The following are some uncontested historical facts about the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust:

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Pius XII never condemned Hitler or the Nazis by name.

He never mentioned specifically the suffering of the Jews, though many people, both clergy and lay diplomats, pleaded with him to issue a public condemnation.

In October, 1943, the Jews were rounded up in Rome itself; the cattle trucks drove past St. Peter’s, with the tiny, shivering hands of the incarcerated children hanging through the slats. The Pope, sitting in St. Peter’s, still said nothing at all.

I mention these facts because I have just learned of the decision of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum and Memorial, to change the wording of an exhibit on Pope Pius XII’s actions during World War II. The changes were meant to soften the criticism of the original wording, which was neither inaccurate nor overly harsh to begin with. 

We are all familiar with the arguments put forward to explain the behavior of the Pope: that he feared a furious reaction from the Nazis if he were to speak out publicly; that Nazi retaliation might have made things worse for the Jews; that church interests in Europe would have been harmed, surely a legitimate papal concern; that the Pope encouraged help for the Jews in secret, and that this help was forthcoming in innumerable cases.

I have done my best to understand these points. They are weighty arguments, and the history of the period is not simple. But I keep coming back to those Jewish children in Rome, being transported past St. Peter’s, and I simply cannot understand the failure of the Pope to speak out. This failure is a great moral stain that can never be wiped away.

I write as someone who is an enthusiastic advocate of Jewish-Catholic dialogue and cooperation, and as someone who believes—and has publicly stated innumerable times—that more progress has been made in Catholic-Jewish relations in the last 60 years than was made in the previous two millennia. Led and inspired by John XXIII and John Paul II, the Church has taken vigorous and daring steps to promote a new relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people. Indeed, I doubt if we could find any other example in history of a church initiating a process of such profound repentance, acknowledging the sins of its members over a 2000 year period against the practitioners of the religious tradition from which it sprang.

But I remember the words of my teacher and friend, the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. Rabbi Hertzberg was both liberal in outlook and a fervent bridge builder; he believed that the values of the Jewish tradition and the realities of the modern world required that the Jewish people and the State of Israel cultivate strong relations with the Catholic Church, as well as with the Moslem world and all major faith traditions. Yet he was also a serious historian who had studied the actions of Pius XII during the Holocaust and had been repelled by them, and he had been infuriated by the refusal of the Vatican to open to scholars its archives of the period. 

By all means, he would say to me, let us look to the future and build strong ties with the Church. But, he warned me, let no one alter the historical record, and above all, don’t forget those children.

Rabbi Hertzberg, I believe, would not be pleased by the actions of Yad Vashem. If he were here, he would protest, and so do I.  

Update: Yad Vashem responds

Yad Vashem''s carefully weighed act

By Prof. Dan Michman, Head of the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research

Rabbi Eric Yoffie expressed his critical feelings toward the updates Yad Vashem has made in the wording of the panel on the Vatican in the Holocaust History Museum. He is of course entitled to do so. However, it must be noted that a more complex understanding of the issues does in and of itself ''alter the historical record'' as he says. Nor was the change ''meant to soften the criticism'' as Rabbi Yoffie wrongly assumes, but rather to better reflect the complexities of the issue.

Anyone following the developments in research on Popes Pius XI and XII and the Catholic Church in general vis-a-vis the Holocaust in the past decade (and especially after the opening of the archives for the years up to 1939), will admit, that a lot more material (though clearly not enough) had been unearthed and researched, relating to the entire period and the whole European continent; the serious scholarly literature of this latest period fills several bookshelves. Yad Vashem itself convened a workshop on the issue with internationally recognized scholars, from the full gamut of opinion on Pius XII, some three years ago, and the proceedings will be published in the near future.

This research, coupled with new documentation, has changed emphases, while intensifying the debate. That fact, and the recurring question by visitors to the museum vis-a-vis the former wording pointing to Pius XII being "controversial" without explaining the controversy, is reflected in the new formulation (which gives place also to the even harsher evaluation of Pius XII having failed morally, which did not appear in the former text). Yad Vashem now emphasizes the Vatican in general, and moreover: confronts the visitor with the original text of the 1942 Christmas radio address which is at the heart of the entire polemic, because it occurred a week after the Allied declaration of December 17 which explicitly dealt with the systematic mass murder of the Jews, a declaration which the pope did not join.

A short text in a historical museum with its extreme space limitations cannot express all standpoints, nuances and details, definitely of an intensive debate. Its purpose is to urge the visitor to contemplate on essential issues, with the help of accurate facts and glimpses of the scholarly discourse. Thus the new text presents these historical facts, followed by a brief explanation of the controversy, while urging archives to be opened to enable further study.

Rabbi Dr. Arthur Hertzberg, was a fine scholar, next to the important role he played in Jewish public affairs. Some of the Yad Vashem scholars who formulated the new text, including myself, also knew him personally; and having known him, I am not sure at all that he would have protested Yad Vashem''s carefully weighed act.

Rabbi Yoffie''s response to Yad Vashem''s Prof. Michman

I have read Professor Michman’s comments, and I am not convinced. 

I recognize the complexity of the issue and the need to consider new research; I also acknowledge that a short text in a historical museum does not allow for full discussion and appropriate context. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the changes in the exhibit were indeed intended to soften criticism of Pope Pius XII.   Many observers made the same observation, including the New York Times

The intention of the changes, as Professor Michman notes, was to focus less on the specific responsibility of the Pope and more on the responsibility of the Vatican. More generally, it seems to me, the intention was to provide greater “balance” between the Pope’s critics and defenders. But I continue to believe that based on the evidence we possess, the Pope must bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the Church’s silence. I also believe that in this situation, “balance” is neither appropriate nor justified, especially since the Church has yet to open its archives from the war years after 1939. 

As to Rabbi Hertzberg, I can simply say that all who were fortunate enough to know him, learn from him, and hear him speak about these matters will decide for themselves how he would have responded.

I greatly admire Yad Vashem, which has done invaluable work for the Jewish people, and my comments are offered in that spirit. 

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

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