Tags: pope | pius | xii | jews

Pope Pius XII and the Jews

Friday, 31 Jul 2009 01:53 PM

By Christopher Ruddy

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The Pope who led the Catholic Church during Hitler’s reign over most of Europe was either a disgrace or one of the great heroes of modern times. The evidence proves the latter.

Soon after World War II, Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, was lauded as a man who not only was able to keep the church intact despite the Nazis but also had even protected Jews during the Holocaust.

In recent years, however, detractors have claimed that the Pope turned a blind eye to the Nazi atrocities against the Jews.

A newly released DVD casts fresh light on the role Pius XII played during the Holocaust and dispels these widely held, mistaken views.

“A Hand of Peace: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust," produced by Ignatius Press, commemorates the 70th anniversary of Pius XII's elevation to the papacy. He also is being considered for sainthood.

Editor's Note: For more information on this DVD, visit www.ignatius.com.

Since the source of the film is a Catholic distributor, cynics may be quick to dismiss it as biased, but the documentary provides evidence to the contrary — several prominent Jews give witness to Pius XII’s efforts to save Jews. Notable among them is Martin Gilbert, the eminent British historian and authorized biographer of Winston Churchill.

Gilbert is an ardent Zionist and author of the book “Holocaust,” yet he praises the late Pope.

The DVD stresses that, after World War II, Jewish organizations around the world recognized Pius XII for saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews and other Nazi targets.

Then in 1963, the controversial play "The Deputy" opened in Berlin. The work — by a German playwright, no less — laid the blame of the Holocaust on the Pope. The playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, claimed that the Pope’s alleged indifference to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust allowed it to happen. The pontiff was cold-hearted, uncaring, and evil, Hochhuth suggested.

The play was translated into more than 20 languages, and it sparked outrage — even riots — in several cities where it was performed.

"The Deputy" presented "scurrilous tales with no historical basis," according to Ron Rychlak, author of "Hitler, the War and the Pope." Nevertheless, the play, along with several other works, including John Cornwell's 1999 book "Hitler's Pope," created what came to be known as a "black legend": that Pius XII was unconcerned about Nazi atrocities.

But these allegations are simply nonsense. Gilbert said the Pope "went to the edge of risk again and again" to help the Jews.

Before becoming Pope, Eugenio Pacelli was the Vatican's secretary of state. He was elected to the papacy on March 12, 1939. Germany invaded Poland in that September, and one month later, Pius XII issued his first encyclical, which was sharply critical of the invasion and of the Nazi philosophy regarding race.

He had good reason to worry about the Nazis. Soon after they invaded Poland, the Nazis rounded up 5,000 Polish priests and systematically murdered them. The episode is detailed in William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany.”

Following the Pope's Christmas 1941 address, The New York Times stated in an editorial: "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas. He is about the only ruler left on the continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all."

Considering the fact that the Vatican was surrounded by Axis powers, first Mussolini’s regime and then Hitler’s, the Pope had little room to maneuver, at least publicly.

Privately, he took great risks. For example, churches were ordered to hand out baptismal certificates and passports to thousands of refugees — Jews, Gypsies, and others — sparing them from the concentration camps.

Pius XII even spent much of his private inheritance to pay for the refugees' travel.

When the Nazis began the deportation of Rome's Jews, he ordered convents, monasteries, and other Catholic facilities to hide Jews, and even turned the papal bedroom into a birthing area for Jewish mothers.

Some of these revelations are not surprising to me.

A few years ago, I heard firsthand from the late Vernon Walters, who had served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and deputy director of the CIA. In World War II, young Walters was assigned to the staff of Gen. Mark Clark, the Allied general who led U.S. forces into Rome in 1944.

As Walters told me, Clark sent him to the Vatican to offer Allied assistance to the Pope.

Walters recalled being in his jeep and pulling up in front of the locked gates of the Vatican. More than a dozen priests dressed in cassocks greeted him.

Speaking Italian, Walters said to the monsignor in charge, “General Clark has told me to inform you the city of Rome has been liberated. He asks if the Holy See has any pressing needs.”

Without batting an eye, the monsignor replied: “We in the Vatican are fine. But we are hiding 50,000 Jews in and around the city of Rome. They are in urgent need of food and medical care. The Holy Father asks for your assistance with these people.”

As a result of the Pope’s actions, Rome saved a higher percentage of its Jews than any other occupied city.

After Germany surrendered in 1945, the World Jewish Congress even gave a financial gift to the Vatican in recognition of the Pope's wartime works, and Jewish leaders around the world hailed him.

When Pius XII died in October 1958, The Jewish Post observed, "There probably was not a single ruler of our generation who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation of Europe, than the late Pope."

The "black legend" called that view into question. I am glad "A Hand of Peace" finally sets the record straight.

Editor's Note: For more information on this DVD, visit www.ignatius.com.

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