A flurry of headlines surrounded the Vatican’s release last week of computerized files of more than 2,700 Jews who appealed to Pope Pius XII for help in escaping Nazi persecution during the Holocaust years, reopening wounds that have never healed.
The files, bearing the label “Jews” have been off limits to the public for close to 80 years. The anguished letters to the Vatican, coming from all corners of Europe, open a window on the desperate plight of Jews incarcerated in ghettos or concentration camps or in flight from the Nazis.
The petitions range from pleas for asylum, for help in obtaining visas or passports for transit out of Nazi-occupied territory; for reunification with family members; release from imprisonment; or transfers from a particular concentration camp to a less deadly one.
Other petitions sought financial help or information about deported loved ones. Some came from Jews who had been baptized, writes the Times of Israel. They all appear on the Vatican website as photographic reproductions of the originals, along with an inventory that names all those requesting help, as ordered by Pope Francis, a press release from the Vatican stated.
Pleas Fell On Deaf Ears
In 2020, when this archive was first opened to researchers and historians only, Vatican officials described the documents as “Pacelli’s List,” using the family name of Pope Pius XII who presided over the Vatican during the Holocaust. Critics noted the apparent intent to suggest a parallel to “Schindler’s List”—the story of a wealthy German industrialist who saved hundreds of Jews by employing them in his factories.
But as the newly released documents confirm, Pius Xll was no Schindler. Except in an isolated few cases, Jewish pleas to the Vatican fell on deaf ears. The minuscule number of “approved” requests seen in the documents were for Jews who had converted and been baptized.
This is consistent with what is known about Pope Pius’s general indifference to Jewish suffering and his cozy relationship with the Hitler regime.
The Vatican offered no explanation for why the publication of this file took eighty years, merely stating the digitized version of “the entire Jewish people series” now available on the internet, “will allow the descendants of the [letter-writers] to find traces of their loved ones from many parts of the world.”
Whether a belated humanitarian gesture or a publicity stunt aimed at burnishing Pius’s image so as to put him once again on track for “sainthood”–the Vatican’s move reopened a bitter debate over the pope’s behavior during the Nazi genocide.
Vatican officials have always insisted the pope did everything possible to save Jewish lives during World War II. For years, church officials defended the pope from charges that he refused to denounce the Nazi extermination. They claimed it was difficult during the war to establish the truth of what was going on.
But the preponderance of evidence that surfaced in 2020 from the Vatican archive showed just the opposite; the pope was fully aware of the ongoing slaughter of Jews in Nazi-occupied territories, writes historian and Pulitzer-winning author David Kertzer in his recently published The Pope at War.
Historian John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope, claims that throughout the war there was a stream of papal representatives who came to Rome bringing news of the situation in Europe.
Despite his knowledge of the atrocities against Jews, these experts say, Pius chose to maintain a complicit silence.
Cornwell and Kertzer explore the “mystery” of the pope’s inaction during the Holocaust and his so-called neutrality stance. Kertzer discloses, based on his studies of the Vatican archive, that Pius Xll had a back-door channel to the Hitler regime through a highly placed German connection, and was well-informed about the Final Solution.
Cornwell scrutinizes the pope’s conciliatory stance with Hitler and Hitler’s ally, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
The books’ disclosures together collapse the portrayal of the pope as a great humanitarian leader who helped thousands of Jews escape Hitler.
The Reich Concordat: ‘Pact With The Devil’
Pius XII not only signed the infamous “Reich Concordat” with Hitler in 1933, a treaty of peaceful coexistence between Hitler’s Third Reich and the Catholic church, he remained publicly silent while the Nazis annihilated some 6 million Jews, and after the war, offered no explanation for his refusal to speak out against Nazi Germany, writes Cornwell.
From the very first days of the war, following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, the pope was under great pressure to speak out, at least on behalf of his own religious constituents in heavily Catholic Poland. Yet he refused to condemn the Germans for the invasion and throughout the war voiced no public criticism of Hitler.
Historians view the concordat –regarded by Pius Xll as the linchpin of his papacy–as an immense diplomatic triumph for Hitler. It reality, it was the Vatican’s pact with the devil, Cornwell notes. While it may have gained the church protection from the worst persecution, it came with a staggering price.
It gave Hitler the prestige of a treaty with the Vatican which was tantamount to the church’s sanction of the racist policies and vicious anti-Semitism of National Socialism.
In effect, the Concordant ensured that the pope would never publicly denounce SS massacres, even when Jews were being rounded up right outside the Vatican walls, as they were on Oct. 16, 1943.
That cold morning, 1,259 Jews were arrested and brought to a military barracks near the Vatican. For two days this tormented group languished there without food and water, before being herded onto trains bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
The day after their arrest and internment in the barracks, writes Kertzer, the Vatican received permission from German authorities to send an envoy to the barracks, who ascertained that among the Jews imprisoned there were “some who had already been baptized and confirmed as a member of the Catholic faith,” according to the envoy’s notes.
Vatican officials quickly drew up lists of people the church deemed Catholic based on baptismal records and gave the names to the German ambassador, asking for his intervention. Of the 1,259 people originally arrested, some 250 were spared deportation.
Of the remaining approximately 1,000 shipped to the death camp, only 16 survived.
“For me, what this means, is that the Vatican participates in the selection of Jews,” Kertzer said in the interview. “Who is going to live and who is going to die. The pope knew these captive Jews were going to be sent to their death.”
Thirst for Power
Pius XII`s overriding aim, says historian Cornwell, was to strengthen the power of the papacy. This, together with his loathing of communism, led him to appease the Nazis, ignore the plight of the Jews, and condone other atrocities during World War II.
Pius X II’s efforts to centralize all power in the office of the pope sounded the death toll for Catholic political action in Germany. After the Reich Concordat was signed, the German Catholic Church—a powerful political force that might have thwarted Hitler’s worst barbarities—at the insistence of Rome, fell silent.
In the political vacuum this created, Catholics in the millions joined the Nazi Party, believing that it had the support of the Pope.
“With political protest against the Nazis effectively crippled, the accord between Pius XII and Hitler helped sweep the Nazis to the zenith of their power,” writes Cornwell.
Pope Pius declared the concordat a huge triumph for the Church. In an article in L ‘Osservatore Romano, the Vatican-controlled newspaper, he made a ludicrous claim—that the treaty signified Germany’s total recognition and acceptance of the church’s law.
As was obvious even then, Hitler was the true victor and the Jews were the concordat’s first victims. This could be seen in the way the concordat immediately drew the German church into complicity with the Nazis, by using German priests to disclose Jewish ancestry through the Church’s “attestation bureaucracy.”
The pope, despite the immense power he now wielded, said and did nothing to prevent this. The “attestation” machinery would lead inexorably to the selection of millions destined for the death camps.
On July 14, 1933, after the signing of the treaty, Hitler is recorded as telling his Cabinet that the concordat would be “especially significant in the struggle against international Jewry.” He was claiming that the Catholic Church had publicly given its blessing to the anti-Semitic policies of National Socialism, and this would win international acceptance of the Nazi platform.
How Did Millions Take Part in Mass Murder Still Thinking They Were Good Catholics?
Kertzer notes that all his studies of the Vatican archive fail to yield an answer to a glaring incongruity. “How could so many thousands and hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Germans and their allies take part in the mass murder of Jewish children and the elderly, still thinking they were good Catholics?” he asks.
It is known that some of the most depraved Nazi murderers, such as commandants of the worst death camps, continued to attend church services. Kertzer finds a partial explanation for this phenomenon in that the horrors of the Holocaust did not provoke revulsion in the Vatican, which was imbued with anti-Semitic beliefs about the supposed “evil nature” of Jews.
That mindset, a legacy of centuries of Christian Jew-hatred, was not repudiated until 20 years after the war, when the Roman Catholic Church formally rejected the Catholic doctrine that held Jews responsible for the death of their deity. That ushered in a new era of “ecumenicalism” –inter-faith dialogue—and ultimately the opening of the Pius XII archives.
Kertzer was among the first to have access to the Pius XII archives when the Vatican opened them in 2020. The historian based his most recent book, “The Pope at War,” on his findings.
Under His Very Windows
Kertzer writes about his discovery of two documents that reveal an intense debate playing out in the Vatican in 1943, after the aforementioned incident when the Nazis rounded up 1259 Jews, incarcerating them in a military barracks close to the Vatican grounds.
As the German ambassador to the Vatican reported to Hitler, the roundup occurred under the pope’s “very windows.”
One of the most incriminating documents found by Kertzer is a letter written by the pope’s emissary to Italy’s Fascist regime, the Rev. Pietro Tacchi Venturi, who urged the pope to make a personal protest in person to the German ambassador, to stop the persecutions against Italian Jews.
Venturi suggested that Pius tell the ambassador that violence against the Italian Jews unwarranted because the racial laws enacted by Benito Mussolini, Italy’s dictator, were “sufficient to contain the tiny Jewish minority within its proper limits.”
Pius chose not to heed this advice, as evidenced by his subsequent consultation with the Vatican expert on “Jewish affairs,” Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, recorded in a second document discovered by Kertzer.
His Predecessors Would Look Bad
According to an NPR article quoting Kertzer, Dell’Acqua’s “thoroughly anti-Semitic document” reveals his animus to the Jewish people and an appalling argument for why the pope should not speak out against Hitler’s mass killings.
Dell’Acqua argued that “the Jews have caused problems which threaten a healthy Christian society. So why should the church be speaking out for them when it hasn’t protested against the Nazis killing Christians?”
In an even more twisted rationale, according to Kertzer’s findings, the Vatican official said it would be “too embarrassing” to protest anti-Semitic measures when ruling popes for centuries had confined Jews to ghettos and had forbidden them from practicing professions. Given this history, the pope’s protest against Nazi persecution of Jews would make his predecessors look bad.
Dell’Acqua won the argument and the pope made no effort to help the captive Jews just a stone’s throw away from the Vatican.
“While the Roman Catholic Church in other countries, including France and Germany, has recognized its responsibilities for the demonization of Jews that helped make the Holocaust possible,” noted Kertzer, “neither the Vatican nor the Church in Italy has accepted any responsibility.”
For decades, he noted, apologists have claimed the pope would have done more harm than good by denouncing the Nazis for the slaughter of Jews. “I am amazed at apologists’ claim that having the pope speak out against Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe would have only made Hitler “angrier” at the Jews,” said Kertzer in an interview.
“In what bubble are such apologists living? In a world where Hitler was not determined to rid Europe of all its Jews?
What they also fail to admit, the historian said, “is the extent to which the Germans used the church’s history of Jew-bashing to justify their own anti-Jewish campaigns, and the pope’s failure to ever condemn this.”
“The Vatican can do more than open their archives 80 years after the Holocaust. They can own what they are responsible for,” Kertzer said.
Return the Jewish Children
Pope Pius remained convinced almost to the end of the war that the Nazis would triumph, and he was determined to be on the winning side, historian Kertzer writes. When it became clear that he was wrong and Germany would be defeated, he retooled the Vatican as a humanitarian institution that had nobly sheltered Jews and other targets of Nazi persecution.
Exposing the lie at the heart of this reinvented role, Pius still refused to help identify and locate Jewish orphans inside the church who were being sought by survivors and their families.
Kertzer’s findings in the Vatican’s Holocaust archive encompass the infamous saga of two Jewish orphans, Robert and Gerald Finaly, secretly baptized in France after their parents were deported to Auschwitz. The Finaly brothers were two of the estimated 1,200 French Jewish orphans residing with non-Jewish families or in institutions at the end of the war.
The case dragged on for more than five years, led by Holocaust survivor Moshe Keller, as nuns, monks and a mother superior colluded in keeping the boys hidden. This outrage continued even after court rulings ordered the brothers to be turned over to their surviving relatives. Some of the accomplices were jailed for kidnapping, believing they were performing a holy obligation by ripping the boys from their Jewish birthright.
Invoking a centuries-old doctrine claiming the baptized boys were now Catholics and must not be raised by Jews, French officials continued to defy the courts. But in 1953, media coverage of the affair began turning against the church, taking cues from a French public that was furious at the notion that clerical power could supersede the laws of the state.
The French archbishop of Lyon then involved the pope.
“This is when the Vatican began its behind-the-scenes involvement and over the next months, instructed the French church to resist the law,” Kertzer noted in an interview with The Atlantic. “They also specified that no one should know these orders are coming from the Vatican.”
After five years of see-saw litigation and chasing down the church’s accomplices who were hiding the boys, Moshe Keller, who had sacrificed his business and personal life to devote himself to rescue the brothers, finally achieved what many had told him was impossible.
The French church, seeking to calm a growing international uproar, finally surrendered and turned over the two boys to their surviving relatives.
They were reunited with their aunt and uncle, Judy and Michael Rosner, and their first cousins in Israel where they returned to the Jewish faith, eventually marrying and raising families. They are now in their sunset years, living in retirement, proud great-grandfathers.
Following his discoveries in the archives, Kertzer contacted Robert Finaly, who described to him what it was like when he and Gerald were being shuffled around in hiding in various convents.
“They were made to fear Jews,” Kertzer says. “They weren’t told that their family was trying to reclaim them out of love. They were taught that Jews were cursed, and would live in “eternal torment in purgatory” when they died. These children were understandably scared stiff of Jews and terrified of being Jewish.”
What The Vatican Knew and When They Knew It
In 1942, Pius heard from the Jews themselves about the Nazis massacring the Jewish people in genocidal campaigns across Poland and Russia.
Authoritative information came to the pope from Gerhard Riegner, a German Jewish refugee working in Geneva, Switzerland, at the World Jewish Congress. Riegner sent a memo to Pope Pius XII giving him details of deportations and mass killings of Jews in Catholic countries where the pope had influence. He pleaded with the pope to intervene. What was the Vatican response to his appeal?
According to Riegner, interviewed on “60 Minutes” in the late 1990s, “there was no response from the Vatican. The killing of six million Jews during World War II was not a concern of the Catholic church.”
Riegner, 87 at the time of the interview, acknowledged that Catholics saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the war, but he says these were people acting on their own conscience and not on the instructions of the pope.
Based on her research for Under His Very Windows, historian Susan Zuccotti agrees, adding that Pius did help some Jews but never issued an order of resistance that would have rallied millions of Catholics to offer help and sanctuary to Jews in their midst.
The survival of eighty percent of Italy’s Jews, say historians, is due to several factors. Despite Italy’s alliance with Germany, the Fascist regime led by Benito Mussolini only partly complied with Hitler’s orders to first concentrate and then deport Italian Jews to killing centers in Poland.
Italian military authorities generally resisted participating in mass murder of Jews, and in greenlighting wholesale deportations from Italy. The Fascist leadership often chose not to force the issue.
Italian-occupied areas were therefore relatively safe for Jews between 1941 and 1943. Thousands escaped from German-occupied territory to the Italian-occupied zones of France, Greece, and Yugoslavia. The Italian authorities even evacuated some 4,000 Jewish refugees to the Italian mainland. Incarcerated in southern Italy, these Jewish refugees survived the war.
Nazis in North Italy Begin Deportations
The German occupation of Italy radically shifted the picture for the remaining 43,000 Italian Jews living in the northern half of the country. The Nazis quickly established an SS and police apparatus, with the aim of deporting the Italian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In October and November 1943, German authorities rounded up Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Trieste, and other major cities in northern Italy. They established police transit camps at Fossoli di Carpi, and at Borgo San Dalmazzo, near the French border, to concentrate the Jews prior to deportation.
About 9000 Jews were swiftly deported or murdered.
The Allies invaded Italy in September 1943, defeated the Fascist regime, and forced the new government to sign an armistice agreement. Germans forces continued to occupy parts of north and central Italy but were thrown on the defensive by Allied operations. After a year and a half of fierce battles, German forces surrendered in May 1945.
More than 40,000 Italian Jews survived.