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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Reassessing Pope Pius XII’s Attitudes toward the Holocaust

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel, International Law, World Jewry
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

No. 89,

  • Pope Pius XII was the most controversial pope in modern times. Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 visit to the Middle East raised new interest in the attitude of the wartime pope toward the Jews. This becomes even more important in light of the possible advancement of his beatification. The issue remains highly problematic, the more so as the Vatican has not yet opened all its archives on Pius XII.
  • A major reassessment of Pius XII’s attitude toward the Shoah took place after his death in 1958. Initially various tributes had flowed to the Vatican, including from some Jews. Perhaps the most important event that damaged his image was the tendentious play The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter). It was written by the German Protestant playwright Rolf Hochhuth and staged – from 1963 onwards – all over the world.
  • A judgment on Pius XII’s attitude during and after the war should not be limited to his silence on the genocide of the Jews. The pope remained largely neutral about the German atrocities against the Polish people. Nor did he condemn the genocidal Catholic Croatian fascist state and its leader Ante Pavelić. This state massacred 350,000 non-Catholics, including thirty thousand Croatian Jews. There is compelling evidence that the Vatican was instrumental in permitting Pavelić to escape from Italy to Argentina in 1947.
  • Pius XII was neither “Hitler’s pope” nor a “righteous Gentile.” The polished diplomat ultimately won out over the voice of conscience in facing the formidable trial of the Holocaust. The result has been to leave a dark cloud over Christian attitudes toward the Jews, Judaism, and Israel that it has taken decades of patient work to overcome.

“Pope Pius XII was the most controversial pope in modern times. Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 visit to the Middle East raised new interest in the attitude of the wartime pope toward the Jews. This becomes even more important in light of the possible advancement of his beatification. The issue remains highly problematic, the more so as the Vatican has not yet opened all its archives on Pius XII.”

Professor Robert S. Wistrich has held the Neuberger Chair for Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1989. He has headed the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University since 2002. Wistrich was the only Israeli on the Vatican-appointed International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission of six scholars examining the record of Pope Pius XII during the Shoah.

He comments: “Eugenio Pacelli, who in 1939 became Pope Pius XII, was well groomed for the papacy. He came from an aristocratic Roman background. Pacelli had served as nuncio – the papal envoy – in Germany from 1917 to 1929. He therefore was very familiar with the country, was completely fluent in German, and had a great love of the German people and their culture, including the music.”

Surrounded by Germans

“In his subsequent career Pacelli was surrounded by German aides, with the exception of his secretary of state, Cardinal Maglione and his two most senior assistants in the Vatican – during World War II – the Italian Domenico Tardini (secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Affairs) and Giovanni Battista Montini, who became Pope Paul VI from 1963 to 1978. His immediate German entourage also included his housekeeper Sister Pasqualina Lehnert. It is clear from her memoirs, written many years after the war, that Pius XII consulted her regularly.

“His personal secretary Father Robert Leiber, a German Jesuit, burned his diaries after the war. It will thus remain a subject of speculation as to what he wrote about this pope’s attitude toward the Jews, but perhaps he feared that this material would cast a less than favorable light on Pius XII. Augustin Bea, another German Jesuit and adviser to the pope, would later work closely alongside Pope John XXIII to bring about the Vatican II Council, which led to a dramatic change in Catholic attitudes toward the Jews. Cardinal Bea’s position on the Jewish issue, however, evolved only gradually.”

Not an Anti-Semite

“In 1999, John Cornwell wrote a problematic and sensationalist bestseller about Pope Pius XII, titled very misleadingly Hitler’s Pope.[1] Cornwell wrongly concluded that Pacelli was an anti-Semite. He based this on a letter sent to Rome by Pacelli in 1919 after he had been threatened by revolutionary communists in Bavaria who had briefly seized power. His unflattering account of the revolutionaries included references to Jews whose tone sounded anti-Semitic as a result of Cornwell’s selective quotation and mistranslations. Certainly, Pacelli and the Church felt threatened by atheistic Bolsheviks – among whom there was a disproportionate number of Jews in the Munich leadership. That does not make Pacelli an anti-Semite. However, there were many Catholics in the interwar period who wrongly equated Jews with communism, which led them to embrace anti-Semitic thinking.

“Pacelli certainly shared the classic antipathy to Judaism and liberalism of traditionalist Catholics. He was the most conservative pope since the nineteenth-century reactionary and anti-Semitic Pius IX, who was beatified in 2000. Pius XII could be considered anti-Jewish primarily in the traditionalist sense of believing that Jews had killed Jesus.

“But he was certainly opposed to Nazism as a movement and an ideology. It was no accident that Hitler deeply distrusted the pope or that some SS leaders in Berlin thought he was more dangerous to National Socialism than Churchill or Roosevelt.[2] Pacelli shared the view of his predecessor, Pius XI, that the basic premises of Nazism totally contradicted Christian teaching. Pacelli, it should not be forgotten, had a hand in the anti-Nazi encyclical of 1937 ‘Mit brennender Sorge’ (‘With Burning Anxiety’), aimed at German Catholics. It is true, however, that this encyclical, directed against Nazi totalitarian claims, ‘neopaganism,’ race theory, and the persecution of Catholics, did not specifically mention the Jews.

“Pacelli’s anti-Nazi attitude did not derive from any particular interest or sympathy for the Jews. They were still a minor issue on his horizon. But he understood that Nazism’s ‘positive Christianity’ was a fake. Pacelli saw National Socialism as profoundly anti-Christian and a danger to Catholicism.”

Dealing with Nazi Germany

“Until 1933 the Center Party, which was Catholic, was a strong opponent of Nazism. When the National Socialists came to power they banned it. By that time Pacelli was already the Vatican’s secretary of state, appointed as such by the then pope, Pius XI. Throughout the 1930s he handled the Vatican’s foreign policy – until being elected as pope at the end of the decade.

“One might call Pius XII a fetishist of concordats. This type of agreement is a fundamental method employed by the Vatican to protect the position of the institutional Church when dealing with foreign states. Pacelli thought that by signing a concordat with Hitler, he was doing exactly that with respect to the Catholic Church in Germany.

“The concordat provoked much justified criticism, even though I would reject Cornwell’s claim that it was the ‘original sin’ of Pacelli’s political activity.  The future pope did, however, exaggerate the effectiveness of the concordat. It was never respected by the German regime. It perhaps prevented more drastic actions against German Catholics. Yet even after the war Pius XII insisted that the concordat should be upheld in all its details because he considered it one of his greatest achievements.”

Pius XII and the Shoah

“A major reassessment of Pius XII’s attitude toward the Shoah took place after his death in 1958. Initially various tributes flowed to the Vatican including from some Jews, who felt they owed their lives to Pius’s intervention. In the 1960s, the Israeli consul in Italy, Pinhas E. Lapide even claimed that the Catholic Church had saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches and rescue organizations combined.[3] His inflated estimate spoke of 850,000 Jews saved from certain death but no verifiable evidence was ever provided for this assertion.

“Lapide is frequently quoted to this day by apologists and defenders of Pope Pius XII. So, too, is the cable sent after the pope’s death by future Israeli prime minister Golda Meir to the Vatican, which proclaimed that ‘when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with the victims.’ Golda Meir was no historian and Israel was obviously interested in good relations with the Vatican, which might explain such effusive praise.”

The Historians

“Only after his death historians began to have their say. It was no accident that the first critical voices about Pius’s performance during the war were heard during the 1960s. This can be understood within the international, religious, and political context of the period 1958-1963. During the short papacy of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli – Pope John XXIII, the greatest theological and political revolution in the history of the Vatican affecting the Jews took place.

“Perhaps since the crucifixion of Jesus, there had not been such an important event concerning Jews in the history of the Catholic Church. At the Vatican II Council (1962-1965), the charge of deicide was removed from the Jewish people as a whole. Nostra Aetate, the document that embodies this, was published in 1965 under the papacy of Paul VI who was much more lukewarm on these issues than his predecessor. The document that John XXIII and Cardinal Bea originally wanted had been significantly diluted by more conservative circles within the Church.

Nostra Aetate was not a complete exculpation of the Jews. It said that the guilt for the death of Jesus belonged to the Jewish leadership of two thousand years ago but did not carry through to the Jewish people of today. It has nonetheless been a crucial instrument in the fight against Catholic anti-Semitism. This type of anti-Semitism, after all, was the most powerful and extensive or pervasive form of hostility toward Jews, at least before the Russian pogroms and the Nazi mass murder of the Jews in the twentieth century.

“It is a weighty argument against Pius XII that even after the horrors of the Shoah he did not feel the need to bring about any fundamental revision of Catholic theological instruction concerning the Jews. True, he did, in 1949, receive the French Jewish educator and survivor Jules Isaac, author of Jésu et Israël and L’Enseignement du Mépris, two books that had a seminal influence on many Catholics after the war.[4]

“Isaac was received sympathetically but he could not convince the pope, despite what was known about the Shoah, to undertake a campaign against anti-Semitism and to revise Catholic theological teaching. Ten years later Isaac had an audience with John XXIII. This more ecumenical and philo-Semitic pope responded to the points that Isaac brought to his attention and acted on them. That was a highly significant difference.”

The Deputy and the Historians

“Perhaps the most important event that damaged the image of Pope Pius XII was the tendentious play The Deputy (Der Stellvertreter). It was written by the German Protestant playwright Rolf Hochhuth and staged – from 1963 onwards – all over the world. Until today it makes many Catholics edgy – not to say enraged. Hochhuth presented Pius XII in an offensive way as a coldhearted money-grabbing monster, indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and as a Nazi collaborator. Hochhuth sought to discredit the pope as a cynical opportunist who betrayed his role as the ‘representative of Christ’ on earth.

“Historians were more cautious. The Israeli historian Saul Friedländer was one of the first to write on the subject, using German documents.[5] This was before the Vatican began to publish its own version of events. Another pioneer author was Guenter Lewy, a political scientist from the University of Massachusetts who researched Church documents in Germany and was somewhat critical of Pius XII.[6] The Italian historian Carlo Falconi was more forthright.[7] He was the first to explore in some detail Pius’s relations with Poland and Croatia, and to pass a severe judgment on his ‘silence’ in the face of Nazi extermination policies. Falconi believed that Pius could have issued a strong public denunciation of Hitler or threatened excommunication or made powerful symbolic gestures like wearing the Star of David. The pope should also have sought a united front with other Christian denominations against German war crimes.

“Later John Morley, an American Catholic historian of a more liberal persuasion addressed the same subject.[8] He was critical of the pope’s diplomacy that had sacrificed moral considerations to realpolitik. Morley argued that the pope could have given orders to the nuncios to more strongly protest the rationale behind the racial laws. The pope’s traditional diplomatic approach, which relied on reserve and prudence, was totally inadequate to the scale of the Shoah.”

The Radical Deterioration of the Pope’s Image

Wistrich continues: “As mentioned, the image of Pius XII had been positive and even flattering during the 1950s. He was much admired not only by Catholics but also by many Jews. In the context of the Cold War he was seen as something of a prophet. The degradation of his image in the 1960s and ‘70s came as a shock, especially to more dogmatic Catholics. No doubt, too, communists and leftists had a vested interest in denting the reputation of Pius XII since he had been among their bitterest opponents in his own lifetime.

“In 2000, the Italian historian Giovanni Miccoli wrote an important book about the dilemmas and the silence of Pius XII.[9] Miccoli is a prolific Holocaust scholar as well as a Church historian. He argued that the pope and his advisers were tied to an anachronistic mindset, unable to deal with the horrors of modern war and genocide. Moreover, as the heir of a long tradition of Catholic anti-Semitism it was difficult for the pope to fully fathom the horror of Nazi murder of the Jews, though he was undoubtedly well informed.”

Father Gumpel’s Role

“One person, of course, it was impossible to convince that Pius XII had any flaws at all was the ‘postulator’ (proponent) for the cause of his beatification, Father Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit scholar who has lived in Rome for decades. I was not the only member of the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission to find encounters with Gumpel – an expert on the subject with a somewhat arrogant and condescending attitude toward anyone who disagrees with him – to be a grueling experience.

“His superiority complex was one of several irritating character traits. More worrying still was his insistence that the Jews had crucified Christ, that there was a secular and Jewish-driven conspiracy to discredit Pius XII as well as the contemporary church, and his barely veiled conviction that our commission, with its more open and skeptical approach, would get in the way of his life’s work – to ensure ultimate recognition of Pius XII as a truly great and heroic personality. Ironically, Father Gumpel had been very helpful to John Cornwell in the earlier stages of the British journalist’s research, wrongly assuming that he was going to be a staunch defender and advocate of Pius XII!”

The Position of Benedict XVI

“Gumpel announced in 2008 that all the relevant documentation had been prepared for Pius XII’s beatification. But thus far Pope Benedict XVI, while making some positive statements about Pius, has been cautious. Others, like his secretary of state Tarcisio Bertone, have been more openly propagandist, talking like many apologists of Pius XII about how the wartime pope was the victim of ‘malicious slander.’ I think Benedict probably realizes how damaging for Catholic-Jewish relations a decision in favor of beatification might be.

“Nevertheless Pius XII is still on track for sainthood, even if Benedict decides to leave the final step to his successor. We need to remember that the archives dealing with Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) were only opened in 2003. The opening of the archives for the wartime pontificate of Pius XII will probably not happen for another four to seven years. If the beatification is delayed, something significant could still emerge from the unpublished materials of his pontificate that would change perceptions.”

Silence on Poland

Wistrich emphasizes that the issues at stake are not very clear to most people. “When I examined the documentation on Pius XII, I was struck by the fact that during World War II there were relatively few complaints about the pope from Jews. On the contrary, there were words of praise from intellectuals like Albert Einstein, from Dr. Alexander Safran – chief rabbi of Romania – and from Italian, American, and other Jewish communal leaders. The New York Times was a consistent admirer of Pius XII. The chief rabbi of Palestine, Yitzhak Herzog, also expressed his gratitude in 1945 for the pope’s actions on behalf of the Jewish people. This is often ignored today but it is part of a complex and at times contradictory picture.

“Ironically, the most vociferous objections to Pius XII’s silence came from Catholic Poles. They felt deeply betrayed. When the Germans marched into Poland in 1939, Pius XII did not denounce their cruel policy toward the Poles in explicit language. It is true that in the first few months Vatican Radio made some statements about the oppression of Catholic Poles, but they stopped them quickly after German protests and threats of reprisal.

“In the Vatican Documents on World War II concerning Pius XII, one can read about protests from Poles who lived under brutal Nazi rule. For them it came as an enormous shock that the pope seemed to be neutral when the Germans were making major efforts to wipe out the Polish intelligentsia and the clerical elite. This silence was not affected by the fact that the Poles were perhaps the most Catholic nation in Europe.

“I raised this point a number of times in our discussions with Vatican officials. Father Gumpel arrogantly dismissed the complaints of the Poles as misconceived. He once said to me that the Poles have a lot to answer for, as they had provoked the outbreak of the war in 1939! Well, that was also the Nazi claim, which was merely a pretext for invasion!

“I would say that one can hardly ignore the vociferous nature of Polish reproaches, conveyed even by the exiled primate of Poland, Cardinal Hlond. The protests noted the pope’s silence in the face of Nazi atrocities against Polish Catholic priests and ordinary Poles. Prince Adam Sapiela, Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow (and an admirer of Pius XII) also warned him that the Polish people were becoming exasperated at the lack of condemnation of German crimes. This caution had provided fertile soil for antipapal propaganda. But neither Pius nor his leading advisers were willing to provide a public condemnation along the lines requested. Thus even when Polish churches were being profaned, priests killed, ‘holy virgins’ raped, and children forced to witness murder, there was no change.

“Not until June 1943, with the military situation turning against Nazi Germany, did Pius XII briefly speak out about the tragic fate of the Polish people. This delay was justified by arguments also used in the case of the Jews – such as the (dubious) claim that public protests would have made the Polish plight even worse. The Polish bishops themselves showed little interest in the suffering of the Jews.[10] But there were pleas by the Polish government-in-exile (based in London) and their ambassador in Rome, who kept the Vatican well informed about the developing German genocide of Polish Jews. Here, too, the response from the Vatican was too little, too late, and always subject to diplomatic expediency.”


“A second important issue in assessing Pius XII concerns his attitude toward Croatia. The Catholic Croatian fascist state that existed from 1941 to 1945 carried out its own genocide. After the German invasion of Yugoslavia, that country was dismantled. Out of its ruins an enlarged Croatia was created. Its leader Ante Pavelić was a pious Catholic who never missed a Mass. Under him the legislation of Croatia was transformed into that of a fundamentalist Catholic state ruled by the brutal Ustaša, who were Nazi collaborators into the bargain.

“The Croats embarked on genocide, the largest number of victims being Orthodox Christian Serbs. An estimated 350,000 were massacred in a truly horrific manner by the Ustaša (a word that means insurrection in Serbo-Croat.) Those who wanted to avoid being murdered had to convert to Catholicism, which, in the Croat view, was the only true religion.

“An estimated thirty thousand Croatian Jews were also murdered. The most notorious death camp was Jasenovac, where the murdered included Serbs, Jews, as well as Gypsies and communists. Pavelić was received in 1941 in a private audience by Pope Pius XII. The pope did not grant him full-blown recognition nor did he send an official nuncio to Croatia, as there were no official diplomatic relations. Instead he sent Giuseppe Marcone, a Benedictine abbot as his apostolic visitor, though in fact the latter acted like a nuncio. Hence the feeling of Pavelić and others that the Holy See had de facto recognized the new Croatian state.

“Both Marcone and the Archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac – who was beatified in 1999 – kept the pope well informed. Pius XII knew about the atrocities and about the Nuremberg-style race laws applied to Jews almost immediately in Croatia once Pavelić came to power.

“Stepinac was a courageous personality in a difficult position. Initially he praised and fully supported the Croatian Catholic regime. After all, it was strongly anticommunist, bolstered Catholic influence in Southeastern Europe, and had put an end to the much-resented cultural-religious pluralism of post-1918 Yugoslavia.

“Archbishop Stepinac was one of the very few Croat leaders who deplored the genocidal aspect of Pavelić’s rule.[11] Stepinac could not ignore the Ustaša terror against Serbs and Jews, though there were other Croat bishops who sought to justify it. In the summer of 1941, Stepinac was indeed protesting to the regime about its draconian racial laws against the Jews, though with little success. He was especially shocked by the fact that Franciscan priests were actively involved in murder. He deplored the fact that Jews who had converted to Catholicism were not spared. The Vatican, however, advocated discretion and ‘loyal cooperation’ with the civil authorities.”

Helping War Criminals Escape

“Vatican indulgence toward the criminal Ustaša leadership did not end in 1945. There is compelling evidence that the Vatican was instrumental in permitting Pavelić to escape from Italy to Argentina in 1947 along with other members of his entourage. It appears that he was hidden on Vatican-controlled properties in or outside Rome after 1945. The Ustaša fascists were given false papers, visas, and passports for South America.

“The Vatican unquestionably was involved in helping these mass murderers escape. It has long been known that individuals like the Austrian pro-Nazi Bishop Hudal, who was close to the Vatican, assisted mass murderers like Eichmann and Franz Stangl to get away. Did Pius XII know about this and did he even care? That remains an open question. What is not open to dispute is that the Vatican sought clemency for convicted Nazi criminals, hid fugitives from justice like the Ustaša on its properties, and was generally uncooperative on the issue of war crimes. Nor did Pius XII make any statement against genocidal anti-Semitism after 1945.”

Helping Baptized Jews

When Catholic defenders of Pius XII speak about how much he did for the Jews, they forget to add that this applies overwhelmingly to baptized Jews. Discrimination and racial legislation against Jews who had converted to Christianity was indeed against Canon Law and Church tradition. A Jew who had become a Christian (especially a Catholic) was offered the full protection of the Church.

“Hence the Vatican Documents are full of attempts, supported by the Holy See, to intervene with the Nazi government and collaborationist regimes in Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and France to save baptized Jews or ameliorate their conditions. They often refer to ‘non-Aryan’ Catholics (cattolici/non-ariani), itself an interesting concession to Nazi terminology.

“The Holy See’s opposition to Italy’s race laws in 1938 and interdiction on interracial marriage between Catholics (including baptized Jews) was consistent with its position before and during the Holocaust. It is, however, dishonest for defenders of Pius XII to deliberately – or unwittingly – blur the difference between the many efforts on behalf of converts and the much rarer attempts to protest or save Jews who had remained loyal to their faith.[12]

“For example, the editors of the Vatican Documents made much of the largely unsuccessful efforts by the Holy See during 1938-1940 to allow baptized Jews to emigrate to Latin America. But there was no corresponding effort, here or elsewhere, to finance or facilitate the emigration of unbaptized Jews to safety. At the same time, we should also remember that the record of the liberal Western democracies in this period was no better, and in some cases worse.  

“The Vatican’s argument was that baptized Jews had no other protection than that of the Holy See. The Jewish organizations were not prepared to help baptized Jews who were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The German Nazis, of course, in most cases murdered baptized Jews as well as nonbaptized Jews. All ultimately suffered the same horrible fate.”

Some Positive Vatican Actions[13]

“A number of Vatican representatives tried to help the Jews. One of these was the chargé d’affaires Giuseppe Burzio in Slovakia, who acted incisively. Already in February 1942, he warned the Holy See that the Jews sent to Poland were going to be exterminated and tried without success to moderate the pro-Nazi policies of the Slovak government. There were also courageous ecclesiastics like the Bishop of Berlin, Konrad Preysing, who appealed directly to the pope to protest specific Nazi actions against the Jews, such as their imminent deportation from the German capital in March 1943 to a certain death. Pius XII certainly admired Preysing’s courage.

“The correspondence between them in German in the Vatican Documents clearly suggests this. Nevertheless, even when the Germans were militarily on the defensive Pius XII still feared more savage reprisals against the Jews were he to attempt to intervene. What kind of logic was that? What could have been worse than the Shoah?

“The most impressive of the papal nuncios was Monsignor Angelo Rotta in Budapest who worked hard to improve the treatment of the Jews, issuing baptismal certificates and passports that enabled Jews and converts to survive. Rotta was very energetic and may have saved as many as fifteen thousand Jews in Hungary at that time. He had a fight on his hands because the Catholic primate of Hungary, Cardinal Archbishop Justinian Seredi was an anti-Semite. As a member of the Upper House, Seredi had in 1938 voted in favor of the anti-Jewish laws passed in the Hungarian parliament. During the deportations he did not energetically intervene except for helping a small number of baptized Jews. Pius XII, in July 1944, did send a telegram to Admiral Miklós Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, in which he requested a stop to the deportations. It was clear that Rotta’s information about the mass deportations and the pressure on Pius from many sides influenced this step, though its effect is hard to judge and has probably been exaggerated.

“Burzio, Rotta, and other representatives provided well-documented information to the Vatican on what was happening to the Jews during the Holocaust. Because of the large network of Catholic priests who were reporting to the Vatican from across Europe by the summer of 1942 (or at the latest in the autumn of that year), key elements of what we now call the Holocaust were known to the Vatican.”

Inundated by Information

In an essay on Pius XII and the Shoah, Professor Wistrich also mentions that “the documents published by the Vatican contain revealing information on what the Metropolitan Greek Catholic Archbishop of Lvov in Poland, Andrzej Szeptycyki, wrote in the summer of 1942.[14] He informed Rome that ‘the number of Jews massacred in our small region has certainly exceeded 200,000′ and described how ‘all the small villages of the Ukraine have witnessed similar massacres and this has been going on for a year.’ Szeptycyki – who was no philo-Semite – had nonetheless boldly protested to Himmler and also raised his voice against Ukrainian collaboration in the massacre of Jews.[15] There is no evidence that this stark testimony elicited any response from Rome.

“From the summer of 1942, the Holy See was being increasingly inundated by information pointing to the mass murder of the Jews. Already in May 1942, the Slovak government justified its brutal anti-Semitic policy to Rome in ways that shocked even the normally emotionless Cardinal Maglione, the Vatican secretary of state. His main assistant Domenico Tardini noted: ‘It is a real misfortune that the President of Slovakia is a priest (un sacerdote). That the Holy See cannot bring Hitler to heel, everyone knows. But who will understand that we cannot even control a priest?'”[16]

Wistrich remarks that neither Monsignor Tiso (the Slovak president) nor the thugs at his service were ever excommunicated by the Church. “By the end of 1942 the Vatican was among the best-informed institutions in Europe concerning the Holocaust. Except for the Germans or perhaps British intelligence, few people were more aware of the local details as well as the larger picture. In May 1943, Maglione noted:

Jews. Horrendous situation. 4.5 million Jews in Poland before the war, plus many deported there from other occupied territories…. There can be no doubt that the major proportion has already been suppressed. Special death camps at Lublin [Treblinka] and near Brest Litovsk…where they are finished off under the action of gas. Transported there in trucks for beasts, hermetically sealed.[17]

Maglione did not get all the details right but he and the Pope did know what was happening.”

The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission[18]

Ten years after its inception, Wistrich reflects on the work of the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission. It was created in the winter of 1999 and consisted of three Catholic scholars appointed by the Vatican and three Jewish scholars appointed by an umbrella body of Jewish organizations, mainly American ones.

“One issue among many that probably stimulated the establishment of the commission was the general disappointment of many Jews about the Vatican Document on the Shoah, ‘We Remember.’ It appeared in March 1998 and it praised Pius XII’s role during the war while ignoring all the controversy. I myself wrote a sharply critical article in Commentary magazine at the time, about the Vatican position, which was fiercely attacked by some remarkably militant American Catholics. In my view their reaction was completely over the top.

“Looking back on the commission’s activity, despite its unfortunate end, there were some positive points worth mentioning. First, I think we worked diligently and achieved a surprising degree of agreement about what questions needed to be addressed today and where some of the gaps in documentation still lie. We managed in a short time to submit forty-seven questions for further clarification but never received a serious or comprehensive reply to them.

“The earlier-mentioned Father Gumpel was designated to provide answers, but these were only partial and disturbingly polemical. Nor was there any willingness by the Vatican to offer greater availability of archival material at the time – which more than any other fact led to the commission’s collective resignation. Another contributing factor to the resignation, at least for me, was the callous and paranoid statement by Gumpel, the postulator of Pius XII’s beatification process, published by the Vatican Press Office on 7 August 2001.

“He spoke of ‘a violent attack unleashed against the Catholic Church,’ a ‘defamatory campaign’ by unnamed parties. He also claimed that Jewish members of the group, from the outset, had sought to cast suspicion on the Holy See for allegedly concealing ‘compromising’ documents; and that these persons had ‘repeatedly leaked distorted and tendentious news, communicating it to the international press.’ Gumpel, who evidently believed that only he should be allowed to have a monopoly on distorted ‘leaks,’ went on to smear the competence of all the historians (Catholics included) as well as their integrity. Moreover, he dismissed the questions put to him as ‘superficial’. Gumpel concluded his vicious statement by casting all responsibility for our resignation on those (the ‘irresponsible’ Jews) who had contravened ‘the most elementary academic and human norms.’

“I responded together with my Jewish colleagues, Professor Michael Marrus and Dr. Bernard Suchecky. We sent a joint reply to the new president of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Walter Kasper in Vatican City. It was dated 4 September 2001. The letter expressed our collective sense of shock at the singling-out of the Jewish scholars for blame not only by Gumpel but in Kasper’s follow-up communiqué. (At that point we had only suspended our work).

“We totally rejected accusations of impropriety, made without Kasper even bothering to meet or consult with us as to how we could best fulfill our mandate. We also pointed out that after almost a year, our report still remained unanswered. All we had received were inflammatory and scathing statements from Father Gumpel, speaking for the Vatican, ‘directed at all members of the commission but with particular virulence towards the Jews.’ Cardinal Keeler of Baltimore, in a totally misinformed statement, even blamed me personally for the breakup of the commission. I was amazed to find myself assigned such influence!

“I felt that the Gumpel-Kasper maneuver was a blow below the belt to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. It also underlined how politically sensitive the whole issue of Pius XII’s beatification was and still remains. Unfortunately there are still people in the Vatican like Gumpel who not only think that the Jews killed Christ, but that they were responsible for communist ‘terrorism.’ Gumpel once said that Jews should apologize for what is written in the Talmud about Jesus before they dare to criticize the pope’s behavior during the Shoah! I certainly hope that such repulsive ideas are out of step with more enlightened thinking in the Catholic world. They were certainly far removed from the beliefs that animated Father John Morley, Professor Gerald Fogerty, and Dr. Eva Fleischner, the liberal American Catholics on our commission or the Catholic coordinator, Dr. Eugen Fisher.

“After the commission suspended its work in July 2001, I wrote my own postmortem, which was published a few months later. Let me quote a short extract:

The stark truth is that in two years we received no material assistance, no real encouragement, and above all, not one single new document from the Vatican. On the other hand, we did receive our fair measure of denigration, insinuation, and false rumors from persons attached to, or even speaking in the name of, that powerful and august institution. This negative response to its own initiative stands in striking contrast to the positive reception that the Commission’s work received from most enlightened opinion in the world, from many liberal and lay Catholics, and from much of the scholarly community, which sincerely hoped that we would succeed in our efforts to open up the archives.[19]


“There have been many claims made since 1945 that Pius XII did indeed save Jewish lives. It is said, for example, that he gave orders to open a variety of Church institutions in and around Rome that enabled five thousand Jews to survive in 1943. Susan Zuccotti, an American historian who wrote the book Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust, is adamant that he did not initiate these steps.[20] Personally, I remain an agnostic on this matter. One has to see what additional information the Vatican archives may eventually provide on what remains, meanwhile, an open issue.

“I neither believe that Pius XII was ‘Hitler’s Pope’ nor a ‘righteous Gentile.’ I see him as a gifted diplomat, a kind, sensitive, but  rather tragic personality caught up in a maelstrom that he was temperamentally ill-suited to navigate. He had to make cruel choices that no one would envy, between his duty to safeguard the interests of the Church and to keep Catholics in the fold and his moral responsibilities as the ‘Vicar of Christ.’ I feel that the polished diplomat ultimately won out over the voice of conscience in facing the formidable trial of the Holocaust. The result has been to leave a dark cloud over Christian attitudes toward the Jews, Judaism, and Israel that it has taken decades of patient work to overcome. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that we are gradually succeeding in establishing a new and more fruitful basis for genuine dialogue.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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[1] John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (New York: Viking, 1999).

[2] Rabbi David G. Dalin, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2005), 13.

[3] Pinhas E. Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews: Pope Pius XII Did Not Remain Silent (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967).

[4] Jules Isaac, The Teaching of Contempt (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1964).

[5] Saul Friedlaender, Pie XII et le Troisième Reich (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1964). [French]

[6] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

[7] Carlo Falconi, The Silence of Pius XII, translated from the Italian by B. Wall (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).

[8] John Morley, Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews during the Holocaust, 1939-1943 (New York: Ktav, 1980).

[9] Giovanni Miccoli, I Dilemmi e il Silenzio di Pio XII. Vaticano, Seconda Guerra mondiale e Shoah (Milano: Rizzoli, 2000). [Italian]

[10] Robert S. Wistrich, “Or Were There Other Reasons for This Silence?” Catholic International, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May 2002): 57-62.

[11] Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 31-40.

[12] Robert S. Wistrich, “The Vatican Documents and the Holocaust: A Personal Report,” in Antony Polonsky, ed., Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 413-443.

[13] Detailed information on the subject of this section can be found in Robert S. Wistrich, “Pius XII and the Shoah,” Antisemitism International, 2004.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Szeptycyki to Pius XII, 29-31 August 1942, Actes et Documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale (henceforth cited as ADSS) (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1965-1981), Vol. 3, Doc. 406, 625. [French]

[16] ADSS, Vol. 8, Doc. 426, 597-598.

[17] Ibid., Vol. 9, 274.

[18] Much information on this subject can be found in Robert S. Wistrich, “The Demise of the Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission,” Midstream, December 2001.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).

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Professor Robert Solomon Wistrich has held the Neuberger Chair for Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1989. He is the author and editor of more than twenty books. His forthcoming study to be published by Random House in January 2010 is titled A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad.  Wistrich has headed the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University since 2002. He was the only Israeli on the Vatican-appointed International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission of six scholars examining the record of Pope Pius XII during the Shoah.