Don’t Whitewash the Shameful Holocaust Record of Pope Pius XII
Some Catholic media outlets have recently been posting articles about how Pope Pius XII was not as passive in the face of the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust as he has been accused of.
The Catholic News Agency interviewed Deacon Dominiek Oversteyns, a former engineer with no formal background as a historian, who pored over public archives to show that Pius XII actively helped save several hundred Jews from Rome.
According to his study, there were 8,207 Jews in Rome before the Nazi raid on the Jewish ghetto on Oct. 16, 1943.
Out of these, 1,323 — or 16% — found refuge prior to the raid. Eighteen went to the Vatican extraterritorial properties, 393 to villages in the mountains around Rome, 368 to the private homes of friends, 500 to 49 different Roman convents, and 44 to parishes and pontifical colleges in Rome, Oversteyns reported.
Pius XII was also able to help 152 Jews hidden in private homes under the protection of DELASEM, the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants. In all, Pius XII gave support to some 714 Jews.
Oversteyns also highlights the Vatican intervention that slowed down Nazi deportations of Jews from Rome, as the Nazis released some 249 Jews out of 1,351 who had been rounded up from the Rome ghetto in 1943, after Catholic pleas. The Jews who were released were those who had married Catholics or who were in the service of “Aryans.”
Yet even Oversteyns admits this was temporary, and that the Nazis deported hundreds more Jews in subsequent months.
This is not new information. As John Pawlikowski, a professor of ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, argued when another non-professional tried to whitewash Pius’ record, “We know that Pius did some things that were good, but they tended to come rather late, they were mostly behind the scenes and were relatively minor gestures.” [emphasis added]
In fact, the Pope could have done more for the Jews of Rome themselves. Only last year, it was discovered that Pius ignored a memo to publicly protest the deportation of Jews from Rome:
David Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, said he has now found the full version of a memo from a senior Vatican official urging Pius to formally protest against the deportation — advice the pope ignored. “There was no formal papal protest to Germany,” said Professor Kertzer.
The real legacy of Pope Pius XII is not that he indirectly and silently helped several hundred local Jews take shelter in various Catholic convents or monasteries, but what he didn’t do that could possibly have saved tens of thousands more.
The Vatican maintained a policy of neutrality from the start of World War II. The Allies signed a declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews on December 17, 1942, but the Pope refused to add his signature to the document.
He obliquely referred to the Holocaust in his Christmas message a week later, but didn’t mention Jews explicitly, and kept it low key, referring to “the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or ethnic origin, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”
Pius XII’s failure to explicitly condemn the Holocaust gave the responsibility of saving or damning Jews to individual Catholic leaders and laypeople. Some decided to shelter and save Jews, and some decided to collaborate with the Nazis.
The Vatican opened up its archives on the wartime record of Pius last year for only a week before the library was shut down on account of COVID-19, and even in those few days scholars found damning evidence against the pope and the Church.
As Smithsonian Magazine stated:
On September 18, 1942, Pius’ assistant, the future Pope Paul VI, received an eyewitness report of “incredible butchery” of Jews in Warsaw. One month prior, Ukrainian Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki had delivered a similar report informing the pope of atrocities carried out in the Lviv Ghetto, reports Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet.
Soon after, the United States’ envoy to the Vatican asked if it could corroborate accounts of mass killings in Warsaw and Lviv. In response, Vatican Secretary of State Luigi Maglione reportedly stated, “I don’t believe we have information that confirms this serious news in detail.”
While sifting through the papers, the researchers also found a memo from a Vatican staffer that warned against believing the reports, dismissing these accounts on the grounds that Jews “easily exaggerate” and “Orientals”—a reference to Archbishop Sheptytsky—“are really not an example of honesty.”
While Pius may have helped Catholics save a small percentage of Rome’s Jews, he was not a local Rome official — he was the leader of some 200 million European Catholics. His words could have encouraged them to save and rescue hundreds of thousands of doomed Jews. His main crime was one of omission, and no amount of research showing that he indirectly saved a few hundred local Jews can possibly take away his execrable record of refusing to use his significant moral weight to condemn Nazi Germany and instruct his followers to save every Jew they could.