Behind the Headlines Why Pope Pius Xii Remained Silent on Fate of Jews During World War Ii
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Behind the Headlines Why Pope Pius Xii Remained Silent on Fate of Jews During World War Ii

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The dilemma of Pope Pius XII during World War II was not whether or not he knew of the plight of the Jews. It was that he did possess many of the facts and yet still did not issue a specific condemnation of the Nazis.

Pius’ “silence” has been passionately debated for years and the debate is likely to continue as the Roman Catholic Church goes ahead with plans to have the late Pontiff declared a saint.

The Vatican now has released more of its hitherto secret wartime documents which confirm that Pius must have been well-informed about the Jews, but also explain the reasons which persuaded him not to issue a dramatic condemnation of Hitler.

The basic fact is that in no small measure the Vatican was coordinating relief efforts for the victims of war belonging to many races and nationalities, including the Jews.


Since the war began, the Vatican was encircled by a Fascist state allied with Nazi Germany. In Sept. 1943, the-Nazis themselves took Rome following the capitulation of Italy and German troops were camped on the Vatican’s doorstep. There were reports, later confirmed, that Hitler wanted to invade the Vatican and seize the Pope.

Pius’ policy therefore was to maintain a low profile. Condemning Hitler would have been a startling moral gesture but it would probably, at a stroke, have closed down the Vatican and ended what work it was able to do.

The Vatican’s then “Foreign Minister,” Msgr Domenico Tardini, put it in writing that “The Holy See will continue to act with its normal prudence, avoiding anything that could offer itself as a pretext for the Germans to attack it.”

Following the Nazi takeover of Rome, Vatican officials were expecting invasion day to day. They were particularly concerned that the Germans might find out about Vatican attempts earlier that year to help Italy extricate itself from the war. This probably explains why Pius XII said nothing about Hitler and his henchmen even though he knew about the mass deportations which began the previous year and the “final solution” which began earlier that year.

Plus, of course, was also desperately concerned about the fate of the predominantly Roman Catholic Poles and yet, verbally, he did no more for them than he did for the Jews. The Vatican’s policy at that time, as it still is, was to condemn the crime and let the offender draw his own conclusions. And some of Plus’ condemnations of racism in general and the horrors of total war were quite explicit.

The Rev. Angelo Martini, one of four priests who have been selecting the Vatican documents for publication, said that “Pius’ great anguish was to see people die and not be able to do anything about it.” Martini said charges that Pius was indifferent to the fate of the Jews are “an unfair myth complete fable. What would he have achieved by condemning the Nazis by name? Would that have stopped Hitler, or Himmler or Eichmann?”

Another of the Jesuits working on the documents. The Rev. Robert A. Graham, said the Pope and his aides preferred to do whatever good work they could, and that they avoided general condemnations because it was not the Vatican’s style to use press agentry and publicity techniques.” Graham said he is convinced the Pope had no idea of the .”full proportions, nor the cold-bloodedness” of the “final solution.” “I wonder,” he said, “whether the Jews themselves knew. Did any of us know before Allied troops entered the extermination camps?”

The first of the two volumes now released by the Vatican is part of a continuing series on the Vatican’s efforts in favor of victims of the war between March 1939-Dec. 1940. The urgency of its work in favor of baptized Jews during this period makes it quite clear the Vatican was fully aware of what was happening to the Jews in general. Although Roman Catholicism is sometimes accused of being a kind of spiritual dictatorship, the documents show how little influence the Pope had over countries which called themselves Catholic. Chile and Bolivia banned “non-Aryans” outright, including the baptized Jews. Ireland said no to Jewish-Christian professionals. Only Brazil, as a “personal favor” to the Pope issued 3000 visas for the use of “non-Aryan Christians” but hedged the action with so many restrictions that finally less than 1000 of the visas were used.

One condition was that the Jews should have been baptized prior to 1933. Another was that they deposit a large entry tax. The Vatican tried hard to mitigate these conditions and also to ensure that persons taking advantage of the visas were genuine Christians.

It is already on record that as early as March 1942, the Pope was told by his representatives in Batislava of the deportation of 80,000 Jews to a “certain death” in Poland. This was almost immediately after the deportations started on a massive scale. In Dec, 1942, the British Minister to the Holy See, Francis D’Arcy Osborne, objected that Pius was too preoccupied about the bombing of Italian cities and should instead condemn the massacre of the Jews.

“Why does not the Holy See intervene against the terrible killing of the Jews?” Osborne asked Secretary of State Maglione. The Cardinal’s reply was that “The Holy Father had in his message upheld the rights of all men. regardless of race or creed….” Maglione reminded Osborne of “How much the Holy Father has done and is doing to alleviate the fate of the poor Jews. They know it, and they frequently thank the Holy See for its efforts on their behalf,” he said.

A month later, the President of the Polish government in exile, Wladislas Reczkiewtcz, wrote Plus begging a clear word of condemnation for German atrocities in Poland, “including the extermination of the Jews and with them many Christians of Semitic race.” The President described the killing of the Jews accurately enough as “The systematic application of scientifically-organized mass murder.”

In Feb. 1943, the Pope was asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple, but refused to join an appeal by various church leaders against the persecution of Jews. And in May of that year, the Vatican received a report from an official in the Apostolic Delegation in Athens describing the deportation of Jews “stacked like pieces of merchandise” in the death-camp expresses.

All indications are that Vatican officials were aware of what was going on very soon after the “final solution” got under way.

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