When Pope Francis made the decision to open the archives of Pius XII in March 2020 he declared, “The Church is not afraid of history.”
Francis went on to say that his predecessor’s legacy has, however, been evaluated with “some prejudice and exaggeration.”
The opening of the archives catalyzed a renewed interest in the Pontiff’s role during the Second World War, creating a race among researchers and historians to evaluate the archival material.
Some have sought to find evidence to corroborate old narratives, arguing that his perceived silence resulted in the death of Jews.
Others have endeavored to ameliorate the Pope’s actions by framing them within the broader geopolitical and ecclesial framework of the time.
To address these competing narratives, a three-day international conference, “New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII and their Meaning for Jewish-Christian Relations: A Dialogue Between Historians and Theologians,” was held at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from Oct. 9-11.
“This is a very historic moment. It's the first international conference where dicasteries of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican Archives as well as Jewish communities, here in Rome and across Italy, have come together to organize an event to try to better understand this history,” said Suzanne Brown-Fleming, director of international academic programs at the Mandel Center of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I think we're a long way from being able to draw totally new conclusions. I think we must be patient. We must carefully work through these 16 million pages of archives over time and put all of the pieces together. It would be premature to make a judgment at this moment, but this is a very good beginning,” said Brown-Fleming.
Hubert Wolf, professor and director of the University of Münster’s project, “Asking the Pope for Help,” reinforced the need to take a cautious approach.
“Our impression is that the Pope and the Church generally made efforts and were willing to help, but eventually did not help as much as they could have helped,” he said. “It is, however, important to distinguish between the general willingness to help, which there was, and the question if people were in the end helped successfully, which was not always the case.”
Overshadowing the conference, however, was a recently discovered letter.
Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, published on Sept. 17 an interview between veteran Italian journalist Massimo Franco and Vatican archivist and researcher, Giovanni Coco in which the latter spoke about a letter he uncovered in the archives showing that Pius XII knew about the planned extermination of Jews as early as December 1942.
This document reignited debate over the scope of the Pontiff’s knowledge and his broader actions to confront Nazi atrocity.
However, this letter may not have been the bombshell the media made it out to be. Speaking specifically about this document, Brown-Fleming noted that it wasn’t the only example.
“There is an earlier document, from the fall of 1941, that was published by the Vatican itself, in 1974. It was a Slovakian priest who gave the first report, and from that time onwards the secretary of state, the Pope [Pius XII], and his officers received regular reports and were among the best informed about the Holocaust — as were the Allied governments,” said Brown-Fleming.
“I think what we can see now, from the archives, is that it’s not a question that Pope Pius XII knew about the suffering of Jews and the murder of Jews in massacres. Now we can see all the different considerations that he had to weigh as the head of a city-state, but also as the moral leader of the Roman Catholic Church. And we are working in this conference to see the different angles of what was in his head and in his decisions,” she continued.
Brown-Fleming’s remarks are buttressed by various reports.
There was a 2017 article by The Independent, which featured recently discovered material from the United Nations showing that the Allies already knew, in 1942, about the Holocaust.
There were even earlier reports, intercepted by the British military in 1941, that detailed the nascent phases of the Holocaust on the Eastern front.
Yet, in popular discourse and academic debate, the onus, and culpability, have been placed uniquely on Pius XII.
Vatican’s Bureau for Aiding Persecuted Jews
Johan Ickx, has been the director of the historical archive of the Section for Relations with States of the Holy See's Secretariat of State for more than 10 years.
In that time, he has gained a deep insight into the life and pontificate of Pius XII, examining more than 800,000 documents before the archives were opened.
In 2021, he published his book The Pope’s Cabinet: Pius XII’s Secret War for Saving Jews, which has been translated into 10 languages. One of the most striking discoveries for Ickx following the opening of the archives was the collection known as the Ebrei Files, a now-digitized series of correspondence and petitions sent by Jews throughout Europe to the Pope. As of June 2022, they can be accessed online.
“The existence of the Ebrei files in the historical archives of the Secretariat of State was very strange, because normally our series are organized by nations with which we have bilateral agreements and diplomatic activity,” said Ickx. “All of a sudden, from 1939 to 1946, there is this series — which was previously unknown — in which there are thousands of letters that were sent from the whole of Europe to the Pope, asking for help, whether it be by money, by passports, or by any other means to get out of Europe, away from the threat of Nazism,” he continued.
Pius XII, as demonstrated by the documents kept in apostolic archives, became a singular point of reference for European Jews looking for aid and refuge. To deal with the influx of these requests, Pius XII set up the Jewish bureau in the Vatican in 1940.
“In the office of foreign affairs he had created a bureau, specifically for helping Jews. These letters came in and the office was dealing, day and night, to help those Jews however they could,” said Ickx.
The main defense of the Pope’s public silence hinges on the fact that if he had been vocal, it would have jeopardized the clandestine underground network the Church built and, consequently, more Jews would have been killed.
Ernst von Weizsäcker, the German ambassador to the Holy See from 1943 to 1945, wrote in his memoirs, “Not even institutions of worldwide importance, such as … the Roman Catholic Church saw fit to appeal to Hitler in a general way on behalf of the Jews or to call openly on the sympathies of the world. It was precisely because they wanted to help the Jews that these organizations refrained from making any general and public appeals; for they were afraid that they would injure rather than help the Jews thereby.”
This sentiment is repeated in Pope Pius XII’s own words in a message to Father Pirro Scavizzi. “After many tears and many prayers, I came to the conclusion that a protest from me would not only not help anyone, but would arouse the most ferocious anger against the Jews and multiply acts of cruelty because they are undefended,” he wrote.
The closest the Pope came to making a public condemnation was his 1942 Christmas radio address where he deplored “the hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, sometimes only for reasons of nationality or race, are destined to death or to progressive annihilation.” Following this message, an editorial in The New York Times called Pius a “lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”
The fact the Pope was not issuing formal decrees does not mean that he was not covertly acting to subvert the Nazis. “This was Pope Pius XII’s strategy to help people, save human lives, instead of making public proclamations that would have harmed them more. This is why he is criticized … but his clear choice was to directly help people and save their lives,” said Salesian Sister Grazia Loparco, researcher and instructor of Church history at the Pontifical Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium in Rome.
“I have not found [in the Vatican Apostolic Archive] written directives from Pope Pius XII; instead, there are many testimonies from religious institutes, which were written in the diaries or chronicles of their religious houses, saying they hid the Jews by order of the Pope,” said Sister Grazia. “But this order certainly came orally, as it was not prudent for the Pope to write an order like this publicly.”
These orders, Sister Grazia explained, were transmitted “through the priests who went to celebrate Mass. Therefore, there was the possibility of easy communication between the Holy See and the religious communities and this is well documented through the testimonies of both the religious houses themselves and some Jews."
Sister Grazia said that based on her research in the archives there were more religious houses in Rome actively hiding Jews than previously thought. The German priest, Jesuit Father Robert Leiber, was an adviser to then-Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli during his tenure as nuncio to Munich, and later to Berlin.
In 1961, he wrote in the Jesuit periodical, La Civiltà Cattolica, that there were 155 religious houses and some parishes used to house the Jews. “When I began to do research to precisely identify the addresses of these institutes, I realized that the religious houses involved were much more. We can at least talk about 230 religious houses and more than 20 parishes,” said Sister Grazia.
Re-evaluating a Legacy
Why then has this narrative of Pius’ purported silence been so ingrained into academic discourse and the popular imagination?
For Ickx, it's rooted in Pius’ unequivocal condemnation of communism, which led to the Soviet Union’s propaganda campaign to discredit the Pope.
“Someone from the [Soviet] secret service came to the idea: We have to break the moral power of the pope. So, we have to create a narrative on this pope, which is completely different from reality, and we’ll make him a friend of the Nazis — we’ll also make him completely insensible for the fate of the Jewish people. Now this was set up also by [Hochhuth’s] play and it worked.”
Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play Der Stellvertreter: Ein christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy), portrayed Pius XII as willingly silent and purposely ineffective during the Holocaust. The Vatican condemned Hochhuth’s attack on the Pope as being completely fictitious. The play was, nonetheless, commercially successful, being translated into more than 20 languages and premiering on Broadway in 1964, and forming the basis of criticism of Pius XII for the next six decades.
Notwithstanding this ahistorical narrative, many prominent testimonies praised the Pope. The chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Isaac Herzog, wrote to the Pope in a personal message dated Feb. 28, 1944, saying, “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion which form the very foundations of true civilization, are doing for us unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history.”
There are also the words of the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, who later converted to Catholicism: “What the Vatican did will be indelibly and eternally engraved in our hearts. … Priests and even high prelates did things that will forever be an honor to Catholicism.”
Following Pius’ death in 1958, Golda Meir, who would later become prime minister of Israel, said, “During the 10 years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and commiserate with their victims.”
The opening of the archives has opened up a new era of scholarship on the Pope’s actions during the war. It will, no doubt, help guide public conversation toward a more complete understanding of Pius XII. Yet, we are still far from a unanimous consensus among academics and researchers.
Nonetheless, if anything can be gathered from the opening of the archives and the novel research of scholars such as Ickx and Loparco, it is that impartiality is not analogous to indifference and silence does not equal inactivity — and this is certainly the case for the venerable Pius XII.