Wartime pope’s secret heroism

By Simon Caldwell, February 26, 2009
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Documents that show the wartime pope saved tens of thousands of European Jews from the Nazis have been discovered in the Vatican’s
archives.

The 300 pages reveal that Pope Pius XII directly ordered convents, monasteries and Catholic churches to hide Jews from the Gestapo.

He also helped Jews to escape to safe countries, requesting the Brazilian government to receive 3,000 “non-Aryans” and persuading the Dominican Republic to grant visas for a further 11,000 people.

The documentation from the recently-opened archives has now been posted online by the Pave the Way Foundation, a largely Jewish group invited by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority, to investigate the role of the wartime pope.

They provide further evidence to counter accusations that Pius was passive and silent in the face of the Holocaust.

Such accusations began in 1963, five years after the death of Pius, with the play, The Deputy, written by German Communist Rolf Hochhuth with the help of the KGB. It contained information revealed by Lt General Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest ranking KGB agent ever to defect.

The claims against Pius have been expanded in recent years by such writers as John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.

Gary Krupp, president of the Pave the Way Foundation, said that correcting the record was a matter of justice.

“Personally, as a Jew, I must state that correcting this perversion of history has really nothing to do with the Catholic Church,” he said.

“It is in the interest of Jewish justice that we must acknowledge the efforts of one man, during a period when as a people we were abandoned by the rest of the world.

“It is time to recognise Pope Pius XII for what he really did rather than what he did not say.”

Mr Krupp added: “From what I have seen, this is the greatest hero of World War II, without question.

“This man had German guns just 200 yards from his windows and still managed to save thousands of Jews. It is astonishing what this man actually accomplished — and did secretly.

“This wasn’t Hitler’s pope, this wasn’t a collaborator, this was a man Hitler was planning to kill. There is not one shred of evidence that supports the ‘Hitler’s pope’ theory”.

The latest documentation was discovered in the secret Vatican archives by Dr Michael Hesemann, a German historian who believes the record of Pius has been badly misrepresented.

The material includes the diary of a nun who explained how Pius asked religious houses to shelter Jews after the Gestapo arrested 1,007 people in a sweep of Rome on October 16 1943.

The nun wrote that “in these grievous situations the Holy Father wishes to save his sons, also the Jews, and orders that in convents hospitality be given to these persecuted people, and also the monasteries of enclosure must adhere to this desire of the Supreme Pontiff”.

The policy saved about 5,000 lives, nearly 85 per cent of the Jewish population of Rome, and in 1946 led to the conversion of the Chief Rabbi, Israel Zolli.

He took Eugenio as his baptismal name in honour of the pope, formerly Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli.

The latest discovery also offers evidence that, contrary to popular claims, not only was Pius never an antisemite, he was pro-Zionist in his sympathies.

As Papal Nuncio (equivalent to ambassador) to Bavaria in 1917, he intervened through the German government to assure the Jews of Palestine that they would be protected from any harm from the Ottoman Turks.

Dr Hesemann said that Pacelli also directly contacted the World Zionist Organisation representative Nachum Sokolov, and used his influence to arrange for him to meet Pope Benedict XV in 1917 to discuss a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In 1926, Pacelli encouraged Catholics in Germany to join the Committee Pro-Palestina, which supported Jewish settlements in Palestine.

In 1938 he opposed a Polish bill outlawing shechitah because he felt that the move represented the “grave persecution” of the Jewish people.

The papers include a 1939 US foreign service document in which the US consul-general to Cologne reported how the “new Pope” had surprised him by his extreme hatred of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler, and how he had supported the German bishops’ opposition to Nazism.

Historians will have full access to the Vatican archives dealing with the pontificate of Pius XII only after 2013.

Archivists will then have finished filing 16 million documents into 15,430 folders and 2,500 dossiers.

Yad Vashem, which is expecting a visit from Pope Benedict in May during his visit to Israel, is reserving its final judgment about Pius until its historians have studied the archives.

However, some Jewish historians, such as the late Pinchas Lapide, have estimated that the Catholic Church under Pius saved between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews from the Nazis.

This was mostly managed by providing sanctuary or passage to safe countries but also by intervening, when practicable, to stop their round-up in occupied countries.

    Last updated: 1:59pm, March 4 2009