When in 1943 1,260 Italian Jews were rounded up by the Nazis within earshot of Rome’s Vatican City, Pope Pius XII did not lift a finger in protest.
The Pope was well-informed about the likely fate of Italian Jews who languished in the yard of a military college for two days. Since the fall of 1942, Pius XII had received detailed reports on the genocide of European Jewry, according to historian and Pulitzer-winner David Kertzer.
The Pope did not protest the deportation of Italian Jews, but his wishes regarding Jews who converted to Catholicism were implemented by the Germans just 800 yards (730 meters) from Vatican walls. During the Rome “round-up” of October 16, 1943, 250 “non-Aryan Catholics” were pulled from the yard before everyone was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chambers.
“It does strike me as odd that of all that has been written about Vatican and papal efforts to save Jews, so little of it has noted that the efforts were directed in good part to Catholics who were either converts from Judaism or children of Jews,” Kertzer, author of “The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler,” told The Times of Israel this week.
For decades, Kertzer delved into Italian and other archives to piece together the activities of the Vatican during World War II. In his award-winning 2014 book, “The Pope and Mussolini,” Kertzer described how Italian Fascism and the Vatican helped strengthen each other during the interwar period.
For “The Pope at War,” Kertzer had access to never-before-seen documents unsealed by Pope Francis II two years ago. The primary sources made clear that although Pius XII was “unhappy with the ongoing murder of Europe’s Jews, he had other priorities,” said Kertzer.
“The recently opened Vatican archives for these years make abundantly clear the focus the Vatican had on coming to the aid of Catholics who were being treated as Jews by the Fascists or Nazis,” Kertzer told The Times of Israel.
In Kertzer’s assessment, the Vatican can do more than open archives, the most sensitive of which — the so-called “personnel files” — has always been off-limits to historians.
“While the Roman Catholic Church in other countries, including France and Germany, has recognized its responsibilities for the demonization of Jews that helped make the Holocaust possible and, in the case of Germany, for promoting Hitler’s war, neither the Vatican nor the Church in Italy has accepted any responsibility,” said the 74-year old Kertzer.
“The Vatican in particular has never acknowledged the role the Italian Church hierarchy played in convincing Italians that it was their duty as good Catholics to take part in the Axis war,” said Kertzer, the author of numerous books and essays on Italian history.
“Italy, too, has not been able to come to terms with its Fascist past, and from Italians today one might well conclude that Italy was part of the Allies during the war rather than a major part of the Axis seeking victory for Hitler,” said the historian.
‘I am amazed at the apologists’
“The Pope at War” does not contain a single “smoking gun” regarding the Pope’s stance on the Holocaust while it took place. However, said Kertzer, several documents unearthed since 2020 paint a clearer picture for historians of the factors behind the Pope’s stance on the systematic slaughter of Europe’s Jews.
One archival discovery revealed in the book is that the Pope engaged in secret dialogues with Hitler through a German prince in the dictator’s circle. In another find pulled from several thousand documents released by the Vatican, the Pope’s top advisor on Jewish affairs urged the pontiff not to protest Mussolini’s order to send most of Italy’s Jews to concentration camps.
“I wish I thought that the Pius XII apologists could have their minds changed through reading my book and confronting the historical evidence, but I have little hope that anything could change their minds,” said Kertzer, a former provost of Brown University. “Indeed, I believe few of them will make the effort to read my book before attacking it (and me),” he said.
For decades, apologists for Pius XII have claimed the pontiff would have done more harm than good by denouncing the Nazis for the slaughter of Jews. After Germany invaded Poland, Pius XII received reports of the genocide from Warsaw and Lvov, but he remained silent.
“I am amazed at the apologists’ claim that having the pope speak out against Hitler’s campaign to exterminate the Jews of Europe would have only made Hitler angrier against Europe’s Jews,” said Kertzer, the son of a rabbi.
“In what world are such apologists living? In one where Hitler was not determined to rid Europe of all its Jews? What they also fail to admit is the extent to which both the Germans and the Italians regularly used the Church history of vilification of Jews to justify their own anti-Jewish campaigns, and the pope’s failure ever to condemn this,” said Kertzer.
In “The Pope at War,” Kertzer determined that antisemitism was not the dominating personality factor of Pius XII. Rather, said Kertzer, the wartime pontiff was chiefly driven by maintaining the church’s power during perilous times.
Pius XII was deeply fearful of communism, which he viewed as de-Christianizing, said Kertzer. Believing he had a personal mission to defeat communism, Pius XII dedicated himself to accommodating Mussolini and Hitler.
The personality of Pius XII was “determinative” in this case, wrote Kertzer. In thousands of ambassador reports, letters sent by Pius XII, and other documents, the pontiff consistently displayed “prudence” in “defending the prerogatives of the Church and not risk reprisal by speaking out,” said Kertzer.
When it became clear the Axis would lose the war, Pius XII retooled the Vatican as a peace-making entity. However, after the war ended, Pius XII refused to help locate the Holocaust’s missing orphans, most of whom grew up Catholic and never returned to Jewish communities.
The wartime activities of Pius XII have been debated for decades, but the topic is still considered verboten in many American churches, said Kertzer.
“While over the many years that I have dealt with these issues I have been invited by a large number of synagogues and Jewish cultural organizations to speak about this history, I don’t recall ever being invited by a church or church cultural organization to speak about it,” said Kertzer.
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