Pope Pius XII received real-time reports of the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust but his associates expressed doubts about the information, in part out of anti-Semitic motives, according to an initial examination of newly released documents from the Vatican archives.
The files were opened to researchers in March but again became off-limits due to the coronavirus pandemic in Italy.
German historians who managed to examine a number of documents in the massive archives published their initial findings last week in the German weekly Die Zeit. The researchers conclude that the Catholic Church knew about the Holocaust well before it had admitted knowledge of it, and that it appears that the church deliberately concealed documents that might further tarnish the church’s reputation regarding its conduct during the Holocaust.
Pius XII, whose original name was Eugenio Pacelli, had served as the secretary of state of the church before becoming pope in 1939. In the years that followed, during World War II, he chose to remain silent about the Nazi war crimes. His critics called him “Hitler’s pope” as a result and accused him of looking first and foremost after the church’s interests rather than the fate of the Jews.
Supporters of the pope have claimed, however, that his silence was out of fear of Nazi retribution if he condemned the persecution of the Jews. Pope Pius XII worked to help save many Jews, his supporters have said, but he did so behind the scenes rather than publicly.
A group of German historians headed by Professor Hubert Wolf, an expert on the Catholic Church from the University of Munster, examined a number of documents, from the Vatican Archives over a period of a week in early March of this year.
The papers represent just a fraction of the millions of pages of information that the archive has made public on instructions from the current pope, Pope Francis. The researchers found documents that indicate that Pius XII had received detailed information on the mass murder of Jews as far back as 1942.
One document cited in the article in Die Zeit is a letter from the United States that was sent to the Vatican on September 27, 1942 that includes a detailed account of the large-scale killing of Jews across Nazi-occupied Poland.
The report had been sent a month earlier from the Geneva office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine to its office in the United States. It was passed along to the Vatican by Myron Charles Taylor, President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the pope. The German historians found proof that Pius XII read the report on the day on which is was received.
The report spoke of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto being at its height, and stated that all of the Jews, regardless of age or gender, were being rounded up, taken out of the ghetto and shot.
Mass extermination, the report said, was not being carried out in Warsaw, but rather in camps that had been especially established for that purpose.
The report specifically mentioned the murder of about 50,000 in Lvov (today’s western Ukraine, then in Poland) and that according to another account, 100,000 had been killed in Warsaw. It chillingly added that in all of eastern Poland, including areas occupied by the Russians, there remained no Jews alive.
Pope Pius XII would also have learned from the report that Jews from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovakia had been transported to Eastern Europe, where they were slaughtered. The Germans had also managed to incite Polish Catholics against the Jews in their country, the report stated. This allegation is particularly significant in light of research indicating the considerable involvement of Poles in assisting the Germans in the persecution of Jews.
Taylor – Roosevelt’s envoy – asked the Vatican to clarify whether it had information that could corroborate the information in the report. Taylor asked that, if in fact the information could be confirmed, the Holy See take action to enlist public opinion and mobilize the civilized world to put a halt to the killings.
The new research indicates that after the pope read the letter and the report, Vatican Secretary of State Luigi Maglione wrote: “I don’t believe we have information that confirms this serious news in detail. Correct?” Other documents show, however, that at the time, the Vatican did have sufficient information to confirm and expand on the report from the Americans, but that out of anti-Semitic and political motivations, Vatican officials chose to minimize and discount their value.
On September 18, nine days before the report was received from the United States, the Vatican received a report of similar seriousness from another source. An Italian businessman who had visited Poland reported to Pius XII’s assistant, Giovanni Battista Montini, who was later to become Pope Paul VI, of slaughter of “shocking” proportions day after day and of the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos in Poland.
Additional information from within the church itself had been received even before the businessman’s account. As has been published in the past, in August 1942 Ukrainian Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki informed the Vatican about atrocities that he had witnessed in the Lvov ghetto.
Pope Pius XII was not quick to respond to the American request from Taylor for information confirming the Jewish Agency report. After failing to provide an answer, the Vatican received another request from the Americans on October 1, 1942.
Following that, in internal correspondence, Cardinal Montini wrote that the Americans should be told that the Holy See “had heard about the harsh treatment of the Jews,” but had no way of assessing the accuracy of the information. A letter to that effect was sent by the Vatican to the United States on October 10, 1942.
In an effort to understand what lay behind Pius XII’s approach to the issue, the historians cite an internal memorandum from a papal adviser, Angelo Dell’Acqua, that casts doubt on the authenticity of information from the Jewish Agency about the extermination of the Jews of Poland. The information needs “to be verified,” the memo states, “because the Jews also tend to easily exaggerate.”
In other words, a secretary to the pope was claiming that, due to the Jews’ nature, the report of mass murder might be an exaggeration. Dell’Acqua also cast doubt on the report of the archbishop from Lvov, writing that eastern Catholics were not “an example of reliability.”
Dell’Acqua also expressed concern that the American request for confirmation of the Jewish Agency report was issued out of “political” motives – to arrive at a public understanding between the Holy See and the United States on “the Jewish question.”
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Dell’Acqua warned that such a step might endanger not only the Vatican but also the well-being of the Jews themselves, adding that targeted, sporadic efforts on the part of priests, such as a protest by French bishops over the expulsion of the Jews, would suffice.
Two months later, in December 1942, the United States received reliable information about mass killings from the London-based Polish government in exile. Following that, on December 17, the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain issued a joint statement condemning the Germans’ extermination of the Jews.
Pope Pius XII’s was not a party to the statement. Instead, in a Christmas message, he made note of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been sent to their deaths due to their national identities or their backgrounds, but never explicitly used the word “Jews.”
The newly disclosed documentation is just one piece in a larger puzzle most of which still remains to be solved. The Holy See did not issue even a single statement in condemnation of the expulsion of Jews to extermination camps, but in 1944, the pope sent a cable to the ruler of Hungary asking to put a halt to the expulsion of Hungarian Jews.
The pope’s envoy in Hungary, Angelo Rota, was recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority as a righteous gentile during the Holocaust, but historians should now be able to verify the extent of the pope’s involvement in Rota’s work.
They can also verify whether priests who – in France and the Netherlands, for example – publicly condemned the persecution of the Jews were acting of the own initiative or on confidential orders from the pope.
Over the years, the Vatican has defended Pius XII’s conduct, claiming that he worked to better the situation of the Jews. In 1999, the Vatican agreed to appoint a joint Catholic and Jewish team of historians to examine Pius XII’s conduct with regard to the Jews during the Holocaust. For that purpose, the Vatican made a variety of documentation available, but not the entire contents of the archive.
In an initial report published in 2000, the research team stated that Pius XII had received detailed and ongoing accounts of the persecution of Jews in countries under Nazi occupation, and that he was aware of the Nazis’ mass expulsions and atrocities.
But the team also stated that based on the information at its disposal, it was not clear whether Pius XII or other senior Vatican officials knew that these acts were part of a plan for the “Final Solution,” the extermination of the Jews.
The team halted its activities in 2001, after what was described as a lack of readiness on the Vatican’s part to provide the relevant documents from the archives. A year ago, Pope Francis announced that the Vatican Archives would be opened and in March of this year, the complex research process began, until it was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.