The Vatican has begun considering the canonization of Pope Pius XII (1876-1958), the wartime pope who, in recent decades, has been accused of doing little to prevent the destruction of Jewry by the Nazis.
At the very least, he stands accused of not speaking out publicly as the Holocaust unfolded, and therefore of complicity by inaction.
Israeli newspapers have run editorials and passionate letters of outrage against the Vatican initiative; the Vatican has invited all concerned parties to scrutinize the record.
I should say upfront that I have no confessional predisposition to either side--a sensible reason, no doubt, for staying out of the controversy altogether, as much of our media have chosen to do.
However, my friends at Pave the Way Foundation are involved.
I know these individuals for their tireless courage and probity in everything they do to generate critical outbreaks of peace between religions. That's their mission, and they've pulled off astonishing coups in the most unexpected ways.
They've arranged the largest cultural loan from the Vatican to the state of Israel (the loan of original Maimonides commentaries); the donation to the Vatican of the earliest written version of the Lord's Prayer (ca. A.D.175-225); the donation of diapers and baby formula from Muslim charities to poor Jewish mothers in Israel; and on and on.
They even interceded with Jerusalem to finally allow the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Jerusalem to get his official accreditationfrom the Israeli state.
The foundation is run by a Jewish Long Islander of immense energy and boisterous humor named Gary Krupp who never stops inventing madly and intervening precisely.
As Gary says, he's not especially qualified to do this. He's a former industrial engineer who for many years built medical facilities in forgotten places around New York state ("I'm a nobody from Long Beach, but if I can do it ...").
He has, though, a relentless innocence in the face of impossible odds. In short, if Pave the Way is involved, one should listen with an open heart.
In mid-September, the site ran a four-day symposium at the Vatican on the subject of Pius XII. (I was invited but, alas, couldn't make it.)
The U.S. media has remained almost uniformly silent on the event. From the evidence presented there, and from what I've seen, it seems incontrovertible that Pius did all he could to save Jews and indeed saved countless thousands, some 860,000 lives according to one estimate.
Wherefore then the controversy? In the postwar years, Jewish leaders the world over--and many in Israel, including the Chief Rabbi of Israel--acclaimed Pius loudly for his wartime conduct. But everything began to change in 1963 with an eight-hour play called The Deputy by an unknown West German playwright named Rolf Hochhuth.
The play, which made the rounds of the Eastern Bloc and then the world, portrayed Pius as a "cold-eyed" collaborator. It now turns out that Hochhuth was a KGB plant and the documents he used and cited were KGB forgeries. But the radical left of the time lapped it up, and its thesis seeped into the mainstream.
The entire project even had a code name: Seat 12.
The documentation on this is riveting, a seamless Cold War spy story worth perusing just for the quality of intrigue it unveils.
In truth, Hitler hated Pius and Pius deplored both National Socialism and Communism, as countless extant documents show.
He struggled against both incessantly, but the Soviets outlasted him, and their revenge has endured even in the West, giving rise to a dubious branch of Holocaust studies devoted entirely to blackening Pius' reputation.
It's worth citing a few incontestable instances of Pius' interventions on behalf of Jewish lives:
--The issuing of 1,600 visas per year from 1939 to 1945 for Jews to escape from Europe to the Dominican Republic.
--Out of some 8,000 Roman Jews, some 7,000 survived by taking refuge in Vatican buildings.
--In Hungary, the Church gave an estimated 80,000 certificates to Jews showing they were baptized Catholics to exempt them from harm.
--The church helped countless thousands to escape to Romania; some 360,000 Jews would leave for Israel from Romania up to the year 1965.
Why then did the pope generally refrain from public denunciations of Nazism and the death camps during the war? That is the one central calumny that gives credence to the others and that, being true enough on the face of it, has been the hardest to counter. Yet it shouldn't be so hard. One-third of the Catholic clergy were killed during the war.
The pope himself was manifestly under threat.
As top German official Albrecht von Kessel said about the planned deportation of Roman Jewry: "If the pope were to oppose this measure, there was even a possibility that he would be killed while trying to escape." Yet he did oppose it, but he did so through diplomatic back-channels, as he did much else--because he had to.
There was good reason for the pope to refrain from public political displays against the Nazis. But there was one overriding consideration in the matter of protecting the Jews: Such a display inevitably harmed them because it led instantly to reprisals.
In Holland for example, where the Catholic clergy united in public protest, the deportation of the Jews abruptly intensified.
The pope in the end had no means to stop military action.
As a result, 11,000 Dutch Jews were swiftly deported.
It should be remembered that none of the allied powers did anything to close the camps or save the Jews until very late in the war.
Pope Pius saved more Jews over many more years than any international agency.
It's time, at the very least, to give his defenders a hearing.
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