Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, who caused a storm in the Jewish world by
praising Pope Pius XII for saving Jews during World War II, backtracked on
Sunday, saying his judgement was “historically premature.”
researcher of Nazi war crimes, however, fears that despite the retraction,
damage might have already been done.
The comments last Thursday by
Ambassador Mordechay Lewy were some of the warmest ever made by a Jewish
official about Pius. Most have been very critical of his record.
quickly assailed by some Jewish groups, including Holocaust survivors.
what appeared to be an attempt to calm the dispute within the world Jewish
community, Lewy said his comments were “embedded in a larger historical
“Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of
ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was
premature,” he said.
But Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon
Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and researcher of Nazi war crimes, expressed on
Sunday his disappointment at Lewy’s initial remarks, and the fear that “what he
said will be used by those with other agendas,” despite Sunday’s
“The comments made by Lewy were particularly unfortunate,
given the fact that the historical record regarding Pious’s activities and
attitudes toward the persecution and mass murder of European Jewry during the
Holocaust has still not been fully clarified, and there is a strong basis to
believe that his record leaves much to be desired,” Zuroff told The Jerusalem
“His failure to openly and unequivocally speak out against the mass
murder of the Jews remains a glaring problem in the attitude of the Vatican
toward the Holocaust,” Zuroff said of Pius. “For this reason and others, Jewish
organizations and other groups have justifiably asked that the process of
turning him into a saint be halted until all documentation regarding his role
during the Holocaust will be made available to researchers.”
Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor didn't wish to comment on Lewy’s remarks, but
used the opportunity to stress the importance of the Vatican opening its
archives in order to reveal the truth about the Holocaust- era pope.
is the known position of many among Jewish communities and in israel that Pius
remained silent, when a strong moral voice needed to be raised,” he said. “His
historical role, however, must be determined by historians who need free and
full access to relevant archives. We reiterate our call to the Vatican to allow
such access to historians, so as to enable them to carry out their work and
bring to light the historical truth.”
The question of what Pius did or
did not do to help Jews has tormented Catholic-Jewish relations for decades, and
it is very rare for a leading Jewish or Israeli official to praise
Many accuse Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind
eye to the Holocaust.
The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the
scenes because speaking out would have led to German reprisals against Catholics
and Jews in Europe.
Lewy, speaking at a ceremony to honor an Italian
priest who helped Jews, had said Catholic convents and monasteries opened their
doors to save Jews in the days following a Nazi sweep of Rome’s Ghetto on
October 16, 1943.
In his speech on Thursday night, Lewy said: “There is
reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest
Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on.
would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope
himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is
true,” he said.
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering
of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, had called Lewy’s comments
“For any ambassador to make such specious comments is
morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to
Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius’s silence,”
Steinberg said in a statement.
When Pope Benedict visited the Great
Synagogue of Rome last year, the president of the city’s Jewish community told
him that Pius’s “silence before the Holocaust” still hurt Jews because more
should have been done.
Many Jews responded angrily last year when
Benedict said in a book that Pius was “one of the great righteous men and that
he saved more Jews than anyone else.”