Thursday, May 23, 2024

Yad Vashem Softens Criticism of WWII Pope

The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Yerushalayim has updated a panel in its display describing the actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II and criticizing his failure to speak out against the Nazi persecution of Jews. The display's criticism of the Pope has served as an irritant in the delicate diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican. While the original criticism of Pius XII remains, the added material in the panel raises some points that defend his wartime actions.
The issue is once again relevant because of a current effort by the church to canonize Pius XII as a saint. Pius served as pope from 1939 to 1958. Many Holocaust scholars claim that he could have and should have done more, as the leader of the Catholic Church, to protest against the systematic slaughter of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The original display at Yad Vashem listed a number of occasions when Pius XII failed to protest the slaughter of Europe’s Jews. The new panel adds the opinion of Vatican defenders who claim that the policy of church “neutrality” adopted by Pius XII during the war helped other members of the church quietly save many Jewish lives. But church critics insist that many more lives would have been saved if the church had openly come out against the Nazi persecution of the Jews while it was taking place.


“This is an update to reflect research that has been done in the recent years and presents a more complex picture than previously presented,” said a statement issued by Yad Vashem, specifically denying that it was the result of Vatican pressure.


Efforts to clarify the issue have been hobbled by the Vatican’s continued refusal to open its archives to historians, although it has made available some selected documents from that era.


In the past, Yad Vashem has said that the text of the panel would only be changed if new evidence is produced showing that Pius XII’s actions during that era had been misrepresented. In unveiling the new panel, Yad Vashem said that it reflects new research that “has clarified certain issues, while still leaving many questions open.”


Antonio Franco, the papal envoy in Israel, who threatened to boycott a Yad Vashem memorial event in 2007 to protest against the original panel’s criticism of Pius XII, called the revised panel text a “positive evolution.”


For many years, the Vatican refused to recognize Israel. It finally did so in 1993, three years after John Paul II became the first pope to visit. The current pope, Benedict XVI, visited Israel in 2009.




The old panel said that Pius XII was “active” in obtaining a treaty with Germany to protect the church’s rights “even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime.” The new panel deletes the latter phrase and notes that the Reichskonkordat with Germany, which Pius XII signed in July 1933 as the Vatican’s secretary of state, represented the policy of his predecessor, Pius XI.


The new panel also fails to note that just after he became pope, Pius XII cancelled publication of a letter denouncing racism and anti-Semitism that had been prepared for his predecessor.


Other criticisms remain. The panel accuses Pius XII of declining to sign the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of Jews and said that he had failed to take actions to prevent the October 1943 transport of Jews from Rome to Auschwitz. The cattle trucks filled with doomed Italian Jews actually drove past the Vatican on the way to the train station while the Pope remained silent.


Throughout the war, Pius XII never condemned Hitler or the Nazis by name, or publicly mentioned the suffering of the Jews, though many people pleaded with him at the time to speak out. The new panel also notes that Pius XII mentioned the deaths of hundreds of people during a 1942 radio address but did not specifically identify them as Jews.


“The pope’s critics claim that his decision to abstain from condemning the murder of the Jews by Nazi Germany constitutes a moral failure. The lack of clear guidance left room for many to collaborate with Nazi Germany, reassured by the thought that this did not contradict the Church’s moral teachings,” the panel says.


“His defenders maintain that this neutrality prevented harsher measures against the Vatican and the Church’s institutions… thus enabling a considerable number of secret rescue activities,” the new text on the panel adds.


The still unanswered questions about the actions of Pius XII during World War II have prompted some Jews to ask the Vatican to suspend the process of granting him sainthood until all the relevant documents in the Vatican archives are made available to scholars.



Facing the Test

  Parshas Behar opens with the mitzvah of Shmittah. The discussion of the topic begins by stating that Hashem told these halachos to Moshe Rabbeinu

Read More »

My Take on the News

    Five Soldiers Die in Friendly Fire Mishap Tensions are running high in Israel, and even if life seems to be moving along normally

Read More »


Subscribe to stay updated