Pope Francis I fans outside Vatican 370.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard )
Monday’s announcement in Vatican City by Pope Francis – that documents from the Vatican’s secret archive regarding Pope Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust era will be open to scholars in March of next year – is an important step in setting the record straight and shedding light on a dark period for the Vatican, the Catholic Church and, of course, the Jewish people.
The documents are expected to include various letters and messages between the pope and other Vatican officials at the time, with Catholic clergy throughout Europe, as well as communications between the Vatican with pious Catholics who served as senior military or government officials, and with Catholics of lesser rank who may have provided reports to church officials about what was happening in Nazi-controlled territories.
The light that could be shed by such documents may prove how much Pius and the Catholic leadership were aware of genocide of the Jewish people taking place at the hands of the Nazis, and what considerations took place in their public statements and behind-the-scenes actions.
Pius was pope from March 2, 1939, until October 9, 1958, and his role during the Holocaust has always been a subject of controversy. Some critics claim that he didn’t lift a finger to help Jews who were sent to their deaths, but the Vatican maintains that he was conducting quiet diplomacy behind the scenes.
The Vatican points to the rescue of many Jews in monasteries and convents in Rome and elsewhere in Europe, as well as the pope’s intervention on behalf of Hungarian Jews in 1944, a step which proved helpful in stopping the deportations to Auschwitz.
However, Jewish organizations, which have been appealing to the Vatican for years to open the archives, have long claimed that it did not do enough to stop Hitler’s massacre during World War II and for failing to speak out forcefully enough as the horrors of the Holocaust began to emerge.
Specifically, according to Holocaust historian and head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel Dr. Efraim Zuroff, Pius never specifically denounced the Nazi persecution and the mass murder of European Jews, or called upon Catholics to help save Jews from persecution.
The frustrating fact is that until now, there has been no free access to the Vatican’s archives; this has only sharpened the cases of the pope’s detractors and defenders.
In his announcement, Francis stated that the opening of the archives would allow “serious and objective historical research” to “evaluate, in the proper light and with appropriate criticism, the praiseworthy moments of the Pontiff and, without any doubt, also moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions.”
He was referring to moves that in hindsight some may see as “reticence,” but according to Francis were attempts to keep humanitarian initiatives alive.
Yad Vashem commended the Vatican for its decision “which will enable objective and open research as well as comprehensive discourse on issues related to the conduct of the Vatican in particular, and the Catholic Church in general, during the Holocaust.” And Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem-based director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department of Interreligious Affair, said that the decision is “enormously important to Catholic-Jewish relations.”
According to Zuroff, in an interview with the Post’s Jeremy Sharon, in order to actually reach a common agreement on this murky chapter of Jewish-Catholic history, the documents in the archives need to answer “two cardinal questions” regarding Pius’s papacy to resolve the issue – what information reached the Vatican regarding Holocaust crimes, and when did that information reach Pius?
Nobody, from prime ministers to popes, should hide the truth behind classified documents. It’s never too late to come clean and clarify what really happened, even if it reveals shortcomings and grievous neglect in the behavior of the principals. Pope Francis’s announcement of the opening of the secret archives is welcome, but only if the documents have not been edited, censored or selectively removed.
The world – and the Jewish people – deserve to know about the Vatican’s role during the Holocaust – perhaps now they will.
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