Researchers studying the newly opened Vatican archives of pope Pius XII have already found evidence that the World War II-era pope knew about the mass killing of Jews from his own sources but kept it from the US government, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing interviews with German scholars.
The archives were opened March 2, but closed soon after due to the coronavirus crisis. Many of the 200 scholars who had applied for access delayed their trips. However, a German team lead by award-winning religious historian Hubert Wolf from the University of Münster made a start and has already found some damning discoveries.
Some Jewish groups and historians have said Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, stayed silent during the Holocaust and didn’t do enough to save lives. His defenders at the Vatican and beyond say he used quiet diplomacy and encouraged convents and other religious institutes to hide Jews.
Wolf last week told Kirche + Leben, a Catholic weekly in Münster, that his team found documents that were excluded from the 11-volume work compiled by Jesuits on the Holocaust four decades ago, apparently to protect Pius and his image.
In September 1942, A US diplomat gave the Vatican a secret report prepared by the Jewish Agency that documented the mass murder of some 100,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. It also said some 50,000 Jews were killed in Lviv in German-occupied Ukraine.
The US asked if the Vatican could confirm the report from its own sources among Catholics, but were told the Vatican could not.
However, in the week the archive was open, Wolf a specialist on the relationship of Pius XII with the Nazis, and his team, discovered a note confirming that Pius had read the American report and also two instances where the Vatican had independently corroborated the reports of the killings.
One letter from the Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop of Lviv, Andrey Sheptytsky, sent a month before the American request, spoke of 200,000 Jews massacred in Ukraine under the “outright diabolical” German occupation.
In another case, an Italian businessman named Malvezzi told Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future pope Paul VI, of the “incredible butchery” of Jews he had seen during a visit to Warsaw.
Montini reported this to his superior, the Vatican’s secretary of state Cardinal Luigi Maglione, the report said.
These two reports were detailed in a memo by another staffer at the Secretariat of State, Angelo Dell’Acqua, who later became a cardinal, Wolf told the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit.
In the letter Dell’Acqua warned against believing the Jewish report because Jews “easily exaggerate” and “Orientals” — referring to Archbishop Sheptytsky — “are really not an example of honesty.”
“This is a key document that has been kept hidden from us because it is clearly anti-Semitic and shows why Pius XII did not speak out against the Holocaust,” Wolf told Kirche + Leben.
He said the previously published 11 volumes of documents had also mixed up the chronological order, making it difficult to understand the context of actions taken.
The report also said that researchers had found three photographs “showing emaciated concentration camp inmates and corpses thrown into a mass grave.”
A Jewish informer had given them to the Vatican ambassador, or nuncio, in neutral Switzerland to send to the Vatican, which confirmed reception of them in a letter two weeks later.
Ahead of the opening of the archive Wolf said he was anxious to discover the notes of Pius’s 70 ambassadors — the pontiff’s eyes and ears during his time as head of the Catholic Church between 1939 and his death in 1958.
There should also be records of urgent appeals for help from Jewish organizations, as well as his communications with the late US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
And while the 11 volumes already published have been deeply studied, some crucial pieces are still missing, including the pope’s replies to notes and letters — for example, those about Nazi horrors.
The Jesuits already published “documents the pope received about the concentration camps, but we never got to see his replies,” Wolf said in an interview with AFP. “Either they do not exist, or they are in the Vatican.”
Historians have already examined the 12 German years of Eugenio Pacelli, the real name of the future pope, which he used while posted to Germany as the Holy See ambassador in 1917-1929.
There, he witnessed the rise of Nazism, and then returned to Rome to become the right-hand man of his predecessor Pius XI, elected in 1922.
Past archives have revealed exchanges in which he was alerted about the extermination of European Jews once he himself became the pope.
“There is no doubt that the pope was aware of the murder of Jews,” Wolf said. “What really interests us is when he learned about it for the first time, and when he believed that information.”
On December 24, 1942, Pius XII delivered one of history’s most debated Christmas radio messages.
Buried in its long text was a reference to “hundreds of thousands of people who, without any fault of their own and sometimes for the sole reason of their nationality or race, were doomed to death or gradual extermination.”
Was his message — delivered in Italian and aired just once, and which never explicitly mentioned either the Jews or Nazis — heard and understood by German Catholics?
“The only ones who heard it were the Nazis,” said Wolf, noting that the radio waves were scrambled and that the pope could have spoken German — if he had really wanted to reach the German faithful.
Those who rise to the pope’s defense note that Pius XII was a former diplomat who was trained in prudence, anxious to remain neutral in time of war, and concerned about being able to shield Catholics from the unfolding devastation.
He simply could not be any more explicit, Pius XII’s supporters say. Historians estimate the Church hid around 4,000 Jews in its Roman institutions during the war.
Jewish groups and historians have argued for years that the Vatican had no business moving forward with Pius’ beatification cause until the Vatican’s full archives were opened. They have also asked that any beatification be put off until the generation of Holocaust survivors have died.
Pope Benedict XVI moved Pius one step closer to possible sainthood in December 2009, when he confirmed that Pius lived a life of “heroic” Christian virtue. All that is needed now is for the Vatican to determine a “miracle” occurred.
Pope Francis said in 2014 that the miracle hadn’t been identified, suggesting that the process would remain on hold, at least for now.