Over a 75 years after Nazis conducted mass deportations of Roman Jews to Auschwitz, we may finally learn why Pope Pius XII, heralded by some as a man who quietly saved Jewish lives and dubbed “Hitler’s Pope” by others, did not speak up on their behalf.
On March 2 Pius XII’s archives will be made open to a select group of scholars for the first time. The moment has been a year in the making; Pope Francis first announced plans for the opening last March. The materials the researchers find among Pius’ papers could lend the first clear insights into why the pope, who assumed his post in 1939 and died in 1958, did not act during the Nazi deportations of 1,800 Roman Jews, nearly all of whom died in Auschwitz. (Around 10,000 more Roman Jews survived World War II in hiding.)
“The pope knew what was going on and obviously was not happy,” David Kertzer, a Brown University historian and Pulitzer-winning author who will be allowed in the archives, told CBC radio’s Carol Off. “But he had to decide whether to take any dramatic action to try to prevent the Jews deportation to Auschwitz and their death. And he decided not, in fact, to intervene.”
“What we don’t know,” Kertzer added, “is what kind of discussions might have taken place behind the scenes that led the pope to make that decision.”
While many Catholics, including Pope Francis, have credited Pius as being a defender of the Jews, Kertzer called that characterization “unfortunate,” noting that “most of Europe’s Jews were murdered under his watch.”
One reason for the silence might be that Pius was concerned with protecting Catholics, who were persecuted by Germans both in the Reich and the lands they occupied.
No matter what Kertzer finds in the archives, he believes that the controversy surrounding Pius’ silence is “somewhat misplaced.” “[T]he larger issue about the responsibility of Christian churches has more to do with the decades leading up to the Holocaust — of vilification of the Jews,” he said.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.
What will Pope Pius’ archives tell us about the Shoah?