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The Pope and the Holocaust: why did Pius XII not speak out?
People often ask: why did Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, not speak out more forcefully against Hitler? Historian Fr Dermot Fenlon of the Birmingham Oratory looks at the facts and sets the record straight.
The answer is recounted by a former inmate of Dachau, Msgr Jean Bernard, later Bishop of Luxembourg: "The detained priests trembled every time news reached us of some protest by a religious authority, but particularly by the Vatican.
"We all had the impression that our warders made us atone heavily for the fury these protests evoked ... whenever the way we were treated became more brutal, the Protestant pastors among the prisoners used to vent their indignation on the Catholic priests: 'Again your big naive Pope and those simpletons, your bishops, are shooting their mouths off .. Why don't they get the idea once and for all, and shut up? They play the heroes and we have to pay the bill'."
Actions not words
Albrecht von Kessel, an official at the German Embassy to the Holy See during the war, wrote in 1963: "We were convinced that a fiery protest by Pius XII against the persecution of the Jews ... would certainly not have saved the life of a single Jew.
"Hitler, like a trapped beast, would react to any menace that he felt directed at him, with cruel violence."
The real question is, therefore, not what did the Pope say, but what did the Pope do? Actions speak louder than words.
Papal policy in Nazi Europe was directed with an eye to local conditions. It was co-ordinated with local hierarchies.
Nazi policy towards the Jews varied from country to country. Thus, although anti-Jewish measures were met in France by public protest from Archbishop Saliege of Toulouse, together with Archbishop Gerlier of Lyons and Bishop Thias of Mantauban, their protest was backed by a highly effective rescue and shelter campaign, with 200,000 lives saved.
In Holland, as Fr Michael O'Carroll writes, the outcome was "tragically different". The Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide sums it up: "The saddest and most thought provoking conclusion is that whilst the Catholic clergy of Holland protested more loudly, expressly and frequently against Jewish persecutions than the religious hierarchy of any other Nazi-occupied country, more Jews - some 11,000 or 79% of the total - were deported from Holland more than anywhere else in the West."
Van Kessel's view is therefore borne out by the experience of Nazi Holland: protest merely made for more reprisals.
What of Rome itself? In 1943 the German ambassador to the Holy See, Von Weizsaecker, sent a telegram to Berlin. The telegram has been cited as damning 'evidence' against Pius XII.
"Although under pressure from all sides, the Pope has not let himself be drawn into any demonstrative censure of the deportation of Jews from Rome ... As there is probably no reason to expect other German actions against the Jews of Rome we can consider that a question so disturbing to German-Vatican relations has been liquidated."
Von Weizsaecker's telegram was in fact a warning not to proceed with the proposed deportation of the Roman Jews: "There is probably no reason to expect other German actions against the Jews of Rome." Von Weizsaecker's action was backed by a warning to Hitler from Pius XII: if the pursuit and arrest of Roman Jews was not halted, the Holy Father would have to make a public protest. Together the joint action of Von Weizsaecker and Pius XII ended the Nazi manhunt against the Jews of Rome. 7,000 lives were saved.
In Hungary, an estimated 80,000 baptismal certificates were issued by Church authorities to Jews. In other areas of Eastern Europe the Vatican escape network (organised via Bulgaria by the Nuncio Roncalli - later John XXIII) has impressed those writers who have studied the subject, with the effectiveness of the Church's rescue operation. David Herstig concludes his book on the subject thus:
"Those rescued by Pius are today living all over the world. There went to Israel alone from Romania 360,000 to the year 1965."
Vindication by Jews
The vindication of Pius XII has been established principally by Jewish writers and from Israeli archives. It is now established that the Pope supervised a rescue network which saved 860,000 Jewish lives - more than all the international agencies put together.
After the war the Chief Rabbi of Israel thanked Pius XII for what he had done. The Chief Rabbi of Rome went one step further. He became a Catholic. He took the name Eugenio.
Fr Michael O'Carroll wrote a book on this question, published in Dublin in 1980. Later, he commented: "Things have changed dramatically in the literatare about Pius XII. People, who have read accounts of his pontificate which made little of his work for the Jews, did not know that he had saved the lives of 860,000 Jews.
"They did not know that it was expert Jewish historians who had notably set forth the singular achievement of the Pope. In preparing my book on Pius XII, I used Jewish historians as I worked on official state papers.
"I was fortunate to interview three: Jeno Levai, first and very great historian of the Holocaust, Livia Rotchirchen and Pinchas Lapride. All lauded the Pope. So have important Jewish historians since then, right down to the present time."
This article first appeared in Catholic Family #10, Autumn 1991. © 1995 National Association of Catholic Families.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 28 No 1 (February 2015), p. 10
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