The Vatican's intention to expedite the procedure for canonizing Pius XII have sent shockwaves through the Jewish world. Israeli Minister Herzog calls it "unacceptable"

Pope Pius XII, by Wim van de Plas

The silence of the shepherd

PUBLISHED IN |  Oct 24, 08

In the second half of October 1943, several thousand of Rome’s Jews were arrested by the German SS and incarcerated in a detention camp. The road leading from the Jewish ghetto on the banks of the Tiber to the Collegio Militare ran by the edge of St. Peter’s Square. If Pope Pius XII had looked out the window of his residence, he would have seen the German trucks taking away the Jews, who would never return.

But despite the entreaties of the Jewish community and of British and American diplomats, Pope Pius XII, who was also the bishop of Rome, refused to speak out. On October 19, when the freight train packed with Rome’s Jews passed through the city of Padua on its way north, the local bishop urged the Pope “to take urgent action.” However, Pius XII remained mum. Three days later, 1,060 of Rome’s Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. Only 15 of the transport’s deportees survived the war.

The SS was worried that the Pope – the supreme spiritual authority in the Italian capital and throughout the Catholic world – would try to prevent the deportation of the Jews. So relieved were the Germans after the operation that in its wake, the German ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsaecker (the father of Richard von Weizsaecker, who would become Germany’s president in 1984), sent the following cable to Berlin: “The Pope, although under pressure from all sides, has not permitted himself to be pushed into a demonstrative censure of the deportation of the Jews of Rome. Although he must know that such an attitude will be used against him by our adversaries … he has nonetheless done everything possible even in this delicate matter in order not to strain relations with the German government and German authorities in Rome … it may be said that this matter, so unpleasant as it regards German-Vatican relations, has been liquidated.”

This episode, described in detail in John Cornwell’s 1999 book “Hitler’s Pope” (from which the translation of the cable and a quotation later in the article are taken), is only one example of what historians refer to as “the moral failure of Pope Pius XII” in the face of the Holocaust of European Jewry. The reports published in recent weeks about the Vatican’s intention to expedite the procedure for canonizing Pius XII have flabbergasted historians and sent shockwaves through the Jewish world. The fact is that, despite the considerable warming of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people in the past 40 years, one significant stumbling block continues to weigh on those ties: the Church’s role in preparing the ground for the Holocaust and the subsequent behavior of its leader at the time, Pius XII.

The agreement with Hitler

The concordat with Germany, 1933 (photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Concordat with Germany, 1933 (photo: German Bundesarchiv)

The first historian to raise questions about the Pope’s behavior during the war was Saul Friedlaender. In 1964, a year after the appearance of German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” on the same subject, Friedlaender published his groundbreaking study “Pius XII and the Third Reich.” Since then, literature on the subject has grown immensely, painting a very gloomy picture of “Christ’s deputy on earth.”

Eugenio Pacelli was born in Rome in 1876 and served as the head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958. In 1933, six years before his ascension to the papacy, he played a crucial part in negotiating an agreement, known as a concordat, between the Vatican and Nazi Germany, which accorded formal and international recognition to Adolf Hitler’s regime. When the first reports arrived about the deportation and murder of European Jewry, countless Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and organizations pleaded with the Pope to call on Europe’s tens of millions of Catholics not to cooperate with the Nazis.

Finally, in a 1942 Christmas sermon broadcast by Vatican radio, the Pope issued an anemic statement, referring to “hundreds of thousands, who without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction.” The following day, American diplomats told the Holy See that no one understood that the declaration referred to the Jews and that it could be interpreted as being about political prisoners or war captives. Yet, Pius XII replied that he did not intend to elaborate on the statement.

The head of the Catholic Church could have exercised a crucial influence in regions that were home to large concentrations of Catholics, particularly in those areas whose leadership was intertwined with the Church’s hierarchy. This was the case, for example, in fascist Croatia, headed by Ante Pavelic; in pro-German Slovakia, led by the Catholic priest Jozef Tiso; and in Hungary, led by Admiral Miklos Horthy. In none of these regions did Pius XII take direct action to rescue Jews. When he wrote to Horthy on June 25, 1944, he once again invoked the same vague formulation he had used in the Christmas sermon, refraining from mentioning the Jews by name. It is important to note that at this stage, in the summer of 1944, the scale of the Holocaust was already quite clear, and only Hungarian Jewry had thus far been spared in Europe.

“The fact that Pius XII did not issue an explicit call for the rescue of the Jews probably stemmed from political interests,” Friedlaender, professor of history at UCLA, told Haaretz this week by telephone from his home in Los Angeles. “According to all our documents, Pius XII was deliberately cautious until the last minute, and even when he said something, it was extremely vague. From the first moment, his policy toward Nazi Germany was one of conciliation. He viewed Soviet Bolshevism as the principal danger to the status of the Church and did not want to take any step that might weaken Germany even from a psychological or propaganda viewpoint. He thought a tremendous war of containment was being waged against Bolshevism, and that was his primary concern.

“According to the information we have,” Friedlaender continued, “Pius XII does not appear to merit canonization, even by the Church’s criteria. One can, after all, view the Vatican as a purely political institution and say that Pius XII acted according to its policy interests, and that the annihilation of the Jews was only a secondary matter for him. But if the Pope and the Vatican are supposed to represent universal values, his behavior constituted a moral failure. Canonization is not conferred in the wake of political success but for moral stature. And in the case of Pius XII, he invoked political considerations at the most critical juncture [in history] and forgot that the Church claims that the Pope is Jesus’ deputy on earth.”

Over the years, the Vatican has advanced a series of apologetic arguments to account for the silence of Pius XII. It has claimed, for example, that he did not speak out in public but worked secretly to rescue Jews. Another argument is that by speaking out the Pope would only have put the Jews and their Christian rescuers at even greater risk. Friedlaender rejects such claims. “No one remembers any document in which the Pope called on the faithful to rescue Jews,” he says. “The bishop of Berlin implored him to issue a call for the rescue of Jews, but he refused. To the best of our knowledge, no directive about the Jews came out of Rome. I would urge them to make available all the documents in the Vatican archives for academic perusal, so we can get the full picture. But those archives will not be opened anytime soon, because they apparently contain things they do not want professional researchers to see.”

No visit to Yad Vashem?

Isaac Halevi Herzog

Isaac Halevi Herzog

At the beginning of this month, Pope Benedict XVI said he sincerely hoped the process of beatifying Pius XII (the step preceding sainthood) would be completed. This week, Father Peter Gumpel, the Church official in charge of the canonization procedure, stated that Benedict XVI would not visit Israel so long as the museum of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem contains a caption stating that the response of Pius XII to the Holocaust is a matter of controversy.

An official Vatican spokesman later claimed that Gumpel had spoken in his name only and that a visit by the Pope to Israel is not contingent on the text being changed. In the meantime, the spotlight shifted to Yad Vashem for its response. “In a very peculiar way,” the chief historian of Yad Vashem, Prof. Dan Michman, told Haaretz this week, “it appears that the Catholic Church now wants to obtain vindication for the character of Pius XII from the Jews, of all people.”

Michman, who is also the chairman of the Finkler Institute for Holocaust Research at Bar-Ilan University, said he was not speaking on behalf of Yad Vashem, but agreed to say that “the museum makes plentiful reference to the rescue of Jews by Catholics and representatives of the Vatican in Europe. The list of the Righteous Among the Nations includes a great many monks and activists in Christian associations. In Belgium and Holland, the bishops were the central elements in the rescue attempts. The thing is that nowhere is there any evidence that the Pope instructed Catholics to do this.

“In principle,” he added, “It is not our business whom the Catholic Church canonizes. They can canonize Heinrich Himmler, too” – referring to the chief of the SS and the Gestapo – “but if they want Jewish historians or Yad Vashem to vindicate Pius XII, the first thing they must do is open the archives for professional perusal and independent research.”

Even more outspoken in his comments to Haaretz this week was Isaac Herzog, the minister of the Diaspora, society and the fight against anti-Semitism, and the government’s liaison with the Christian communities. “From a Jewish viewpoint and in the eyes of everyone who is familiar with the historical details, the intention to canonize Pius XII is unacceptable,” Herzog says. “Throughout the Holocaust, the Vatican was well aware of what was going on in Europe, but there is no evidence of any step taken by the Pope, as obliged by the status of the Holy See. The attempt to canonize him constitutes exploitation of forgetfulness and of lack of awareness. Instead of behaving according to the injunction ‘Do not stand aloof while others are in peril,’ the Pope was silent and perhaps even worse.”

Herzog is drawing on first-hand testimonies left by his grandfather, Isaac Halevy Herzog, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Palestine during the period of the Holocaust. A few months after the outbreak of World War II, Isaac Halevy Herzog and his son, Rabbi Jacob Herzog, tried to contact international religious leaders to determine how European Jewry could be aided. Following Herzog’s intervention with the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the latter instructed that a declaration to rescue Jews be made in all the churches in the Balkans. A parallel approach by Herzog to the Vatican was unsuccessful.

Herzog made a more concentrated effort in the spring of 1944, with regard to Hungarian Jewry. He asked the Vatican to extend its protection to the hundreds of thousands of Jews in Hungary, the largest Jewish community then in Europe. The Pope refused. Herzog was told by the Vatican that, “If Budapest were to discover that Rome is amenable to Jewish influence, the rescue efforts will only be hurt.” A request by the chief rabbi for a secret meeting with the Pope was also turned down, on the grounds that the many German journalists in Rome were liable to report the meeting to Berlin. Minister Isaac Herzog notes that his father, Chaim Herzog, Israel’s late president, wrote in his autobiography that the Pope was not ready to help and was actually hostile.

Isaac Halevy Herzog did meet with Pius XII after the war, in February and June 1946, in the course of a lengthy sojourn in Europe. The major item on the agenda was the demand for the restoration to the Jewish fold of tens of thousands of children who had been sheltered in convents and Christian orphanages during the war. “The two spoke Latin, English and French in their meeting,” Herzog said this week. “My grandfather asked the Pope to solve the problem of the Jewish children. He asked him to issue a pastoral letter instructing the priests and nuns to release the children. But it was not to be. My grandfather had to travel from place to place himself in order to discover which children were Jews.

“Instead of atoning and promising to solve the problem of the children, the Pope was silent. Historians who described the audience noted that after leaving the Vatican, my grandfather went to a mikveh [ritual bath] in Rome to purify himself. Allow me not to try to guess why it was that precisely after that meeting he felt such a powerful need for purification.”