Pope Benedict XVI's appearance at Rome's Great
Synagogue on Sunday did nothing to quell the controversy over plans to
confer sainthood on Pius XII, the wartime pontiff who has been called
Hitler's pope. In fact, he may have made matters worse when just two
days earlier he took a further step in the process by declaring Pius's
prominent Italian rabbi and a number of Holocaust survivors boycotted
the pope's visit in protest the beatification of Pius. Riccardo
Pacifici, the president of Rome's Jewish community, did attend and
declared, "The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah still hurts because
something should have been done."
To this day, the Vatican has produced no hard evidence that
Pius uttered a word or lifted a finger to help when, on October 16,
1943, the Germans rounded up 1,021 Roman Jews and held them for two
days just across the Tiber from the Vatican before sending them to
Auschwitz; only 17 returned after the war.
"The cries of the victims were met by Pius with silence," said
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust
Survivors and Their Descendants.
Benedict told his audience on Sunday that the Church
had aided Jews in a "hidden and discreet way" during the Holocaust, but
he offered no specifics about Pius's own involvement.
IF THERE is evidence it lies buried deep in the Vatican vaults.
For a decade the Church has been promising to open its wartime records
to scholars "soon," but the latest word is it will be at least another
five years. When some prewar archives were opened to a handpicked
Catholic scholar, John Cornwell, to write a Vatican-sanctioned
biography of Pius, he was shocked by what he found.
Pius, who as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, was the
papal nuncio in Germany in the 1920s, the Vatican's secretary of state
in the 1930s and became pontiff in 1939. He drew the Church "into
complicity with the darkest forces of the era," Cornwell wrote. Pius
"was the ideal pope for Hitler's unspeakable plan. He was Hitler's
pawn. He was Hitler's pope... [He was] not only an ideal pope for the
Nazis' Final Solution, but a hypocrite... to his everlasting shame and
to the shame of the Catholic Church."
Tad Szulc, Pope John Paul II's biographer, called Pacelli "the
Fuhrer's best imaginable ally." Pacelli even betrayed Catholic leaders
who might have challenged Hitler and his extermination policies. "He
prevented Catholic protest in defense of Jews, even if they'd converted
to Christianity," Cornwell wrote. Pius also rebuffed a personal plea
from president Franklin D. Roosevelt in late 1942 to publicly condemn
Hitler's extermination of the Jews and refused to meet the chief rabbi
of Jerusalem, Isaac Herzog, who came to appeal for his help in saving
Although Israeli governments have largely avoided the dispute,
calling it an issue between the Jewish people and the Vatican and not a
diplomatic matter involving the two states, Deputy Premier Silvan
Shalom said he raised it Sunday when he was at the Rome synagogue, but
he gave no indication of any response.
Israel and the Vatican currently are involved in a dispute over
Church ownership of property in the country and its tax treatment.
Pius's defenders say he worked quietly and behind the scenes,
and had he spoken out forcefully, it would have only made matters worse
for Jews and Catholics in Nazi-controlled countries. It is difficult to
imagine how much worse conditions could have been for the Jews had he
If Pius really was helpful, it should be easy enough to prove.
The 65 years since the fall of the Nazis are enough time to sort
through the archives for evidence of the pontiff's saintly efforts to
help the Jews. The Vatican is the only country that has not opened its
wartime archives to scholars, Steinberg said.
THE VATICAN'S failure to produce hard evidence that Pius did
anything to help, however, should not detract from the heroism of many
individual nuns, priests and other Catholics who risked their own lives
to rescue thousands of Jews. If anything, their behavior demonstrates
how much the Vatican could have done. The continued refusal to open
archives lends credence to charges against the pope and undermines the
credibility of the Church.
Researchers also believe documents hidden deep in the Vatican
can shed light on information found in the US National Archives
indicating the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasche delivered large quantities of
gold to the Vatican in exchange for help in the escape of high-ranking
Nazis. Other material discovered at the US archives indicate assets
looted by the Nazis and their allies from the Jews and others may have
wound up in Vatican vaults, or at least evidence of where they went. US
government pleas to open the Vatican archives on that subject have been
The Vatican's insistence there is no "smoking gun" is a
"specious argument which turns the burden of proof on its head," said
Steinberg. "The known historical record confirms Pius's silence."
The Vatican insists sainthood is based on his "Christian life,"
not his historical record, but popes have been important political and
diplomatic players, and the two elements cannot be separated, critics
A driving force behind the canonization are Church conservatives opposed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Sunday was Benedict's third visit to a synagogue, an important
move in healing relations between the Church and the Jews; his
predecessor, John Paul II, was only the first pontiff ever to make such
a visit when he went to the Rome synagogue in 1986.
The German-born Benedict, 82, was warmly received, but his
relationship with the Jews has not been without problems. Just a year
ago, he revoked the excommunication of four bishops of the anti-Semitic
Society of St. Pius X, including one notorious Holocaust denier.
Last year, the pope went to Israel and in a speech at Yad
Vashem never mentioned Germany or the Nazis, as his predecessor had
done. Rabbi Yisrael Lau, a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, urged
Benedict, "Don't make [Pius XII] holy," it will only "hurt... deeply"
survivors "knowing that the man who could save, could do much more and
did not do it."