(JTA) — Pope Francis has ordered 170 volumes of Jewish requests for help from the Catholic Church during World War II to be published online, two years after making their physical copies available to historians.
His decision is the latest development in the Vatican’s newfound reckoning of its legacy during the Holocaust.
The correspondence contains 2,700 files specifically recounting Jewish groups and families requesting assistance from the Vatican in avoiding deportation or trying to free relatives from concentration camps, both in the run-up to and during the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII, who served as pope during the most pivotal years of the war, is often charged by historians with ignoring Jewish pleas for help and cozying up to Hitler and Mussolini in order to preserve the influence of the Church.
The Vatican itself has long insisted that Pius XII should be celebrated for secretly advocating for Jews via diplomatic means, but that narrative is changing as more information about his papacy has been revealed to the public. The Church opened its secret files on Pius’s archives to historians in 2020, but by publishing its Jewish-related files online, it opens them up to easier access and greater scrutiny by the public.
“The Pope at War,” a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kertzer, the son of a rabbi, draws on these new archives to make the case that Pius largely ignored pleas from Jews (while keeping a secret back channel to Hitler). Pius did, however, concern himself with trying to save the small number of Jews who had converted to Catholicism or who were from mixed families, categories that were still considered “Jewish” under Hitler’s racial laws.
Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s foreign minister, wrote in a church newspaper that the digital release of the files was also intended to help provide closure to the descendants of Jews who had implored the Vatican for help.