When, in 1943, 1,260 Italian Jews were rounded up by the Nazis within earshot of Vatican City in Rome, Pope Pius XII did not lift a finger in protest.
The pope was however well informed of the probable fate of the Italian Jews who had been gathered in the courtyard of a military college for two days. According to historian and Pulitzer Prize winner David Kertzer, Pius XII had, since the fall of 1942, received detailed information about the genocide from European Jewry.
If the pope had not protested against the deportation of the Italian Jews, his demands concerning the Jews converted to Catholicism had been heard by the Germans, installed less than 800 meters from the walls of the Vatican. During the “roundup” in Rome on October 16, 1943, 250 “non-Aryan Catholics” were taken from the court before the others were deported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
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“I am surprised that, of all that has been written about the action of the Vatican and the Pope to save the Jews, so few have noted that this action concerned mainly Catholics who were either converts from Judaism or children of Jews,” said this week to the Times of Israel Kertzer, author of The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler.
For decades, Kertzer delved into archives, especially Italian ones, to reconstruct Vatican activity during World War II. In an award-winning book published in 2014, The Pope and MussoliniKertzer described how Italian fascism and the Vatican had mutually reinforced each other in the interwar period.
For The Pope at War, Kertzer had access to unpublished documents unsealed by Pope Francis II two years ago. Primary sources state unambiguously that although Pius XII was “unhappy with the ongoing murder of European Jews, he had other priorities,” Kertzer assured.
“The recently opened Vatican archives covering all those years show very clearly the objective that the Vatican had, which was to come to the aid of Catholics who were treated as Jews by the fascists or the Nazis,” Kertzer explained to the Times of Israel.
According to Kertzer, the Vatican can do more than open its archives, even the most sensitive ones – “personal files” are still off limits to historians.
“While the Roman Catholic Church has, in other countries, including France and Germany, acknowledged its responsibility for the demonization of the Jews, on which the Holocaust made its bed – and, in the case of the Germany, in supporting the war – neither the Vatican nor the Church in Italy has recognized their share of responsibility,” said Kertzer, now 74.
“The Vatican, in particular, never recognized the role that the Italian Church hierarchy had played in convincing the Italians that it was their duty, as good Catholics, to take part in the war of ‘Axis,’ said Kertzer, author of numerous books and essays on Italian history.
“Nor has Italy been able to come to terms with its fascist past, so much so that the words of Italians today suggest that Italy was part of the Allies during the war, and not the Axis with Hitler,” the historian said.
“I am amazed at the apologists”
The Pope at War does not contain a single “irrefutable proof” regarding the pope’s position on the Holocaust. However, Kertzer said, several documents uncovered since 2020 paint a clearer picture for historians of the factors behind the pope’s position on the systematic slaughter of European Jewry.
Archival elements revealed in the book ensure that the pope secretly spoke with Hitler, through a German prince, close friend of the dictator. Another discovery made amid several thousand documents released by the Vatican concerns the pope’s top adviser on Jewish affairs, who allegedly urged the pontiff not to protest Mussolini’s order to send most Jews of Italy in concentration camps.
“I would like to believe that the apologists of Pius XII will change their minds by reading my book, by learning the historical evidence, but I have very little hope,” said Kertzer, former rector of Brown University. . “Indeed, I fear that not very many of them will read me before attacking me,” he said.
For decades, apologists for Pius XII have claimed that the pontiff would have done more harm than good by exposing the Nazis for the massacre of the Jews. After the invasion of Poland by Germany, Pius XII had been informed of the genocides of Warsaw and Lvov, but he had kept silent.
“I find it hard to understand how the pope’s condemnation of Nazi abuses against the Jews of Europe would have increased Hitler’s anger against the Jews of Europe – main vindication of apologists,” said Kertzer, son of a rabbi.
“In what world do such apologists live? In a country where Hitler was not determined to rid Europe of all its Jews? What they do not admit is the extent to which the Germans and Italians have regularly used the defamation of Jews, advocated by the Church, to justify their own anti-Jewish campaigns, and the pope’s inability to condemn this,” Kertzer assured.
In The Pope at War, Kertzer establishes that anti-Semitism was not the dominant character trait of Pius XII. On the contrary, Kertzer said, the wartime pontiff was above all concerned with retaining the power of the Church.
Pius XII deeply feared Communism, which he saw as de-Christianization, Kertzer added. Believing that he had a personal mission to defeat communism, Pius XII had preferred to win the good graces of Mussolini and Hitler.
The personality of Pius XII had proved “determining” in this sense, wrote Kertzer. In thousands of reports from ambassadors, letters sent by Pius XII and other documents, the sovereign pontiff will have constantly shown “prudence” in “defending the prerogatives of the Church and limiting the risk of reprisals as much as possible said Kertzer.
When it became clear that the Axis would lose the war, Pius XII made the Vatican a peacemaking entity. However, after the war ended, Pius XII refused to help locate missing Holocaust orphans, most of whom grew up Catholic and never returned to Judaism.
Pius XII’s actions during the war have been debated for decades, but the subject is still considered taboo in many American churches, Kertzer said.
“Although in the many years that I have been able to address these issues, I have been invited by a large number of synagogues and Jewish cultural organizations to speak about this history, I do not remember ever having been invited by a Catholic church or cultural organization,” Kertzer concluded.
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Pope Pius XII, far from being “neutral” during the Holocaust, says a Pulitzer winner