The Vatican and the Jews

Pope Francis’s announcement that the Vatican will open the archives on the life and times of his predecessor, Pius XII (1939-1958) – some 16 million pages – has answered the call of historians over many decades.

The attitude of Pius towards Jews, anti-Semitism and Nazi atrocities has remained a matter of controversy for Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike. He was the subject of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy in 1963 which attacked Pius for his silence, caution and refusal to act. Yet Pope Benedict XVI, a decade ago, argued that Pius showed ‘courage and paternal dedication’ in attempting to save Jews.

The historian, Susan Zuccotti, through her numerous books, has dismissed such claims. She has indicated that there is no written evidence of a papal directive to save Jews and questioned the extent and effectiveness of any efforts. Zuccotti has pointed out that efforts to facilitate Jewish emigration during this period were directed essentially towards Jewish converts to Catholicism.

The Vatican’s approach originated in its fear of Communism and that Hitler was in a sense an ally in holding back these atheist hoards which would swamp Christendom. As Papal Nuncio in Munich in 1919, Eugenio Pacelli, as he then was, Pius witnessed the establishment of the Bavarian Soviet republic – and blamed the Jews. In a report to the Vatican, he described Max Levien, its leader, as ‘a Russian and a Jew – pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly…the boss of this female rabble, Levien’s mistress, a Jew and a divorcee.’ The irony was that Levien was not Jewish, but came from an old German family in Russia.

Pacelli became Secretary of State (1930) and Chamberlain of the Church (1935) and used diplomacy to come to an accommodation with Hitler’s Germany. The American writer on the Papacy, Frank J. Coppa, has shown that whereas the then Pope, Pius XI, became increasing agitated about the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930s, Pacelli looked the other way. Unknown to Pacelli, Pius XI commissioned an encyclical from the anti-racist Jesuit, John La Farge, but died on 10 February 1939 before it could be issued. Pacelli, his successor as Pius XII, shelved the document and instead retained the pro-Nazi nuncio in Berlin, muted criticism of Hitler and declared papal neutrality just before the outbreak of war. His Christmas message of 1939 said nothing about the Nazi invasion of Poland but condemned Stalin’s attack on Finland. He was silent on Vichy anti-Semitic legislation in France and the invasion of the low countries – there was no appeal to conscience.

In addition to his fear of Nazi retribution against German Catholics, Pius XII’s reticence has been explained by his lack of knowledge of what was going on in occupied Europe. Gerhart Reigner, the World Jewish Congress’s representative in neutral Switzerland, received regular reports of persecution and extermination from a network of agents throughout Europe. In 1998, he commented that ‘the Vatican was probably better informed than we.’ Jewish groups have repeatedly opposed attempts to canonise Pius XII.

In his poem, Shema, Primo Levi asked those who ‘live secure in your warm houses’ to reflect on what had happened. Whether the Vatican will hear this Shema and understands its moral significance remains an open question.

Jewish Chronicle 8 March 2019

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