Documents recently unearthed in a Rome flea market show that the pope during World War II received regular reports on Nazi atrocities and must have known of the attempt to exterminate the Jews.
The finding is particularly significant because the issue of what Pope Pius XII did or didn’t know during the Holocaust, and whether he could have done more to save Jews, has become a heated one in recent years.
The Vatican hierarchy, including Pope John Paul II, defends Pius and a process aimed at beatifying him is under way. The beatification process is the last step before someone is made a saint.
Father Pierre Blet, a Jesuit historian who has been particularly vocal in defending Pius, said he was astonished by the discovery of the documents.
The issue of what the wartime pope knew about the Holocaust surfaced again after Fabrizio Coisson, a reporter for Italy’s news magazine Panorama, found in the flea market four binders full of typewritten summaries of wartime Allied radio broadcasts.
The summaries had been prepared by Sir Francis D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne, Britain’s wartime ambassador to the Holy See.
“At first sight, they just looked like summaries of war news,” Coisson wrote in a lengthy article on his find in Panorama.
But, he added, a handwritten note said they were copies of transcriptions of the BBC War News Services, made by Osborne and “transmitted every two days to the pope.”
Osborne, who took up his post as ambassador in 1936, began his reports in September 1940, three months after he, like other ambassadors, took refuge behind Vatican walls when Italy joined the war as Nazi Germany’s ally.
According to Coisson, the documents contain a number of direct references to the Nazi deportations, mass executions and other persecution of the Jews.
The earliest mention of Jews, in October 1940, warns that the Germans were “actively promoting anti-Semitism in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.”
More dramatic information appears later, particularly after Pius’ Christmas homily in 1942, in which the pope condemned persecution in a general way, but without uttering the words “Nazi” or “Jew.”
In January 1943, Osborne wrote: “In Slovakia, 77 percent of the Jewish population has been deported to an unknown destination, which probably signifies death.”
Two weeks later, he wrote that “the number of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto has been reduced from 400,000 — there are barely 35,000 left.”
The transcripts also detail reports of Nazi “atrocities in the name of the myth of the superior race,” such as the use of poison gas against the handicapped – – news that Osborne wrote he found difficult to believe.
According to Coisson, Osborne indeed exhibited “a sense of incredulity, almost a fear that [such] news without proof could be the fruit of propagandistic exaggeration.”
It was previously known that Osborne had compiled radio summary reports during the war, but scholars had not found the documents.
Osborne continued to live in Rome after the war until his death in 1964, but there was no indication of how the documents had ended up at Porta Portese, Rome’s sprawling main flea market.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.