The pope who put his church first — even with the Holocaust on his doorstep

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The pope who put his church first — even with the Holocaust on his doorstep

Historian David Kertzer on how the hotly anticipated opening of the Vatican's wartime archives failed to absolve Pius XII over his failure to act

Michael Daventry is Jewish News’s foreign and broadcast editor

Pope Pius XII (Photo: REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)
Pope Pius XII (Photo: REUTERS/Osservatore Romano)

The moment had been decades in the making, so David Kertzer made sure he was up early. It was the day that the Vatican was finally to release papers that had been kept secret since the Second World War.

These were documents that would help us better understand Pius XII, the pope who was in office as genocide raged across Europe and has long been criticised for failing to do more to prevent it.

Yet for Kertzer, things were about to go very wrong.

The historian and Pulitzer-winning author has spent much of career researching politics, religion and the papacy, so he was there at the Vatican at 8.30am on the very date Pope Francis had announced the archives would open.

But it was 6 March 2020, just as a certain pandemic was taking hold in Europe.

“I worked there furiously for the first week when that Friday they announced, while I’m there, that they’re about to close them until further notice due to Covid. Italy was at the time the epicentre of Covid in Europe and then there was a lockdown.”

He had no choice but to return the United States. It would be another three months before he could resume work through a Rome-based colleague, Roberto Benedetti.

Their findings, which Kertzer draws out in his new book The Pope at War, describe a pontiff who was often indecisive and turned frequently to his senior aides — aides who advised him to stay out of the Holocaust, even while Jews were being rounded up on his doorstep.

The Vatican has long contended that Pius worked behind the scenes to save lives during the Holocaust, but the archives indicate those efforts were mostly to save Jews who had converted to Catholicism or who had at least one Catholic parent.

On 16 October 1943, as Jews across Italy faced mass deportation to Nazi death camps, a group of 1,260 was held by the SS at a military college building just outside the Vatican City.

The papers show that Pius wrangled over whether he should at least issue a diplomatic protest and publicly complain to the German ambassador. Ultimately, he did not.

What the Vatican did do was to comb the records of those 1,260 people to see if any had been baptised, or at least were married to confirmed Christians and had promised to raise their children that way. The exercise meant that by the time the group was taken to their deaths in a concentration camp, they numbered closer to 1,000.

An image depicting Pope Pius XII is displayed at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem (Photo: Reuters/Yonathan Weitzman)

Some have attempted to argue episodes like these showed the pontiff was a victim of circumstance, powerless to change the course of history, and did what little he could to confront a Nazi war machine.

But no, Kertzer says, Pius does bear a lot of responsibility for the Church’s wartime failures: “Who was it who was carrying out the Holocaust? They were people who thought they were Christian. I mean, they didn’t think they were pagans.

“And of those about half, roughly, were Roman Catholics and one can only imagine that in justifying how they were murdering little Jewish babies they were thinking in part of what the parish priest had told them about the dangers of Jews seeking world domination.”

Given these perceptions it is perhaps not surprising, he says, that antisemitism permeated the church in Rome during the war, although it is disappointing that the Vatican has failed since then to come to terms with what happened.

But he adds that some national Catholic churches have begun to admit this part of their history. And it is because of the current pontiff, Francis, that scholars have been able to go through Pius’s papers at all.

David Kertzer’s ‘The Pope at War’ was published in the US last week

Last week Dani Dayan, the chairman of Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, recounted how he met the pope and “thanked him for opening the archives of the Vatican of the relevant period of the Holocaust for our researchers. He said very clearly that to open the archives is to make justice.”

So what is Kertzer’s verdict on Pope Pius — was he an antisemite?

“Pius XII was part of an environment in which antisemitism was common and he partook in that. He didn’t have particularly great experience dealing with Jews, [although] he met some.

“I don’t believe it was antisemitism per se that’s the main explanation for silence during the Holocaust; I think it was his priority for protecting the institutional church as he saw it.

“But, certainly, he was part of an environment in which there were many negative views about Jews.”

Oxford University Press has not yet announced a UK publication date for David Kertzer’s ‘The Pope at War’, but the US edition — which was published by Random House last week — is widely available from British retailers online

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