Four years ago, Pope John Paul II invited me to the Vatican to discuss the proposed canonization of Pope Pius XII from a historical perspective. After careful consideration, I decided I could not go. As a Jew, I did not feel able to comment on whether or not a pope should become a saint. That is an internal Roman Catholic theological issue, entirely within the competence of the Church.
This does not mean that as a Jewish historian I do not have an opinion on what the Pope did or did not do; indeed, I have written about it in my book "The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust" (2002), in which I discuss, for example, positive aspects of his activities in Rome in October 1943.
Pope Benedict XVI asks that the public debate about the canonization of Pius XII wait until he makes an official statement. As, however, the Vatican has cited me as a supporter of Pius XII's candidacy on this issue, I feel I should explain my view. It is this:
If the Vatican feels today, as Pope John Paul II felt, that the Pope's behavior during the Holocaust merits particular recognition, it should send - as I have several times urged - to the Righteous Among the Nations Department at Yad Vashem the notarized material - the evidence in the Vatican archives - on which to base an application for him to be made a Righteous Gentile.
To date more than 21,000 Righteous Gentiles, almost all of them Christians, many of them Roman Catholics, have been recognized by Yad Vashem, which - as I know from my own work in its archive - makes extraordinary efforts to give honor where honor is due.
Yad Vashem's response to such a request with regard to Pius XII would depend on the material the Vatican provided from its wartime archive. At the moment only archival material up to 1939 is accessible to scholars; for later material, they will have to wait until 2013.
Like many historians, Jewish and non-Jewish, including a distinguished international panel initially welcomed by the Vatican, I have long urged the Vatican to open its wartime archive. The British government long ago opened its files with regard to Britain's response to the Holocaust, and has accepted whatever the documentation reveals.
There are many historical episodes in which the evidence of the Pope's positive involvement will be confirmed or negated by the documents in the Vatican archives. One is the refuge given to 477 Jews in Vatican City and its enclaves on the eve of the German roundup of Jews in Rome in 1943. A further 4,238 Jews were saved when they were given sanctuary in monasteries and convents throughout the city. Among those in Rome at that time already recognized by Yad Vashem was Father Pietro Palazzini, later a cardinal. Only the Vatican archives can reveal what part the Pope himself played in these two acts of rescue, which saved four-fifths of the Jews of Rome.
On December 17, 1942, the British, American and Soviet governments issued a declaration denouncing the "bestial" Nazi crimes against the Jews. When asked to support the declaration, the Pope declined. A week later, in his annual Christmas message, he denounced racial crimes, but did not mention the Jews by name. This has been held against him ever since. But in Berlin, we now know, from the German records, Nazi leaders felt that this papal message aligned the Pope with the Jews, as their supporter and advocate. What is the truth? The Vatican archives will show what the Pope intended: perhaps various drafts of the message, and the Pope's comments on them, and his hopes for the message.
When senior Roman Catholic Church leaders in Vichy France denounced the deportation of Jews and urged their flocks to hide and save them, did Pius initiate that, or support it? Only the Vatican archive holds the answer.
When the papal nuncio in Budapest worked tirelessly in 1944 to help save Jews from Arrow Cross massacre, did Pius XII initiate this act of rescue, or support it? Only the Vatican archive holds the answer.
When - encouraged by Chaim Barlas of the Jewish Agency - the papal nuncio in Istanbul, the future Pope John XXII, successfully pressed the Bulgarian king not to deport Jews to Germany, did Pius XII initiate this act of rescue, or support it? Only the Vatican archive holds the answer - for it contains the complete two-way correspondence between the Vatican and its emissaries overseas.
Once we can see Pius XII's personal involvement, those who wish to see him honored will be able to make a case, if indeed there is a case to be made. At the moment, the evidence for the many historical episodes in which he must have been involved, consulted or given advice to his cardinals and senior clergy - each episode of crucial importance in the Jewish story - is still locked away. As a historian whose instinct is to credit people like Pius with a desire to help, even I cannot predict what the archives will hold.
The Vatican should have confidence in the outcome, allow the world to see the evidence, and let truth prevail. Surely the time to do so is now.
Sir Martin Gilbert's book "The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust," which includes material on Pius XII, is published in paperback by Holt (U.S.) and Doubleday (U.K.).
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now