Is the Vatican trying to distort how Pius XII behaved towards Jews?

A day after the opening of the archives about the controversial pope who served between 1939 and 1958, an archive official paints an apologetic picture and the chief rabbi of Rome denounces it.

Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff, appears in an undated file photo from the archives of Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff, appears in an undated file photo from the archives of Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The director of the historical archives relating to the Vatican’s Section for Relations with States, Johan Ickx, penned a column painting an apologetic picture of Pope Pius XII’s behavior toward the Jews during the Nazi-fascist persecutions, on the day the Vatican opened its archives on the pope who served between 1939 and 1958. Ickx’s words prompted the criticism of Chief Rabbi of Rome Riccardo Di Segni.
Ickx’s article appeared on Monday in the Italian-language edition of Vatican News, an official Vatican website.
“Among the papers of the Section for Relations with States accessible in electronic format are the files on the ‘Jews’ with 4,000 names: the story of Liebman, the role of the novelist Waugh. And Ottaviani provided false certificates to the persecuted,” reads the subhead of the piece.
In the text, Ickx explained that a series of files titled “Jews” includes over 170 files with the history of over 4,000 names.
“Among those, there is a majority of requests for help from Catholics of Jewish descent, but there is no shortage of Jewish names,” he wrote.
“The papers will highlight how many and what efforts were made to try to respond to the pleadings for salvation from the persecuted and the needy in danger of life. The hatred of Nazism towards the Catholic Church and the Pope himself will also certainly emerge,” reads another passage of the piece, in a section called “Nazi hatred toward the Church and the Pope.”
“This sensationalism is highly suspicious, with files that are ready and easy conclusions laid out on a tray,” Di Segni commented, speaking to the Italian news agency ANSA. “It does not take much to realize that the scarcity of revelations will become a boomerang for the apologists at all costs.”
The pope’s role vis-à-vis the Nazi and fascist regimes, and the murder of Jews, has been at the center of many controversies over the years, also in consideration of the strenuous defense of Pius XII by the Church itself, with a canonization process that has been initiated and advanced throughout the decades.
For his defenders, Pius XII was a spiritual leader who did his best to work silently to protect the Roman Catholic Church and to allow its representatives to operate in secret to help those in need, Jews included.
For his critics, he is a figure who repeatedly failed to take a strong stance against Hitler or in favor of the Jews and in the face of their annihilation.
ONE OF the most controversial episodes directly involved the Jewish community of Rome.
After the Nazis raided the Italian capital’s Jewish neighborhood on October 16, 1943, many hoped that the pope would not allow their deportation to the Nazi camps, with some experts speculating that the Germans themselves waited over 30 hours before sending those arrested north because they feared the reaction of the pontiff. However, Pius did not intervene. Over 1,000 people were sent to Auschwitz, and only 16 survived.
In the article on Vatican News, Ickx quoted a document by the Washington Presservice dated October 20, 1943, which stated: “On the night of 15-16 October a considerable number of Jews were arrested in various parts of Rome STOP after being held 24 hours in the military academy they were transported to an unknown destination STOP it is said here that the Holy See was concerned that similar events are not repeated and in favor of particular cases.”
The archive official further highlighted that a handwritten note by Pius XII appears on the paper, reading: “Is it prudent that Pressservice sends out this news?” The pope, stated Ickx, was “well aware of the importance of not waking up the sleeping dog, especially the Nazis, with the news of humanitarian actions that started from the Apostolic Palace.”
“It can be clearly seen that there was no desire to stop the train of October 16, [1943, that took Jews detained in Rome to Nazi death camps] and that the help was targeted to protect people who’d been baptized,” Di Segni further told ANSA.
“After saying that [examining the documents] would take years of study, now the solution comes out the first day like the rabbit from the magician’s cylinder. Please let historians work,” the rabbi concluded.
Indeed, according to the Vatican the newly opened files include about two million documents, of which 1,300,000 have already been digitalized and another 700,000 will be digitalized soon.
In order to allow scholars to examine them, the Vatican Archive has organized a special room with 20 computers that can access the documents.
The material does not cover only the war but also the period after and until the end of Pius XII’s papacy. And as Di Segni highlighted in an interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the opening of the archives, some answers about the pope’s attitude toward the Jews might come from what happened in those years.
“He acted in a way that revealed very little sympathy, if not hostility, towards the Jewish people in many circumstances. He did not allow the restitution of baptized Jewish children who had been hidden in convents, did not show any support for the foundation of the State of Israel, was not receptive to those in the church who were reconsidering the teaching of contempt against the Jews,” the rabbi noted. “The problems around Pius XII did not end with the war.”