Article Reprint: Iael Nidam-Orvieto, “New Research: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust”

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1, March 2010

Article Reprint: Iael Nidam-Orvieto, “New Research: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.” Yad Vashem Jerusalem Quarterly Magazine, Vol. 56, Tevet 5770, January 2010.

After the long-standing hostility displayed by various Israeli and Jewish authorities towards Pope Pius XII, the following article written by Dr Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Director of the Department of the Righteous Among the Nations, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, and printed in its January 2010 quarterly magazine, is notable:

Dilemmas, silence, active rescue, passivity. These words are often mentioned when dealing with the controversial figure of Pius XII and his papacy during WWII. The debate over his attitude and actions regarding the persecuted Jews of Europe began during the 1960s following the release of the play The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, and continues even today, splitting public opinion as well as generations of scholars.

The critics emphasize that Pius’ main failing was his silence – his lack of a clear and direct condemnation of the annihilation of the Jews by Nazi Germany. Backing up this opinion is his famous radio speech of Christmas 1942, in which the Pope failed to mention the Jews or the Germans, referring more generally to the demise of hundreds of thousands of people “who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or descent, have been consigned to death or to slow decline.”

Scholars bring many explanations for this public silence: political, ideological or even personal. Some claim that Pius was pro-Nazi or antisemitic, even calling him “Hitler’s Pope.” They emphasize the failure of the Pontiff to fulfill his moral duty officially to denounce the Holocaust, or to remind the Catholic community of its ethical responsibilities.

On the other side of the debate are those who argue that Pius’ speeches clearly referred to the Jews and their suffering, and claim that the varied rescue activities carried out by Catholic clergy throughout Europe is clear proof of the inspiration they received from the Pope. These defenders maintain that the lack of a direct confrontation with the Nazi regime was a strategic choice meant to avoid worse catastrophe and enable further clandestine rescue activity.

As much of the relevant source material remains unavailable to historians – the archives of the Vatican for the period of WWII have yet to be opened – explanations on both sides are often based on assumptions or unsystematic documentation. However, over the last few years, certain archives containing relevant material have been opened, leading to an increased interest in the topic. For example, the archive of Pius XI’s papacy has been recently opened to the public, enabling research that sheds new light, among other things, on the policy of the Holy See during the 1930s and on Eugenio Pacelli’s (later Pope Pius XII) operations as Vatican Secretary of State. Documentation revealed in other archives across the world has led to the publication of new books on the topic, as well as important new insights into the existing historiography.

In March 2009, the International Institute for Holocaust Research and the Salesian Theological Institute of Saints Peter and Paul in Jerusalem organized a scholarly workshop at Yad Vashem to discuss the current state of research on Pius XII and the Holocaust.

The academic discussion was based on specific questions presented to specialized scholars from around the world expressing the range of opinions on Pius XII. The closed forum enabled a dynamic and open discussion, soon to be released as a pathbreaking publication on the topic.

One of the most innovative pieces of research presented at the workshop dealt with the rescue of Jews in Italy, especially in Rome. Thanks to vast material recently opened to some researchers, new insights were presented as to refuge activities of the “religious houses,” suggesting a more direct involvement of the Holy See, albeit one that also aided evacuees, orphans, partisans and soldiers of all nationalities, in the name of Christian charity.

A topic that revealed the gap between the participants concerned converted Jews who, as is shown in published documentation, were afforded much help by the Vatican. Since the Nazis considered them still Jewish, should the help given to those who converted be considered as aiding Jews? Or must one claim that this assistance is dubious, considering that those Jews who chose not to abandon their faith were less likely to receive the help of the Vatican?

Another debate was whether Pius XII was responsible for actions taken by clerics, both in the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust and in its aftermath, during the escape of Nazi criminals from Europe along the so-called “ratlines.” If Pius XII was involved in, encouraged or even initiated one activity, does that mean that he had equal involvement in the other?

What is undeniable is that the new documentation enables scholars to better understand the Pope’s background and opinions vis-à-vis Nazism and antisemitism. Much clearer is his aversion to National Socialism, which he considered one of the worst heresies of the modern age. While his upbringing was rooted in traditional anti-Judaism, his branding as an antisemite must be called into question.

Several scholars have suggested a new approach, one that views the complexity of the responses and how the Pope’s operations were understood and accepted by his followers and his contemporaries – both the Allied and Axis powers. The workshop was certainly the first step towards more open and sincere academic collaboration on the topic, albeit many questions remain unresolved and his legacy controversial. Only the full opening of the Vatican Archives and continued cooperation among the scholarly community will enable a more comprehensive understanding of Pius XII and the Holocaust.