So, what does the ambassador say?
Apparently breaking with a taboo among critics of the Catholic Church and of Pope Pius XII – who reigned during the Second World War and the Holocaust – Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican has recognized that the pontiff did actually save thousands of Jews during the years of Nazi predation. An opening paragraph such as this one sets up what has become the classic "straw man" in populist Pius XII circles - the presumption that history is black and white, and that the Pope did nothing. It is too easy, simplistic and makes a nonsense of what historians do. It does, however, "hook" the reader.
Ambassador Mordechai Lewy affirmed on June 23 that “as of the raid of 16 October 1943 and the days following in the ghetto of Rome, the monasteries and orphanages of the religious orders opened their doors to Jews, and we have reason to believe that this occurred under the supervision of the highest authorities of the Vatican, who were aware of these measures.” The diplomat spoke at a ceremony in which a Catholic priest, Gaetano Piccinini of the order founded by Don Orione, was post-humously.
The language is important. Lewy is an ambassador, not an historian. While his general sweep of historical understanding is largely accurate, it is, as always, in the details, that the most significant things are found.
Rome's religious houses had been offering shelter to Jews since the 8 September armistice and the German occupation of Rome in the days following. Much ink has been spilt on whether this action came as a direct papal intervention or not. Lewy is careful, as all diplomats are, and hedges his praise of the Vatican in very general language that can be interpreted a number of ways. Re-read the blue highlighted sentence. This is a statement that suggests there is more to be realised than what we know at present. The work of Salesian sister, Grazia Loparco on the rescue of Jews by religious orders and congregations is a major research project that is helping fill in details about the "hows, whens. wheres and whys" of rescue. She has found no concrete evidence of a papal order.
It is well-known that many religious houses used the presumed authority of the Pope to open doors and give shelter to Jews. We also know that Pius knew, approved and encouraged such actions. We know that hundreds of Jews were given shelter at the Papal summer villa at Castel Gandolfo with explicit papal consent.
Did Pius give an order? I think it is the wrong question to ask. More historically accurate is the presumption that when the situation for the Jews of Rome became precarious, Pius quietly endorsed any and all rescue efforts - and most of these were already in progress. I do not believe any order was given. Firstly, there was no need. The evidence is overwhelming, Italian Catholics rescued and sheltered Italian Jews and non-Italian Jews. Secondly, as Sr Margherita Marchione assured me some years ago, the Pope would not have commited anything to writing lest it put rescuers in danger. And since a German invasion of the Vatican was considered a real enough threat throughout late 1943 and up to the moment of liberation in June 1944, it would defy sense and everything we know about the diplomatic instincts of Pius to even think he would give such an order.
There may be material in the Archivo Segreto Vaticano that says otherwise, but, quite frankly, I doubt it. ADSS has nothing along these lines, and I find it hard to think they would have omitted what would have been a document of major importance. There is not written papal order and I do not think there was even an explicit verbal order. There was no need.
Media reports in Italy claim that it was Pope Pius XII, who is largely dismissed as having done little to save the victims of the Holocaust, who transmitted an appeal to religious orders through his Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione. The pontiff’s desire that the Jews of Rome be sheltered from the Nazi storm was transmitted in conversations and messages so as to avoid Nazi reprisals. Besides the approximately 5,000 Jews who took refuge in Rome’s convents, schools, and monasteries, several thousands more were sheltered at the papal villa at Castelgandolfo in Rome.
This is a very broad assertion and one that creates difficulties. ADSS 9.368, records the meetings between Maglione and German ambassador, von Weizsacker. What ever description may be used to describe the encounter, "protest" at the treatment of the Rome Jews, is not one I would use.
Pius was determined to avoid any public act that would damage Vatican neutrality. Without access to the ASV material that could shed more light on this, the best interpretation I can give is the desire of the Pope to remain publically outside all engagement to do with the roundup of Rome's Jews so that the rescue and refuge work going on would not be damaged. It is true that nearly 5000 Jews were hidden across Rome in religious houses and more at Castel Gandolfo. I also stress here that these acts of rescue, many done in the name of the pope, should and must be noted. It is the antidote to the mantra that "he did nothing"; Pius did act. The questions remain though, how much did he do, and what were the possibilities for greater action? And it is also important to bear in mind that the focus here is Rome.
Ambassador Lewy said “the fact that the Vatican could not prevent the departure of the train that took the captives from Rome to the extermination camps can only have contributed to reinforcing the desire, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own premises as a refuge for Jews.” In any event, continued the diplomat, “we must recognize that the train that left on 18 October 1943 was the only convoy that the Nazis managed to organize in Rome for Auschwitz.”
All this is true, except for the need to recognise the "behind the scenes" activity undertaken by members of the German embassy and Vatican "go-betweens" including the Pope's nephew, Carlo Pacelli. What stands out is the fact that the Germans believed Pius would definitely speak out if the Rome Jews were deported. Weizsacker made that clear to Berlin. The concern that the Pope would speak was sufficient for Himmler to apply the brakes to the raids in Rome (not elsewhere).
Could the Jews held in the Collegio Militare have been rescued? History deals with "what was", not "what ifs". Based on the available historical records it is difficult to say. Once in German hands, captured Jews were caught and the reality was that few, if any, were allowed to leave. The attitude of Rome's Jews remained positive that the Pope would protect them. All the activity of the Vatican "middle men", the German embassy staffers and others came to naught. The SS were not about to let their prizes be snatched away. The ambassador's statement that the 18 October 1943 transport was the only German one to leave Rome is true. I think that Pius knew, based on over two and a half years of reports on the fate of Europe's Jews, that those incarcerated next to the walls of the Vatican, would not be released.
It is tantalising to wonder what may have happened had the Pope gone and stood outside the gates and demanded their release ... but that is a "what if". We do know that when Rome was badly bombed in July 1943 Pius acted immediately and went to the worst hit part of the city to offer what comfort he could. It makes a "what if" about Rome's Jews even harder to resist.
In view of these facts, Ambassador Lewy affirmed that “it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican or the Pope himself were opposed to activities to save Jews. It is quite certain that it was to the contrary: they always gave the help that they could.”
I agree. There was no opposition to help rescue efforts - it is utter nonsense to suggest otherwise. But, let us keep the perspective. Rome and Italy were the two places where the Pope had serious "clout" and it is also important to remember that the full force of German brutality only began after September 1943 and lasted in Rome for nine months. It is a very different reality to those who engaged in rescue in Poland, Ukraine etc where the German terror lasted for years.
Some historians, despite contrary claims made by writers such as John Cornwell, argue that it was the Catholic Church that saved more Jews than any other institution during the Second World War and the Holocaust. Historian Pinchas Lapide, an Israeli consul to Italy in the 1960s, claimed that this number may amount to 750,000. Renowned British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who has written about righteous Gentiles who gave their lives to save Jews, has also praised the work of Pope Pius XII.
If in doubt, drag out Lapide! My comments on Lapide's very rubbery figures appear in another entry on this blog. Suffice to say here, that this paragraph could or should just be erased.
The Jewish Virtual Library, a website dedicated to the history and culture of the Jewish people, wrote however of the wartime pope, “Pope Pius XII's (1876-1958) actions during the Holocaust remain controversial. For much of the war, he maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed. He refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality, while making statements condemning injustices in general. Privately, he sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials, encouraging them to help the Jews.”
Quod scriptum est! What is written, is written. The JVL is an online encyclopedia with brief articles that, hopefully, lead the reader to explore more deeply. I tell my students to go beyond encyclopedias in their research. Go and find the texts and the detailed studies. In any case, the overall tenor of the JVL article is sound.
Pope Pius XII did receive thanks during his lifetime for his actions to save Jews. At the end of the Second World War, Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli of Rome entered the Catholic Church and took the name Eugenio in homage to the Pope whose baptismal name was Eugenio. In addition, a wealthy Italian senator and member of Italy’s Jewish community presented the pope with a luxurious villa in the center of Rome that still serves as the Vatican’s nunciature in the Italian Republic.
None of this adds to the thurst of the article. Israel Zolli's history remains very controversial, to use an over used word. He is still preceived as a renegade by many Italian Jews and others. The questions about his disappearance just before the German raid on the Rome community remain unanswered to any degree of satisfaction.
Golda Meir, who would go on to become a prime minister, spoke as Israel’s foreign minister in 1958 and praised Pope Pius XII following his death. Speaking on behalf of her government, the US-born Meir said that “during the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people suffered the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice in condemnation of the oppressors and to lift up the victims.” While the pope had spoken generally against the extermination of human beings, his critics still maintain that he could have done more.
I find the term "critics" rather harsh in this context. It is easy to posit those who have questions about the Pope's role as "critics" when placed beside the praises given by Golda Meir. What is not noted is that serious Holocaust scholarship was barely in its infancy, the study of the Vatican's role/s during the early 20th century and its all too easy cohabitation with the regimes of the right had not begun, and the study of the war years was still only moving past individual countries and generals writing about their glorious achievements. Meir's words are moving, but the historian must continue to place them into their appropriate context.
But, hang on a minute! The main point of there being an article at all was to mark the presentation of the honour of Righteous Among the Nations in memory of Father Gaetano Piccinini (1904-1972), a priest in Rome who rescued Jews. That event should be celebrated for the great moment that it was and is.
Fr Gaetano Piccinini, Righteous Among the Nations.