Pope Francis announced on Monday that he has decided to open fully the Vatican's secret archives on the wartime pontificate of Pope Pius XII, something which Jews have been seeking for decades.
Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust during World War Two by not speaking out forcefully. The Vatican has said Pius worked quietly behind the scenes to save Jews and so as to not worsen the situation for many, including for Catholics in parts of Nazi-occupied Europe.
The archives will open on March 2, 2020, Francis announced in a speech to members of the Vatican's Secret Archives. He said "the Church is not afraid of history," adding that Pius' legacy had been treated with "some prejudice and exaggeration."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry welcomed the Vatican’s decision and “hopes it will allow access to all relevant archives.”
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The American Jewish Committee (AJC), one of the world's leading Jewish groups, welcomed the move.
"For more than 30 years, the AJC has called for the full opening the Holy See's Secret Archives from the period of World War Two," said Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC's International Director of Interreligious Affairs.
"It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the U.S. objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times, to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the Shoah," Rosen told Reuters in an email, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem also released a statement: "We welcome the Vatican's announcement that it will open the archives of Pius XII that concern the years 1939-1958. For years, Yad Vashem has called for the opening of this archive, which will allow objective research and open a research-based, intensive and comprehensive conversation on the matters connected to the conduct of the Vatican and the Catholic Church as a whole during the period of the Holocaust. We hope this decision will allow researachers full access to all the documents housed in this archive."
Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research in Yad Vashem, said the the Vatican's announcement is "a celebration for historians," seeing the archives pivotal role in researchers' attempts to resolve disputes over Pius XII's "controversial character."
"This isn't just any other archive," she added, but warned that "we have to be cautious" in approaching the material. Dr. Nidam-Orvieto also said the conditions under which the archives will be accessible to researchers and to the general public remain unclear.
The main question Yad Vashem researchers would like to find answers for is what had been Vatican's response to the Holocaust, bearing in mind both its political and religious influence. "We clearly know that Pius XII hadn't publicly condemned Nazis' extermination of Jews in direct, clear and unambiguous terms," Dr. Nidam-Orvieto said. "He made some comments, but hadn't called the Jews and the Nazis by name."
She says the Vatican may have operated a strategy of "public silence, with behind the scenes activity," but historical evidence made available so far couldn't provide persuasive arguments to believe that had been the case. "I hope that we'll ... know more of what had been there."
The Simon Wiesenthal Center also welcomed the move. Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the center's Israel director, said that archives could provide "critical answers" for "two cardinal questions regarding the papacy of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust ... The first is what information reached the Vatican regarding Holocaust crimes, and the second is when did that information reach Pius XII."
"We have to keep in mind that the pope had representatives who functioned as ambassadors in many of the countries in which the Jews were being persecuted, and therefore he was almost certainly the recipient of accurate information regarding the fate of the Jews at a relatively early date, most probably before such news reached the Allies," Zuroff said.