Behind the Headlines: Newly Released Statements Add to Evidence Against Wartime Pope
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Behind the Headlines: Newly Released Statements Add to Evidence Against Wartime Pope

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Jewish groups are stepping up their criticism of Pope Pius XII’s role during the Holocaust as the Vatican continues to consider the World War II-era pontiff for sainthood.

Documents newly released by Jewish groups show that Pius’ representative warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt against the creation of a state for the “Hebrew Race” in Palestine and said he had no complaints about the Nazi occupation of Rome.

The documents raise new questions about a pope widely criticized by Jews for his failure to speak out against Nazi atrocities during World War II. The discovery also comes as Jewish groups continue to pressure the Vatican to open its archives for a full examination of its actions during the war.

In one document found by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Vatican representative sought to make clear to the Roosevelt administration that the pope’s help in rescuing 4,000 Slovakian Jews and transporting them to Palestine should not be taken as a sign that he favored setting up a Jewish homeland there.

“It is true that at one time Palestine was inhabited by the Hebrew Race, but there is no axiom in history to substantiate the necessity of a people returning to a country they left nineteen centuries before,” the apostolic delegate to Washington Archbishop A.G. Cicognani wrote in a June 22, 1943, letter to Roosevelt’s special envoy to the Vatican, Ambassador Myron Taylor.

The letter continues: “If a Hebrew home is desired, it would not be too difficult to find a more fitting territory than Palestine. With an increase in the Jewish population there, grave, new international problems would arise. Catholics the world over would be aroused. The Holy See would be saddened and justly so, by such a move.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, said the pronouncement by the Vatican was particularly troubling because it came at the height of the Holocaust.

He contrasted the pope’s “unequivocal and blunt” opposition to the creation of a Jewish state with his silence on the persecution of Jews.

“If only he had spoken with such clarity when it came to rescuing European Jewry,” Hier said.

“What’s critical for Jews to remember,” he added, “is that when the chips were down and when the Jews were dying, the pope didn’t hesitate to write to Roosevelt to tell them that we shouldn’t recognize a Jewish majority in Palestine.”

Hier said his organization found the letter in the course of researching Pius and that it released the document in hopes of urging Vatican officials “to rethink their strategy and at the very least postpone this discussion” of sainthood “for another two or three decades.”

Bestowing sainthood on such a controversial figure, he added, would do “tremendous harm to Jewish-Catholic relations.”

Eugene Fischer, associate director for ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the letter provided no new information and that it is consistent with the Vatican’s long-standing policy “against the idea that the Jewish homeland exclusively be a homeland solely for the Jews.”

He said Hier was trying to create a “myth” that Pius opposed Zionism outright when in fact he played an important role in saving the Jews of Rome and in giving tacit approval to Latin American Catholic countries who voted in support of the creation of the state of Israel.

“If one looks at the whole historic record, one might consider putting up a statue of Pius XII along with the founders of Israel,” Fischer said, adding, “He was a very influential, quiet voice” behind the creation of the Jewish state.

Dismissing Fischer’s remarks as “preposterous,” Hier said, “When Pius finally recognized that the state of Israel would become a reality, he jumped on the bandwagon.

“In 1943, when there was no state of Israel and Jews were fighting for their physical existence,” he added, “the pope was nowhere to be found.”

Although Hier acknowledged the pope’s role in saving some 8,000 Jews in Rome by allowing them to hide in monasteries toward the end of the war, he said, “By the time he lifted a hand for the Jews of Rome, the majority of the 6 million Jews were already murdered.”

The World Jewish Congress, meanwhile, said it discovered a Nov. 1, 1943 memo written by Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See following a one-hour meeting with the pope just prior to the Allied liberation of Rome.

Francis D’Arcy Osborne wrote that the pope said he had “no complaints” about the German occupation of Rome and that Germany had “behaved correctly” in respecting the neutrality of the Vatican.

Osborne said he told the pope that the Germans “were systematically stripping (Rome) of all its supplies, transport and labor, were arresting Italian officers” and children and were “applying their usual merciless methods of persecution of the Jews.” He also said a number of people shared the opinion that the pope had “underestimated his own moral authority and the high respect” in which it was held by German Catholics.

Fischer, upon examining the document, said it appeared the British ambassador was “trying to get the pope to say bad things about the Germans” for British “propaganda” purposes.

But the pope had to have been aware that criticizing the Germans would have been “foolish” in light of the fact that thousands of Jews were hiding in Catholic monasteries, he added.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC, said, however, that the memo “speaks right to the question of the documented silence of Pius XII.

“He never did publicly speak out against the persecution of the Jews, and he’s urged to speak out against Nazi atrocities by the British ambassador here. It does not reflect well on Pius XII,” Steinberg said

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