Few familiar with John Cornwall’s book, Hitler’s Pope will ever forget the photograph on its cover. It shows the controversial, wartime Pope leaving a building in full clerical regalia. Majestically, he sweeps past saluting, steel-helmeted German soldiers to an awaiting car whose door is held open by a uniformed, saluting footman.
Those who know or care little about that Pope, Pius XII, beyond what they might think they have learned from the cover of Cornwall’s book — or from reading it for that matter — will be likely to agree with those Jewish leaders who have protested at the recent Vatican decision to initiate Pius’s canonisation by recognising him as having exhibited the “heroic virtues” of faith, hope and charity.
Without much further thought, they are likely to accept the claim of Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi that “This is a man… who may not have done enough during the Holocaust to save Jews”. Likewise, they will probably concur with the rabbi of Rome’s synagogue that: “We must remember… the death trains that carried 1,061 Jews on the 16th October 1943 to Auschwitz, while Pius XII remained silent”.
In reality, the photograph adorning the cover of Cornwall’s book was taken in 1927, years before Pius became Pope or the Nazis gained power. It shows him, while still papal nuncio to Germany, leaving a reception for its elected President, Paul von Hindenburg.
Pius had long returned to Rome when the Nazis assumed power in 1933, and he deliberately absented himself when Hitler visited the eternal city in 1938. The only senior Nazi whom Pius ever met was German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, and then only to give him a dressing-down for Nazi atrocities, described at the time by the New York Times thus: “In… burning words… [Pius] came to the defence of Jews in Germany and Poland.”
Pius’s reprimand of Ribbentrop was far from his only words and deeds opposing the Nazis and their treatment of Jews. Books published since Cornwall’s, such as Rabbi David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (2005), plus published research by the likes of Gary Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, cite innumerable ways Pius spoke out and acted against the Nazis.
Pius risked his life plotting against Hitler. He also saved thousands of Jewish lives by securing forged papers to facilitate Jews’ emigration to Palestine, as well as by ordering Jews to be hidden and cared for in buildings belonging to the Church.
Apart from getting wrong the date of the first mass shipment of Rome’s Jews — it occurred two days after their rounding-up, Rome’s rabbi is also wrong to claim Pius said nothing about it. When he first learned of the round-up on the morning of the 16th, he immediately summoned the German ambassador, who then dispatched a warning to Berlin that, if further round-ups occurred, Pius would speak out publicly, regardless of personal consequences. Pius also got the German commander in Rome to send a similar communiqué. As a result, there were no further mass round-ups and few of Rome’s Jews were transported to the death camps by comparison with other places under Nazi occupation.
Several Catholic clerics accorded righteous gentile status by Yad Vashem have testified they were acting on the orders of Pius. He too, should be made a righteous gentile, not reviled as a Jew-hater.