Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, was forced to backtrack earlier this week after defending Pope Pius XII's record in saving Jewish lives during World War II, saying that his comments were “historically premature.”
However, his comments follow a growing number of scholars and public figures who are beginning to question, if not openly reject, accusations that the late pontiff did not do enough to protect wartime Jews.
Lewy, who is an accomplished scholar of Jewish-Catholic relations, said in a June 23 address in Rome that “it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican, and the Pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.”
His speech, which was reprinted on the front page of the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, was one of the warmest ever made in support of Pius by an Israeli official in modern times.
But his words were not unprecedented: many Jewish officials and leaders praised Pius after the war for saving Jewish lives including Israel's first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett; his successor and later Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir; Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann; and Israel's first chief rabbi, Rabbi Herzog.
Yet comments in support of Pius today continue to draw criticism from some Jewish groups. Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, described Lewy's comments as “morally wrong” and, coming from an Israeli envoy, “particularly hurtful.”
In his statement aimed at defusing the controversy, Lewy said his comments were “embedded in a larger historical context” and that “given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature.”
For its part, the Catholic Church has long argued that the late pontiff worked quietly behind the scenes to protect Jews because speaking out would have led to Nazi reprisals against Catholics and Jews in Europe.
Both Jewish and Catholic researchers, meanwhile, continually dig up historical evidence of Jewish lives saved by Pius XII.
The latest, which came to light just last month, involved a Jewish Italian widower, Gino Bises, who married a Catholic Agnes Riccini Margarucci in 1935. Captured in 1943 by the Nazis, the father of Margarucci appealed to Pius XII who immediately intervened, securing the couple's release.
The testimony, signed by Patrizia Riccini Margarucci in 1946, was disclosed on May 14 and handed to Sister Margherita Marchione, a veteran campaigner to clear Pius XII's name.
The American nun, who has included many other testimonies in numerous books she has authored on the late pontiff, stressed that they continue to appear. “I haven't even gone to the [Vatican] archives to search for these things,” she tells Newsmax. “Anyone can go and see what information is already out there.”
Rome's authorities, meanwhile, are also defending Pius XII's war record. On June 29, the Municipality of Rome will hold a ceremony to commemorate the creation of a piazza facing St. Peter's basilica that was dedicated to Pius XII in 1950. New plaques now adorn the piazza with the tribute “Defensor Civitatis” — Defender of the City — under Pius's name.
According to Rome's archives, the piazza was dedicated with the words: “Regarding the work accomplished by Pius XII during the world conflict, the saving of the city of Rome, and also to record the solemn and spontaneous manifestation of filial gratitude given to Pius XII by the Roman people whom they called Defensor Civitatis — defender of the city — the Municipality of Rome unanimously deliberated that this piazza should be called Pius XII.”
“I don't know what else people expected from Pius XII,” said Sister Marchione. “He did more than any other world leader. What did Churchill do? What did Roosevelt do? I think someone should show him gratitude. Even if the Jews don't want to, at least we Catholics can make it known.”
Like many who are battling to clear his name, blame is largely laid at the foot of Soviet Communists who, according to evidence, purposely tried to smear Pius's reputation after his death in 1958.
“After the war, he was condemning the communists,” said Sister Marchione. “And they had their revenge by condemning him.”
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