Pius XII attitude towards Jews will remain controversial, experts say

The Vatican will open its archives on the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958), a figure who repeatedly failed at taking a strong stance against Hitler.

Pope Pius XII, the pontiff during World War Two, appears in an undated file photo from the archives of Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Pius XII, the pontiff during World War Two, appears in an undated file photo from the archives of Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Scholars throughout the world are waiting for March 2, when after decades of requests, the Vatican will open its archives on the pontificate of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958).
For his critics, he is a figure who repeatedly failed to take a strong stance against Hitler or in favor of the Jews. For his defenders, he was a spiritual leader who did his best to work silently to protect the Roman Catholic and to allow its representatives to operate in secret to help those in need.
The pope’s role vis-à-vis the Nazi and fascist regimes, and the extermination of Jews, have been at the center of many disputes over the years. These disputes have often transcended the borders of historical research.
Considering that some of the documents were previously made accessible, it remains to be seen whether the Vatican’s decision will help solve the controversy.
“I believe that the opening of the archive is a symbolic gesture, I doubt that it will bring significant changes to what is known,” Prof. Manuela Consonni, chair of Holocaust Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, told The Jerusalem Post.
“I’m not saying that nothing interesting will come out of it,” she said. “I think we will find documents that will support better what we know about him.”
Consonni said part of the reason the church did not take a stronger stance against Nazism and fascism was that it felt more affinity with those regimes than with communism, which it considered a greater danger.
“I do not believe that Pius XII wanted the Jews to be annihilated,” she said. “He was silent because he was indifferent, because he was not so interested. Even if scholars were to discover that he secretly did more than what we know so far, this doesn’t change the situation: As pope, he should have raised his voice publicly. It was his moral duty.”
Iael Nidam-Orvieto, director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, expressed satisfaction regarding the possibilities offered to researchers by the opening of the archives.
“All the research that has been carried out on Pius XII so far has been based on very limited documents, while historians did not have access to the main bulk of material,” she told the Post. “Therefore, we can say that our insight on such a controversial topic has been only partial. For this reason, I believe that this is a very important step.”
Nidam-Orvieto said it is going to take many years to reach a fuller picture. “Research is a long process,” she said. “We will have to wait and see.”
“I also believe, like many others, that we are not going to find any revolutionary document,” she said. “I don’t think that history is made through such things, but instead through vast bulks of material that enable better understandings.”
The archives will allow historians to shed new light on issues such as the pope’s policies and strategies, Nidam-Orvieto said, and also his relationship with religious orders and emissaries in different countries and the situation in those countries.
“All of these topics are crucial, and new questions will be opened as well,” she said. “Pius XII is a controversial figure, and this is not going to disappear. But we are going to be much more knowledgeable.”
The question of how the pope acted during the Holocaust is not only important to scholars.
On October 16, 1943, the Nazis raided the Jewish neighborhood in Rome and arrested more than 1,000 people. Many hoped Pius XII might intervene in favor of the local Jews to prevent their deportation. He did not. That is why for Rome’s Jews, who still live and thrive around the same square where their parents and grandparents were rounded up, this is not only a matter of historical research, Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni told the Post.
“The Jews of Rome lived under the rule of the pope for centuries,” he said. “They got rid of it in 1870. But there was always a very peculiar relationship, which reached its dramatic culmination under the Nazi occupation.” Another 1,000 Jews were arrested in the months following the October 16 raid, he added.
“Over 2,000 people were deported from Rome, and, as it is well-known, the Vatican never protested,” Di Segni said. “At the same time, monasteries and convents opened their doors to Jews. The church’s behavior was ambiguous. This has caused very strong reactions among Roman Jews, leaving aside the question of what the pope did or failed to do during the Holocaust in general.”
Di Segni portrayed Pius XII as a “gray” figure.
“There are those who want to make him a saint and those who consider him a completely negative figure,” he said. “I think that his personality and story are very controversial, and gray is therefore the most suited color to describe him.”
However, Di Segni said a less discussed aspect of the pontificate of Pius XII has proven to be far more clear-cut: the pope’s attitude toward the Jewish people after the war and until his death in 1958, a period from which documents are also going to be made public by the Vatican.
“The problems around Pius XII did not end with the war,” he told the Post. “Afterwards, 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, nor to the idea of abolishing the expression ‘Perfidi Judaei’ from the liturgy.” Perfidi Judaei literally means ‘Jews without faith’, but it is commonly understood as ‘evil Jews.’
Di Segni said he never discussed the topic with the popes he had the opportunity to meet, even though he did hint at the problems during Benedictus XVI’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 2010.
“My impression is that the current pope is very cautious and is trying to restrain the enthusiasm of Pius XII’s defenders to reach a balanced judgment [on canonization], even though the temptation of assuming an apologetic attitude is always there,” he said.
Di Segni said he was skeptical that the opening of the archives will radically change the perception of the pope.
“As far as possible surprises are concerned, there is a big question mark. We do not know what we are going to find. I have always thought that if there was something extremely meaningful that could defend the pope’s figure, it would have already been made public, while if there was something negative, we will never know for sure if it will be included,” Di Segni said.