By Michael Coren, (National Post, Wednesday, April 18, 2007) – Vatican officials threatened last week to boycott a Holocaust Remembrance Service at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem because of what they claim to be a profoundly misleading account of Pope Pius XII’s response to Nazi anti-Semitism. They agreed to participate only after last minute diplomacy. Underneath a photo of the wartime pontiff is a caption claiming that the pope “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews” and “maintained his neutral position throughout the war.”
As a Catholic, with three Jewish grandparents, I too cringed last summer when I saw this display at the newly designed Holocaust Museum. Cringed at its simplistic grasp of history, and its crude approach to the latest scholarship. Particularly after two generations of strenuous and heartfelt efforts from Rome and international Catholicism to form a new relationship with Judaism, based on respect and empathy.
In fact the assumption that pope Pius did little to save the Jewish people is a recent phenomenon. In 1945, the World Jewish Congress donated a great deal of money to the Vatican, with Rabbi Herzog of Jerusalem thanking pope Pius “for his lifesaving efforts on behalf of the Jews during the occupation of Italy.” When the pope died in 1958 Golda Meir, then Israeli foreign minister, gave a eulogy at the United Nations praising the man for his work on behalf of the Jewish people.
The attacks on the Pope only really began in the 1960s when German playwright and anti- Catholic activist Rolf Hochhuth claimed in his play, The Deputy, that the Vatican had done little to save the Jews and even collaborated with the Nazis. The timing of the play is vital. The 1960s also saw an outpouring of liberal aggression against Roman Catholicism and it is no surprise that Hochhuth’s attack gained momentum.
Some of the bashing has been positively scandalous. British author John Cornwall’s largely discredited book, Hitler’s Pope, appeared in 1999 and featured on its dust jacket a photograph of the future pope Pius walking past a German soldier in a storm trooper steel helmet. What was not pointed out was that the picture was taken long before Hitler came to power and the soldiers were part of the anti-Nazi Weimar Republic.
But if a picture paints a thousand words, a slander is worth a complete library. The truth, however, is radically different. Before he became pope Pius, Cardinal Pacelli drafted the papal encyclical denouncing Nazi anti- Semitism and had it read from every pulpit. The Vatican used its assets to ransom Jews from the Nazis, ran an elaborate escape route and hid Jewish families in Castel Gondolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. All this is confirmed by Jewish experts such as the B’nai B’rith’s Joseph Lichten.
It is true that the pope did not issue an outright attack on the Nazis, but there were reasons for this.
The leaders of the Catholic Church in Holland made a public statement, condemning Nazi anti-Semitism and protesting Jewish deportations. In response, the Germans murdered every Jewish convert to Catholicism they could find in The Netherlands.
Hundreds of thousands of Catholic priests, monks, nuns, bishops and lay people risked their lives and sometimes gave them to help Jewish victims. Tragically, their sacrifices largely have been ignored. As have the actions of the Pope.
After Pius XII delivered his Christmas message in December, 1942, the German government department responsible for the deportation of the Jews stated: “In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order…. Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice to the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”
The best Jewish historians are especially eager to correct the record. According to Sir Martin Gilbert, one of the world’s leading historians of the Holocaust, “So outspoken were Pacelli’s criticisms that Hitler’s regime lobbied against him, trying to prevent his becoming the successor to Pius XI. When he did become pope, as Pius XII, in March, 1939, Nazi Germany was the only government not to send a representative to his coronation.”
In The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, Rabbi David Dalin points out that because of the presence of the Pope, the Jews of Italy had a far higher survival rate than in most other countries. He proves that in France, Slovakia and Hungary the pope intervened personally, worked tirelessly and used pressure on Church officials and Catholic politicians to save countless Jewish lives.
Hungary is worth noting because Raoul Wallenberg has been correctly celebrated as the great rescuer of Budapest. What is seldom mentioned is that the Swedish diplomat was working with representatives of seven other neutral nations under the guidance of Papal Nuncio Angelo Rotta, who was in turn under the direct prompting and control of pope Pius. More than 40 safe houses were established and 25,000 Jews saved. Such activity was not in any way unusual and when in 1955 Archbishop Giovanni Montini, the future pope Paul VI, was offered an award by Israel for his work during the Holocaust he replied, “All I did was my duty. And besides I only acted upon orders from the Holy Father.”
There were of course Catholics who did nothing to help the Jews, and even supported the Nazi regime. It is entirely understandable that the curators of Yad Vashem should expose these individuals. But pope Pius and the mass of bishops and clergy should not be named amongst them. At a time when evil people deny the Holocaust, good people should never deny those who tried to fight it.
– Michael Coren is an author and broadcaster. www.michaelcoren.com.
© National Post 2007. Reprinted with permission.