St. Edith Stein and her sister. Thus, as a result of the intervention of the Dutch bishops who refused to retreat before the Nazi threat, many Jewish converts were deported and killed. This stopped in its tracks a public denunciation of Nazism which Pius XII was preparing at the time. As the Jewish historian Lapide later summed it up: "the saddest and most thought-provoking conclusion is that whilst the Catholic clergy of Holland protested more loudly, expressly and frequently against Jewish persecutions than the religious hierarchy of any other Nazi-occupied country, more Jews—some 110,000 or 79% of the total —were deported from Holland to death camps; more than anywhere else in the West." It is also pertinent to note that in the neighboring country of Belgium, the Church saved 70% of Belgium Jews.

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 Berlin and other German cities arrived in Rome and came to the Vatican to persuade Pius XII to refrain from making any protest. The same advice came from the German bishops.

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 Dachau (where many Polish priests were interned), Msgr. Jean Berands, Bishop of Luxembourg. He relates thus in his prison memoirs: "The detained priests trembled every time news reached us of some protest by a religious authority, but particularly by the Vatican. We had the impression that our warders made us atone heavily for the fury these protests evoked. Whenever the way we were treated became more brutal, the Protestant pastors among the prisoners used to vent their indignation on the Catholic priests: 'Again, your big naive Pope and those simpletons, your bishops, are shooting their mouths off... why don't they get the idea once and for all, and shut up. They play the heroes and we have to pay the bill.'"

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 Nuremberg trials by the testimony of senior German officials. As one put it in 1963, "We were convinced that a fiery protest by Pius XII against the persecution of the Jews would have in all probability put the Pope himself and the Curia into extreme danger but . . . would certainly not have saved the life of a single Jew. Hitler like a trapped beast would react to any menace that he felt directed at him, with cruel violence." Shortly before being elected Pope Paul VI, Archbishop Montini, referring to the play which started the shift in attitude against Pope Pius XII, concluded in an article in the Tablet that, "If Pius XII had made a public condemnation of Hitler, Hochhuth could have written another play condemning the Pope for making a grand theatrical gesture which meant certain death for many."

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."

Greatness dishonored

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 Germany I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the case of truth: but no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers, whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom. But they, like the universities were silenced in a few short weeks. Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I had never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration, because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess, that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly." •

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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