Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to proclaim Pope Pius XII as having shown “heroic virtues” delighted many who have been campaigning to clear the wartime Pope’s name, but provoked stern condemnation from some Jewish leaders.
Pius XII has been accused of being “silent” and not doing enough to save Jews during the Second World War, while his supporters say there is plenty of well-documented evidence to suggest he was not only a defender of the Jews but one of their greatest protectors.
Benedict XVI issued a Dec. 19 decree attesting to the “heroic virtues” of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope from 1939 to 1958, giving him the title of ‘Venerable’. Now a panel of medical experts and Vatican theologians can proceed with investigations into alleged miracles attributed to the late pontiff’s intercession. Once a miracle is approved, Pius XII can be beatified.
Many Jewish leaders have expressed “pain” and “regret” at the news of the decree. At the time of writing, Pope Benedict’s planned historic visit to Rome’s synagogue on Jan. 17 was still “under review.” Most of the critics complained that Benedict XVI made the decision before Vatican archives on Pius’s pontificate had been made available to historians.
The Vatican argues that they will not be opened before 2014 because so many files need to be catalogued. The Vatican also stressed that the decree must be understood as evaluating “the witness of Christian life that the person showed (his intense relationship with God and continuous search for evangelical perfection) and not the historical impact of all his operative decisions".
Still, many Catholics understand the anger felt by Jewish groups about this issue. “We understand the cry 'he did not do enough' as a cry of deep pain coming from the sense of betrayal among the Jewish people at the time of their trial,” said Father David Neuhaus, head of Hebrew-speaking Catholics in the Holy Land and a former Jew himself. “The world indeed did not do enough …Ultimately, there can be no "enough" in the attempt to confront a tragedy of the dimensions of the Shoah (Holocaust)!”
Historians believe the question of whether he did do “enough” will be endlessly debated, but recently uncovered evidence has led to a growing consensus that Pius XII acted heroically in saving and protecting Jewish lives. It’s widely believed he was victim of a smear campaign orchestrated by the Soviet Union after his death. The late Pope was fervently anti-Communist and, according to a former high ranking KGB agent, the Soviets tried to assassinate Pius’s character to counter the Church’s threat to the atheistic regime.
Gary Krupp, the Jewish president of Pave the Way, a foundation promoting interreligious dialogue, believes Pius should be honoured as Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem — the sort of equivalent, he says, of a Jewish canonization.
Over a four year period, Krupp said his organization had uncovered “a ton of information” supporting the case that Pius XII acted heroically to save thousands of Jews, possibly as many as 860,000 in total. “Through our research of documented proof, we have discovered that secretly, he saved more Jews than all of the world’s religious and political leaders combined,” he said.
Krupp stressed that many of Pius’s heroic acts were carried out anonymously and under cover. He and other historians also argue that Pius was sometimes silent in condemning the persecution because it had been proven that the louder the Church spoke out, the more the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
What Krupp finds difficult to fathom is why Jewish leaders today, most of whom were born after the war, refuse to acknowledge these facts while those who were alive during the war, or knew the Pope personally, had nothing but words of tribute for Pius when he was alive. “It’s the most absurd thing,” he said. “I challenge any writers to go to the archives of the New York Times or the Palestine Post and look up every single article written about Pius XII and the Jews. You’ll see hundreds of articles and not one is negative.”
One criticism levelled by Italy’s Jewish leaders after the Dec. 19 announcement was that 1,021 Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz on October 16, 1943, “amidst the silence of Pius XII.” But the accusation was denied by Sister Margherita Marchionne, a nun who has written over 60 books in defense of Pius.
“What the Jewish leaders neglect to state is that as soon as Pius XII learned about the deportation of 1,021 Jews to Auschwitz, he ordered his Secretary of State, Cardinal Maglione, to protest,” she said. “The Nazi commander immediately stopped the deportation of the remaining 5,000 Jews. They were saved because Pius XII sent word to the 155 convents and monasteries in Rome to open their doors and hide the Jews.”
Adding to Sister Marchionne’s research, Krupp’s foundation recently discovered a telegram showing an order from Berlin to take those Jews as hostage to Mauthausen, a work camp in Austria, rather than be sent to Auschwitz, an extermination camp. “There is every reason to believe that the Vatican thought, based on the orders from Berlin and probably through their contacts, that they would be able to negotiate the release of the 1,021 Jews,” Krupp said. “No one knows who sent them to Auschwitz.”
Earlier this year, Krupp’s foundation unearthed further evidence, already provided by a former German general, that Hitler planned to kidnap Pius and loot the Vatican.
“We’ve proven without any question that this man was the greatest hero of World War II,” said Krupp. “It’s time Pius XII is recognized for his life-saving efforts even while his very life was in danger during this terrible period in history.”
In a new forthcoming book on Pius, Sister Marchionne says these attacks are as much “political and ideological attacks on Christianity” as they are against Pius XII. Such attacks, she insisted, “can be refuted by anyone who carefully examines the evidence.”
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