ROME (ChurchMilitant.com) - With the recent commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany, several prominent researchers are taking issue with media that have uncritically repeated accusations that the wartime Pope Pius XII had supposedly covered up or withheld information about the genocide of Jews.
The Washington Post, Smithsonian Magazine, The Times of Israel and others reported that German researchers, led by Catholic historian Hubert Wolf, discovered a memo in the Vatican archives in early March that confirmed that Pius XII had read a contemporary American report during World War II on the extermination of Jews.
Wolf told Die Zeit of Germany on April 22 that his team also found evidence that Vatican sources had independently corroborated reports of the killings. "There is no doubt that the pope was aware of the murder of Jews," Wolf claimed. "What really interests us is when he learned about it for the first time and when he believed that information."
The memo is absent from 12 volumes of records of World War II published by the Vatican. "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 Catholic weekly Kirche + Leben of Germany, as quoted by Religion News Service.
The Vatican archives were temporarily shut down in March, following the lockdown of Vatican City owing to the Wuhan virus pandemic. This denied access to researchers other than Wolf who can corroborate or challenge his assertions.
Religion News Service reported:
German researchers found that the pope, who never directly criticized the Nazi slaughter of Jews, knew from his own sources about Berlin's death campaign early on. But he kept this from the U.S. government after an aide argued that Jews and Ukrainians — his main sources — could not be trusted because they lied and exaggerated, according to the researchers. The researchers also discovered the Vatican hid these and other sensitive documents presumably to protect Pius' image, a finding that will embarrass the Roman Catholic Church still struggling with its covering up of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
On May 5, the Trumpet — the anti-Catholic official publication of the evangelical Christian Philadelphia Church of God — reported on a letter sent by President Franklin Roosevelt's envoy to the Vatican, Myron Charles Taylor, asking for confirmation in early 1942 of a report that Jews were being exterminated in Nazi death camps.
"The report also detailed that Jews from Germany, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Belgium were also transported to Poland to be slaughtered," the Trumpet wrote. On Dec. 17, 1942, after more evidence surfaced of Nazi mass killings of the Jews, Britain, the United States and Russia came together to issue a joint statement revealing the Nazi extermination policy to the world. But the Vatican still remained silent."
The Trumpet sought to compare the pope unfavorably to the allies' statement known as "A Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations," which was published on the front page of the New York Times and elsewhere.
Doino said that in the past, he was favorably impressed with Wolf's work, noting that both he and Prof. Rychlak had praised him for his 2010 book, Pope and Devil: the Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich as a "mostly objective and informative book."
But, Doino said, "These days Professor Wolf appears more interested in producing sensational, headline-making material rather than dispassionate, high-quality scholarship." Doino added that contrary to the reports in legacy media, there has been no "Holocaust cover-up" by the Vatican either during years of Nazi rule, or today.
In an interview, Doino said, "Wolf is recycling old, discredited allegations." Asked whether the documents that Wolf broadcast offers any new proof that Pius XII supposedly collaborated with the extermination of European Jews, Doino replied, "No, quite the opposite. What it does do is give us an opportunity to vindicate the pope and show how the critics misuse and selectively quote from documents that mean the exact opposite of what they claim."
Doino recalled that the Vatican began opening its archives in 1965 to reveal thousands of papal and diocesan documents in 12 volumes in several languages on diplomatic and other efforts on behalf of persecuted people during World War II. Because there were millions of documents, Doino said, the documents that entered those volumes were necessarily selective. Edited by several Jesuit priests, Doino said, "The documents show concretely that the Vatican was aware of the persecution and also took action."
"So all of the claims that Wolf and his research team find this document, and that this proves that the Vatican was told about the Holocaust and then sat on the information because they were indifferent or anti-Semitic, is all absolutely and demonstrably untrue," said Doino. "The reality is that the documents, which the Vatican had already released years ago, already prove and reveal what the Vatican authorities knew."
"Wolf didn't discover anything. Furthermore, the documents reveal that Pius XII knew in 1941. So Wolf is a year off," he added. "It wasn't in 1942. Scholars know that it was in 1941 that the Nazis started their roving death squads known as Einsatzgruppen and slaughtering Jews en masse."
This was something of which Pius XII was well aware, Doino said, noting that before his elevation to the papacy, the former cardinal Eugenio Pacelli had served as papal representative to Germany and knew of Nazism's rise. Pacelli also served as secretary of state to Pius XI, his predecessor in the papacy.
Doino contributed to The Pius War: Responses to Critics of Pius XII with a nearly 200-page bibliography with annotations and commentary that has proven to be of great value to scholars.
The myth of a supposedly "anti-Semitic" and "silent" Pius XII has gained currency in the decades since his death in 1958, even though he earned plaudits from grateful survivors of the Holocaust, some of whom took shelter at the Vatican and the pope's Castel Gandolfo summer residence.
In addition, faithful Catholics throughout Europe took heed of Pius' appeals to preserve the lives of persecuted people, adhering to their faith in Christ and even at the cost of their lives. Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide, for example, estimates that Pius XII and Church officials saved at least 860,000 Jews during the Holocaust.
Another Jewish historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, the authoritative biographer of Winston Churchill and chronicler of WW II and Nazi genocide, recounted many of their stories in his book The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust. Before his death, Gilbert called for Pius XII to be included among the Righteous Gentiles commemorated at Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial for victims of the Holocaust and their Gentile defenders.
The Soviet Union started a campaign during WW II and into the 1950s to discredit the pope and the Catholic Church, owing to communist hatred of religion and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's paranoid belief that the Church was aligned with the United States in the Cold War. Former Romanian communist spy Ion Pacepa, coauthor with Prof. Rychlak of Disinformation, wrote in 2007, "In my other life, when I was at the center of Moscow's foreign-intelligence wars, I myself was caught up in a deliberate Kremlin effort to smear the Vatican by portraying Pope Pius XII as a coldhearted Nazi sympathizer."
In a later interview, Pacepa said Stalin originated the idea to blacken the reputation of the Church and eject it from Ukraine. In a June 3, 1945 Radio Moscow address, Stalin slammed Pius XII as "Hitler's pope," even though it came just one day after the pontiff condemned the "satanic specter of Nazism" on Vatican Radio. President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and physicist Albert Einstein had all applauded Pius XII as a great humanitarian, as did Jewish leaders during WW II.
Professor Limore Yagil of Sorbonne University responded to The Trumpet's allegations point by point. In an e-mail response to Church Militant, Yagil sought to dispel accusations of the alleged "silence" on the pope's part. She recalled that Pius XII deplored in a 1942 Christmas message on Vatican Radio that "hundreds of thousands of people who, without any fault on their part, and sometimes for the sole fact of their nationality or race, have been doomed to death or progressive extermination." The Trumpet and other critics have disparaged the Christmas message because it did not specify Jews.
For Catholics in Europe, almost since the publication by Pope Pius XI of the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, to which [the former cardinal] Eugenio Pacelli had contributed, there was no need to mention Jews explicitly. It was clear to every Catholic that the war against Nazism was a means of helping Jews; that Jews are human beings, as others; and that every Catholic should help in Christian charity and for Jews.
The U.S. State Department applauded the Christmas message, according to American diplomat Harold Tittmann Jr., who later wrote Inside the Vatican of Pius XII: the Memoir of an American Diplomat During World War II. Tittmann told the State Department that: "Taken as a whole, the message may be regarded as an arraignment of totalitarianism. Furthermore, the reference to the persecution of the Jews and mass deportations is unmistakable."
Yagil noted that while Pius XII did not mention Jews explicitly, "Christians all over Europe understood what he meant and what they should do in order to help Jews." She said that the pope was "not the leader of a nation," and could not join leaders of nations in their criticisms of the Nazi extermination policy. Many of his defenders have said that if Pius XII had directly criticized Germany, he would have sparked more severe persecution.
Yagil wrote: "Pius XII was above all a diplomat, and he chose to act discreetly. How? By sending money, by helping bishops and religious people to resist Nazi extermination, by organizing a network to help Jews and other people." She added that Pius XII sent money to France to help Jews in concentration camps and organize a rescue network.
Yagil wrote that because of the "internal logic of the Catholic Church, the pope cannot defend only Jews." While he encouraged people to help Jews and other human beings, Pius XII could not act in the same way as political leaders did, she wrote.
But the most important question is not why Pius XII was silent officially and acted discreetly, but why did Roosevelt do nothing to help Jews in extermination camps? Why didn't Winston Churchill send the air force or the resistance to organize the escape of Jews from extermination camps? And why did the French resistance let the trains full of Jews go from Drancy to Auschwitz without doing anything? Pope Pius XII did what he should as a moral leader. He encouraged by various ways those who wanted to help Jews.
"We should also ask what was the result of the common statement of December 1942? Did this statement contribute to any change in the Nazi policy of extermination? The answer is no!" she said of the 1942 Joint Declaration by the allies. "But on the other hand, we have the secret activities of Pius XII and other priests and bishops who acted against racism and Nazism to contribute to rescuing Jews from extermination."
"In conclusion," Yagil wrote, "Pius XII was not anti-Semitic."
Professor Yagil is the author of Chrétiens et juifs en France sous Vichy, 1940–1944: sauvetage et désobéissance civile [Christians and Jews in France Under Vichy, 1940–1944: Rescue and Civil Disobedience], and Catholiques religieux au secours des Juifs en France [Religious Catholics Helping Jews in France]. A native of Israel, Yagil has also advised the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and Yad Vashem.
Professor Rychlak, the author of three major works on the Holocaust, the Catholic Church and Nazism, joined Prof. Yagil and author Doino at a January 2020 conference at the United Nations sponsored by the Vatican's Permanent Observer Mission and the Pave the Way Foundation (PTWF).
The event commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. PTWF is a nonprofit founded by Gary Krupp that fosters good relations between Jews and Catholics. At the conference, Rychlak chronicled the Soviet disinformation campaign against Pius XII and the Catholic Church, which has been echoed by critics today.
In an interview with Church Militant, Rychlak revealed Pius XII's efforts during WW II even extended to assisting in three attempts to overthrow Adolf Hitler. This is revealed, he said, in Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling. These were among several attempts against the Nazi leader that culminated with Operation Valkyrie, in which Catholic nobleman Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in July 1944 that failed to kill Hitler. Stauffenberg, who had justified the assassination attempt under natural law to prevent the murder of millions, was killed later by a Nazi firing squad.
Rychlak told Church Militant that his book Hitler, the War and the Pope recounts the 1942 American report to Pius XII to which researcher Wolf refers. The report said that observers in Ukraine claimed that Jews were being killed en masse and their bodies rendered for fat and fertilizer.
Notes on the document made by Vatican officials indicate that Church officials were indeed aware of mass killings, Rychlak said, but could not verify the details of Nazi death camps. While the notes indicate that a Vatican official may have believed that Jewish and Ukrainian sources for the report may not have been accurate, Rychlak said that the remarks are not anti-Semitic. He added that rather than burying the report, Pius XII sent it back for comments.
"I don't see how you can take this internal memo," Rychlak said, "and argue that it is anti-Semitic and that it is why Pius XII made his decisions, especially in light of Mark Reibling's book Church of Spies that shows that the pope was involved in a plot to kill Hitler." "I think that Wolf has found a document that is worth looking at but has completely blown it out of proportion."
Rychlak said that the recognition of the saintliness of Pius XII is well underway: He was declared a Servant of God in 1990 and venerable in 2009.
Recognition of the pope's worthiness has come from outside of the Church, as well. He noted that Rabbi David Dalin, who wrote The Myth of Hitler's Pope, proposed that Pius XII be proclaimed "Righteous Among the Nations" at Yad Vashem.
Dalin wrote in The Weekly Standard that Pius XII fulfilled the "Talmudic dictum" that whosoever preserves one life is accounted by Scripture as if having preserved the whole world "more than any other 20th-century leader."
"No other pope had been so widely praised by Jews, and they were not mistaken. Their gratitude, as well as that of the entire generation of Holocaust survivors, testifies that Pius XII was, genuinely and profoundly, a righteous gentile," he said. "Claims to the contrary," he wrote, are "wrong-headed."