The announcement Monday by Pope Francis that secret Vatican archives on the Holocaust-era pope will be opened in a year has researchers hoping for explanations about Pope Pius XII’s silence about the Nazis’ crimes.
Pius has been widely criticized, even dubbed “Hitler’s pope,” for appearing to have done little to stop the genocide, though some have argued that he did take steps behind the scenes to rescue Jews.
Prof. Yehuda Bauer, a senior Holocaust researcher, doesn’t trust the Vatican on this issue, at least based on the limited information it has provided thus far.
“For Pius, the matter of the Jews was a nuisance that needed to be dealt with as little as possible,” Bauer told Haaretz. But, he added, Italian clergy weren’t of one mind about the fate of the Jews in the Holocaust.
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“Many of them hid Jews or supported hiding them, but others collaborated with the Fascist Italian police. It seems that both enjoyed Vatican support, where the main motive was to maintain the power of the church,” he said.
Bauer hopes the Vatican archives can help answer questions raised in past decades, including the extent to which Pius may have been involved in hiding Jews in Italy and abroad. He says most researchers (including at the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and memorial in Jerusalem) believe “there’s no room to assume the pope ordered anyone not to hide Jews or expressed any fear that if they did they would be harmed.”
On the other hand, “it may also turn out that we won’t find any substantive reinforcement of the defenders of Pius that he had clearly hinted about a need to hide and rescue” the Jews, Bauer added.
Pius’ backers say his silence was due to several reasons, including a wish to avert any Nazi retribution were he to condemn the persecution of the Jews; his attempts to check whether it was possible to save Jews by personal, discreet intervention and a fear that the Gestapo would take over the Vatican. For these reasons they believe the pope left it up to the local clergy to respond to the genocide. But to this day it’s unclear whether, in the few cases in which they condemned the persecution — such as in France and the Netherlands — whether it was on orders from Pius or their own initiative. The documents may answer this question as well.
Of particular interest to scholars is the correspondence between the Vatican and the apostolic papal nuncio in Budapest, Angelo Rotta, who has been recognized by Yad Vashem as a righteous among nations, the honor bestowed by Yad Vashem to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. These letters may tell researchers more about the extent of the pope’s involvement in Rota’s actions to save Hungarian Jews and whether he sought to rescue mainly Jews who had converted to Christianity or genuinely feared for the fate of all Jews in the Holocaust.
Rotta took steps to rescue Hungarian Jews during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, from March 19, 1944. He advised the Hungarian government to moderate its plans with regard to the Jews. On the day the deportations of the country’s Jews to the death camps began, May 15, 1944, he protested in behalf of the Church, in vain. Pius did not speak out publicly, but there was an exchange of letters during Miklos Horthy’s rule. On June 25, 1944 Pius sent a telegram to Horthy asking that he change Hungary’s policies toward the Jews. On July 7, Horthy halted the first wave of deportations.
“There is no doubt that the popes protest, in addition to their protests…contributed to Horthy’s decision to stop the deportations,” wrote Sergio Itzhak Minerbi, a historian and diplomat specializing in the Vatican’s relations with the Jews during the Holocaust, in a Yad Vashem periodical.
After the Arrow Cross Party rose to power in Hungary on October 15, 1944, Rotta protested twice against the treatment of the Jews. “Rotta did a lot with the representatives of neutral nations to issue documents on the part of the Vatican to help protect the Jews,” Minerbi wrote. These documents helped rescue 2,500 Jews from the Arrow Cross’ terrorist murders and the article concludes that all these actions helped to rescue the remnants of Hungary Jewry, but also that the pope had failed to issue a single public condemnation against the deportations of Jews to death camps.
The bottom line was that these actions were too late for the hundreds of thousands of Jews already deported from their villages to Auschwitz.
Another correspondence from the archives that would be of great interest to researchers is that between the papal nuncio in Slovakia, Giuseppe Burzio, to the Vatican secretariat. In October 1941 Burzio sent the Vatican a report with information about the systematic murders of Jews. In March 1942 he sent another report in which he wrote that 80,000 Jews had been deported from Slovakia to Poland and many of them to “certain death.”
Burzio’s actions were in addition to that of many other papal nuncios across Europe who wrote to the pontiff about the murders of Jews and appealed to his confidants in hopes of securing a public declaration by the pope against the German horrors. The Vatican archives may have the final pieces of the puzzle including answers from the pope, instructions or a lack thereof that may have been relayed to his diplomats.
Minerbi wrote that Pius was “above all” a diplomat who took care of the interests of the church more than other values he was supposed to represent. He added that the pope seemed to prefer angering the Allies by failing to publicly condemn the murders of Jews over angering Hitler, hence he avoided raising his voice at a time when he may have been able to prevent or at least partially prevented the genocide.
The Vatican has long defended Pius and now historians, Yad Vashem and Israel’s Foreign Ministry hope the Vatican will give them a free access to the materials without raising any obstacles to those seeking to take a look at the stains on his past.
There is some basis for Israel’s qualified hopes: In 1999 a joint team of Jewish and Catholic historians was named to look at Pius’ attitudes toward the Jews during the Holocaust. Their first report issued in 2000 included conclusions based on 11 volumes of documents from the Holocaust which the Vatican had put at the historians’ disposal. The report said that from 1938-45 Pius received detailed reports about the persecution of the Jews in countries under Nazi occupation and there were reports of mass deportations and Nazi atrocities. The team also wrote based on the material it reviewed that it was unclear whether Pius or any senior Vatican officials were aware that “some of the persecution and deportations w ere a part of the final solution.”
In 2001 the team ended its work, after what was described as a lack of readiness on the part of the Vatican to provide relevant documents from its archives. Senior Jewish leaders in New York who were involved in contacts with the Vatican said its refusal to provide access to documents showed there was an effort to prevent the completion of a final report which could have been expected to include serious conclusions regarding the pope’s relations with leaders of the Nazi regime.