The role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust has been one of the most sensitive issues in Catholic-Jewish relations ever since the end of World War II. On the one hand, the pope’s supporters, inside and outside the Vatican, have pointed to the rescue of many Jews in monasteries and convents in Rome and elsewhere in Europe, coupled with praise for such activities by Jewish leaders.
They also note that the pope intervened on behalf of Hungarian Jews in 1944, a step which proved helpful in stopping the deportations to Auschwitz.
On the other hand, many Jewish and non-Jewish historians and Jewish organizations emphasized his failure to specifically condemn the persecution and mass murder of European Jews, and unequivocally denounce Nazism and the Third Reich. They were also critical of the fact that Pius XII did not explicitly instruct Catholic priests and their followers to refrain from aiding the Nazis in their pursuit of the Jews.
In this regard, the situation differed from country to country, but there is little doubt that in those areas with a high percentage of devout Catholics, such an intervention by the pope could have proven extremely beneficial. It certainly was the case in places where Catholic priests were extremely influential, such as in Slovakia, whose head of state Jozef Tiso was a Catholic priest, and in Croatia where the local church’s support for the genocidal Ustashe regime was notable.
What made this debate particularly frustrating, especially for the pope’s detractors, was the fact that there was no free access to the Vatican archives, a situation that was only strengthened by those critical of Pius XII’s record.
Thus, the decision yesterday by Pope Francis to open the secret Vatican archives was welcomed by many Jewish institutions and organizations, especially those that deal with the Holocaust and Jewish-Catholic relations. Assuming that none of the documents that reflect negatively on the pope and the Catholic Church have been laundered, this step will allow historians to answer the four key questions that will determine how history will view the role of Pius XII, and whether or not he will be declared a saint.
The first of these questions asks what details reached Pius regarding the persecution and murder of the Jews throughout Europe, and whether the information arrived in the Vatican from sources considered reliable by Pius and his close circle. In this regard, the correspondence of the papal nuncios (the Vatican’s “ambassadors”) in European countries that were satellite states of Nazi Germany, will be critical.
The second question asks when did this information reach Rome? Was there still time to influence the fate of the Jewish communities, or had they already been either murdered or deported to death camps?
Assuming that the pope was informed with reliable details of the Final Solution, the third question asks what was his practical response? Did he do something positive that was unknown? And the final question relates to the actual scope of his assistance to Jews; will such details shed light and yield new and unknown information?
It will take at least a few years until we know the answers to all these questions, but they will prove of critical importance in the future of Jewish-Catholic relations.
The writer is the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs coordinator, and is a SWC Nazi war crimes researcher worldwide.