Home > Uncategorized > Enough Kvetching already!

Enough Kvetching already!

The drum beats over Benedict XVI and Pius XII have been quiet lately. The visit by Benedict to the Great Synagogue of Rome is over, and the Jews have been largely silent in the US media about it. The problem is this. The constant harping by the Jews that the Vatican didn’t do enough, and the harping by the anti-Catholics in the media that the Vatican was somehow complicit, has left the impression that the Church was in league with the nazi regime. Like many stories, the truth is something entirely different.

Let’s look at the facts:

On January 11th, Reuters reported that a group of American Jews attending a “Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants” planned this week to petition Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome, to decry Benedict’s December 19 decision to declare Pope Pius XII “Venerable” and set him on the road to canonization as a Catholic saint.

The petition reads in part: “The group appeals to you to convey our pain and emotion to Pope Benedict when he is received by you at the main synagogue on Sunday… Truth and memory must be vigorously affirmed. The historical record of Pius’s silence during the period of Nazi barbarism against the Jewish people is a signal of moral failure. Our repeated pleas that Vatican assertions that Pius acted to save Jewish lives be documented through the opening of relevant archives have been met with silence.”

There are four issues involved here. The first is the demand to convey their “pain and emotion” to the Pontiff. I’m all for pain and emotion, as anyone who knows me will affirm. But in the context of a historical investigation, they are useless to reaching a conclusion.

The second issue I almost agree with. Truth and memory are both valuable, but we must not sacrifice truth to memory, no matter how vigorously affirmed. Truth is the ultimate defense, not memory.

The third and fourth issues raised by the petition are the crux of the matter.  Was Pius silent, and are the archives dealing with that issue available? Let’s find out.

In November 1945, a large group of Jewish survivors came to the Vatican, specifically “to thank His Holiness personally for the extraordinary generosity which he had shown them when they were persecuted during the frightful period of Nazi-Fascism.” (Angelic Shepherd: the Life of Pope Pius XII, by Jan Olav Smit, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1950, p. 154)

When Pius XII died in 1958, the Jewish community hailed his wartime leadership, above all because he did “speak out.” Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, reacted with this tribute: “We share in the grief of humanity at the passing away of His Holiness, Pope Pius XII. In a generation afflicted by wars and discords, he upheld the highest ideals of peace and compassion. When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised in compassion for the victims.”(Reuters, October 10,1958)

In his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (October, 1939), in his Christmas addresses, in his radio appeals, in his allocution to the College of Cardinals on June 2, 1943, Pius XII condemned race-based murder, and came to the clear, public defense of European Jews.

On October 1, 1942, the Times of London editorialized: “A study of the words which Pope Pius XII has addressed since his accession in encyclicals and allocutions to the Catholics of various nations leaves no room for doubt. He condemns the worship of force and its concrete manifestation in the suppression of national liberties and in the persecution of the Jewish race.”

Charles Pichon described Pius XII’s wartime addresses succinctly: “The pontifical texts condemned most strongly the anti-Semitic persecutions, the oppression of invaded lands, the inhuman conduct of the war, and also the deification of the Race, the State and the Class.” (The Vatican and its Role in World Affairs, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950, p. 167)

In reaction to his 1942 Christmas address, the Nazis themselves, furious about Pius XII’s public stand, railed: “That this speech is directed exclusively against the New Order in Europe as seen in National Socialism is clear in the Papal statement that mankind owes a debt to ‘all who during the war have lost their Fatherland and who, although personally blameless have, simply on account of their nationality and origin, been killed or reduced to utter destitution.’ Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice towards the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” (The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, 1922-1945, by Anthony Rhodes, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973, p.273).

Similar examples of Pius’s anti-Nazi, pro-Jewish statements are found in the wartime issues of the Palestine Post, the New York Times, the Tablet of London and the Jewish press of various countries.

Among the first to refute the allegations against Pius was Robert M. W. Kempner, the Deputy Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg and a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s genocide. Having mastered the “relevant archives,” he exposed the false allegation that Pius XII was silent, and that he failed to protest Hitler’s unspeakable crimes: “The archives of the Vatican, of the diocesan authorities and of Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry contain a whole series of protests – direct and indirect, diplomatic and public, secret and open.” (Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy: Pius XII was Not Silent, by Jeno Levai, London: Sands and Company, p. X).

As for the claim that the Vatican is holding back key documents regarding Pius’s actions, from 1965-1981, the Holy See published 12 thick volumes of wartime documents (Actes et Documents), four of which deal with the Holy See’s humanitarian assistance alone. Father Robert Graham, one of the 12-volume collection’s editors, describes their importance: “They embrace every imaginable form of activity to help stricken mankind without discrimination.” I wonder how many of the various Jewish groups that complain about the Pope, have ever consulted or read these volumes, or indeed, are even aware of their existence?

As Dimitri Cavalli showed, in his article, “The Good Samaritan: Jewish Praise for Pope Pius XII,” originally published in Inside the Vatican (October, 2000), Actes and Documents, as well as the Jewish wartime press, chronicle and record Pius XII’s extraordinary efforts on behalf of persecuted Jews, and the Jewish community’s extremely high praise of him.

The War Refugee Board knew of the key role the Vatican played. In his final Summary Report (September 15, 1945), Executive Director John H. Pehle wrote: “The Holy See and the Vatican hierarchy throughout Europe were solicited time and again for special assistance both as a channel of communication to the leaders and people of enemy territory, and as a means of rendering direct aid to suffering victims of Hitler. The Catholic clergy saved and protected many thousands and the Vatican rendered invaluable assistance to the Board and to the persecuted in Nazi hands.” (Cited in “Relations of Pius XII and the Catholic Community and Jewish Organizations,” by Father Robert A. Graham, S.J., in The Italian Refuge: Rescue of Jews During the Holocaust, edited by Ivo Herzer, Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1989, p. 232)

Among Pius XII’s acts was the establishment of the Pontifical Relief Commission, and the Vatican Information Office. The first distributed massive amounts of food, medicine and clothing to people of all creeds and nationalities, throughout war-torn Europe; the second fielded millions of wartime inquiries, on prisoners of war and other missing or displaced people, helping re-unite countless desperate families. In 2004, the Vatican, adding to the abundance of material in Actes et Documents, released over 1,500 pages of new documentation on this extraordinary agency, showing the depth and breath of Pius XII’s creation. Some of Pius XII’s interventions for Jews was so great that it actually stirred complaints from others who believed Pius had a “preference” for them (“Pius XII’s Aid to Jews was so Great that it Stirred Protests,” Zenit News Agency, July 4, 2004. In a sense, that was true: those most at risk garnered Pius’s most immediate attention.

A prime example of the Pope’s concerted efforts on behalf of Jews occurred during the German Occupation of Rome (Sept. 1943-June, 1944), as Michael Tagliacozzo  has documented. Tagliacozzo, a Roman Jew who was himself a survivor of the Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jews in 1943, and the outstanding authority on that event, has testified that Pius XII “was the only one who intervened to impede the deportation of Jews on October 16, 1943, and he did very much to hide and save thousands of us. It was no small matter that he ordered the opening of cloistered convents. Without him, many of our own would not be alive.” (“Jewish Historian Praises Pius XII’s Wartime Conduct,” Zenit News Agency, October 26, 2000

So we see, by even this cursory glance, that the group of Jews petitioning the rabbi to treat the Pope poorly are wrong. Flat out, unmistakably, nakedly wrong. I believe that this is the end result of years of propaganda designed to instill the belief that World War II was, somehow, “jewish-centric.”

Those claiming that memory must be affirmed would do well to remember the words of Isaac Herzog, the chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, in 1944: “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion which form the very foundations of true civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in this most tragic hour of history, which is living proof of divine providence in this world.” (February 28, 1944, Actes et Documents, volume X, pp. 291-292).

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