The Pope’s Jews
The Vatican’s Secret Plan
to Save Jews from the Nazis
St. Martin’s Press, 2012
314 pages, $27.99
The late Pope, John Paul II, despite his significant efforts to reach out to world Jewry, was roundly criticized for promoting the canonization of Pope Pius XII whose reputation as “Hitler’s Pope” has been undergoing semi-successful exoneration. ‘Semi-successful’ seems appropriate because, despite decades-long efforts to dispel that argument, Pius XII is still believed by many to have failed to speak out strongly against Hitler.
In 2005 this column reported on Rabbi David G. Dalin’s research, which resulted in his book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope. Rabbi Dalin set out to refute the thesis of John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope, that Pius XII was in fact a collaborator with the Nazis. At the time we concluded that Popes have for centuries issued proclamations of love for Jews while they have done little to save Jews from degradation, torture and death.
Now comes Gordon Thomas’ The Pope’s Jews, which purports to take advantage of more recently released archival material. In particular, secondary sources such as the diaries of Pius XII’s housekeeper and unofficial chief of staff, Sister Pascalina, have become available. These secondary sources attest to the repeated efforts on the part of the Pope and some of his bishops to hide, feed and protect Jews from the Roman Jewish quarter, formerly the ghetto. Jews were apparently hidden as hospital patients, seminary students, and in convents around Rome. In point of fact, over three-fourths of the Jews of Rome survived WW II, largely through the efforts of Pius XII. Also documented was the Vatican’s successful effort in hiding several thousand escaped allied prisoners of war. Primary Vatican sources will not be released for another decade or so as Vatican archives are not normally made public until 75 years after the events occurred.
Prior to Christmas of 1942, President Roosevelt asked Pius XII to condemn the mass killing of Jews in the Nazi death camps. The Pope’s Christmas message that year contained vague pleas on behalf of “the hundreds of thousands who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or are progressively wasting away.”
In 1961 however, at his retirement ceremony, Harold Tittman, the wartime American Charge d’Affaire to the Holy See, quoted Pius XII as saying to him:
“If I should denounce the Nazis by name as you desire and Germany should lose the war, Germans everywhere would feel that I had contributed to the defeat, not only of the Nazis, but of Germany itself…I cannot afford to alienate so many of the faithful. Second, if I did denounce the Nazis by name, I must in all justice do the same as regards the Bolsheviks, whose principles are strikingly similar. You would not wish me to say such things about an ally of yours at whose side you are engaged today in a death struggle.”
This inability to denounce the Nazis continues to taint the legacy of Pius XII. It was the fear of Communism in Germany which led the Church to place its hope in National Socialism as the lesser of two evils. That decision set the stage for Hitler’s ascent to power in the same manner as the Church abetted Generalissimo Franco’s alliance with Germany to defeat the republican forces in Spain.
There appears to be no doubt that Pius XII placed his resources at the disposal of Rome’s Jewish population and instructed his bishops in Europe to do what they could to save Jews. But in the larger matter of speaking out forcefully from his pulpit against the Nazis he apparently rationalized his way out of a more political and public action.
Gordon Thomas is a fairly prolific and interesting writer and we have reported on two of his earlier works, Gideon’s Spies and Operation Exodus. We did learn, however, that some of his research was a bit sketchy and The Pope’s Jews does lack detailed notes of any kind although his principal researchers are listed. Most helpful in sorting out the dramatis personae is a listing of the various official and unofficial players.
In due course Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, will join the panoply of Catholic saints. Holocaust scholars may ameliorate somewhat their view of his complicity in the death of millions, but despite his efforts on behalf of European Jewry history will probably fail to award him a totally clean bill of health.
—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.