Making Sense Of Pius’ Wartime Record


The role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust — and of Pope Pius XII, its wartime leader — has remained a subject of controversy for nearly a half century, since Rolf Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy,” accused Pius of indifference to Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. The latest voice in this discussion is Davidt Cymet, a Mexico-born educator who spent eight years researching “History vs. Apologetics” (Lexington Books), an exhaustive study of the Church and Pius XII during World War II.

Q: Libraries are full of books about the actions of Pius XII — and the Catholic Church — during the Holocaust. What new information or perspective do you bring to the discussion?

A: The large literature on the role the Church played in the Holocaust is fragmented. Authors deal with specific episodes, often with no visible connection between them. Without the knowledge of that vast literature, one cannot begin to understand and evaluate the role of the Church during that period, particularly as long as the Church continues to block free access to its archives and maintains a selective tight control over them.

The role played by defenders of the Church in the Shoah is the equivalent to that of the Holocaust deniers. Although these defenders are not necessarily interested in denying the Holocaust per se, their main agenda is to whitewash the Church and its leaders of any responsibility in the Shoah.

Much of my time was spent to acquire critical mastery of that literature. A unifying background and perspective … linking the particular episodes in a logical coherent and historically valid account within the framework of their contemporary general background … has been badly missing.

Why is the Vatican’s behavior seven decades ago still relevant to the Jewish community?

After the Cain murder of European Jewry, the Church had some explaining to do … but it took more than 50 years for the Vatican to recognize its moral obligation to examine its past. It was only after Pius XII’s 1958 death that important changes in the Catholic attitude towards the Jewish people began; the Vatican II Council produced Nostra Aetate (1965) in which the so-called “exoneration” of the Jewish people of the crime of deicide took place. Nevertheless, the first three drafts of Nostra Aetate included the Christian doctrine of the ultimate conversion of the Jewish people to the Christian faith.

Pope John Paul II … who had personally witnessed the horror of the Holocaust in Poland … put the question on the agenda for the first time in 1987. He delegated Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president of the Holy See Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to produce an official document on the question of Christian responsibility for the Shoah. “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah” rejected any connection between millennial Church anti-Semitism and Nazi anti-Semitism and denied the formidable role played by German Catholicism in the rise of Hitler to power.

The fact that the Church failed to acknowledge the historic role it played in the Shoah … is not to be taken lightly. It means that not having found fault with its past actions and policies, the Church may continue to consider them a valid model to follow in the future.

The pope’s critics say he turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities against the Jews. His defenders say he quietly had the Church save untold Jewish lives. Saint or sinner — what’s your take on Pius XII?

On September 1933 … Vatican Secretary of State Eugene Pacelli [the future Pius XII] agreed to provide a written promise not to interfere in “German internal affairs” … the persecution of the Jews … in exchange for a verbal promise to exclude Jewish converts to Catholicism (non-Aryan Catholics) from these actions. The Church adhered scrupulously afterwards to its promise of not interfering with the persecution of the Jews; during the war Pius XII did not mention the Jews even once. Allegations of how much the Church did to save Jews have no factual basis. To the contrary, available evidence and testimonies … prove the callous indifference of the Church.

Is continued Jewish interest in the Vatican’s wartime record — and Jewish opposition to Pius’ canonization — harming Jewish-Catholic relations?

Jews have no part in the polemic if Pius XII deserves or does not deserve to be canonized. That is a matter for the Church and its believers to investigate and decide by themselves. What does, however, concern Jews, is the legitimate question on the role played by the Church and its highest authorities in the attempt led by Third Reich to annihilate the Jewish people. It is a tragic error to think that the truth as such will harm Jewish-Catholic relations and assume that good relations can be built perpetuating deception and make-believe.