Pius XII a hero for war role Critics fail to understand how he saved thousands during World War II

January 04, 1998|By Margherita Marchione

The Holocaust has always occupied some corner in newspaper articles, magazine stories and ads. Lately, a great deal of material on the subject has been devoted to Pope Pius XII, and it has included a bashing of the Vatican's so-called "silence" during the Holocaust.

I find it difficult to understand the criticism and false statements of "experts," who probably have not read the 11 volumes of Vatican documents printed between 1965 and 1981, four of which deal exclusively with the humanitarian efforts of Pope Pius XII.

It is historically inaccurate to charge Pope Pius XII with "silence." His silence was a strategic approach to protect Jews and other refugees from Nazi terrorism. He was not a German collaborator or a Nazi sympathizer. The pope kept silence, not for fear of personal interest but only for fear of aggravating the situation of the oppressed. He became a victim of public opinion to protect those who were victimized.

Through public discourse, appeals to governments and secret diplomacy, the pope was engaged more than any other individual in the effort to curb the war and to rebuild peace. He was in contact with German generals who sought to overthrow Hitler. His representatives in Croatia, Hungary and Romania intervened to stop deportations.

The pope called for a peace conference involving Italy, France, England, Germany and Poland in 1939, in a last-minute bid to avert bloodshed. His personal funds ransomed Jews from Nazis. He suspended "cloister" regulations and allowed religious men and women to open their doors to protect victims of the war.

Albert Einstein, disenchanted by the silence of universities and editors of newspapers, stated that "only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth... The Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom."

The Vatican was a neutral state. It depended on the Italian government for everything: food, water and electricity. Yet it succeeded in hiding thousands of Jews. Pope Pius XII's response to the plight of Jews was to save as many as possible. Despite the Nazi occupation, 85 percent of the Jews in Italy survived.

The Nazis launched a campaign of terror against all Jews. On Nov. 9, 1938, hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany were set ablaze, shops were looted and 90 Jews were killed in the streets on Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. More than 35,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. Soon after, the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland.

On the morning of Oct. 16, 1943, the Nazis started a roundup of Rome's 8,000 Jews who were marked for elimination; 1,000 were captured. The Jews of Rome disappeared into the city's monasteries and convents, where they were safe until the war was over.

Documentation exists of an official, personal protest through the papal secretary of state. He delivered it under Pope Pius XII's orders that same fateful morning. The roundup operation was suspended. Why? Evidently because of the protest.

Little has been done to stop the criticism of Pius XII that began in 1963, when Rolf Hochhuth, without any reference to historical fact, portrayed him as a Nazi collaborator in the play, "The Deputy."

In contrast to the image suggested by this play, Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide concludes that the Catholic Church operated an underground railroad that rescued 800,000 European Jews from the Holocaust.

Lecturing on the book he co-authored with Robert A. Graham, "Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage Against the Vatican," historian David Alvarez was asked if his book is a repudiation of the long-held belief that the pope acquiesced to the fate of European Jewry.

He said, "I guess you could say that. I believe that the idea of the pope's collaborating with the Nazis is an historically inaccurate perception."

For more than 50 years, books have been published, films have been produced, lectures have been given; yet few have spoken in defense of Pope Pius XII.

From different parts of the world, people insisted that the pope publicly condemn the Nazis. But to the very end, Pius XII was convinced that, should he denounce Hitler, the Nazis would retaliate.

The 1941 New York Times Christmas editorial spoke about Pius XII's "lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe."

Its 1942 editorial stated that "the pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism."

The Gestapo's interpretation of the pope's Christmas messages clear: "In a manner never known before I the pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order. It is true, the pope does not refer to the National Socialists in Germany by name, but his speech is one long attack on everything we stand for. I Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews."

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