Catholic leaders urgently called on Pope Pius XI to intervene against the Nazi persecution of the Jews — and some Vatican officials tried to work behind the scenes to do so, according to documents from newly opened Vatican archives.
Published in the Italian media, the documents represent the first few files to surface from the huge trove of pre-World War II material unsealed by the Vatican Secret Archives on Feb. 15.
The most dramatic revelation was an impassioned appeal for papal action written in April 1933 by Edith Stein, a German Jewish convert to Catholicism who eventually was murdered in Auschwitz and in 1998 was declared a saint.
A 1934 memorandum from German Rev. Friedrich Muckermann to the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli — the future Pope Pius XII — criticized the Vatican’s “silence” and “lack of courage” in the face of Hitler.
An April 1933 letter signed by Pacelli, however, indicated that the Vatican instructed its representative in Berlin “to see if and how” it could intervene.
Without providing a full text, the Catholic news agency Zenit said this letter “gave precise instructions” to a Vatican official in Berlin “to warn the National Socialist government not to persecute the Jews.”
David Kertzer, the author of the book “The Popes Against the Jews,” said the emergence of contradictory material was to be expected.
And he predicted a sort of “war of dribbled documents” as scholars sift through thousands of pages of newly declassified material.
“It is now clear that with the opening of the Pius XI archives we are going, for the next couple of years, to see a periodic trumpeting of selected documents by one side or another in the debate over the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust,” Kertzer, a professor at Brown University, told JTA.
“It will probably be only in two to three years that the first systematic studies of the available documentation will begin to make possible a thorough understanding of what happened,” he said. “This is all the more true since most of the Vatican documentation on the period is still not available and will not be entirely available to scholars for another two years.”
The newly released documents were unsealed six years ahead of schedule in response to the bitter debate over the Vatican role in the Holocaust — and particular over the role of Pius XII, whom critics have long accused of allowing Jews to die because of his silence.
The material concerns the Vatican’s relations with prewar Nazi Germany. Mostly correspondence, it all dates from the pontificate of Pius XI, who reigned from 1922 until his death in February 1939.
During this time Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII on March 2, 1939, served both as Vatican ambassador in Berlin and as Vatican secretary of state.
So far, the letter to Pius XI from Stein, written less than three weeks after Hitler took power, has grabbed the biggest headlines.
Scholars had long known of its existence — in her 1938 autobiography, Stein herself wondered what had happened to it. In 2000, a team of Jewish and Catholic scholars charged with examining the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust listed the letter as one of the documents they wanted to see to help determine the Vatican’s wartime record.
The team collapsed in 2001 because it was not granted full access to unpublished archival material.
In her letter, Stein described a “war of extermination against Jewish blood.”
She warned that responsibility for what was happening “also falls on those who remain silent” and implored the pope to act.
“Not just the Jews, but thousands of faithful Catholics in Germany — and, I believe, in all the world — have been waiting and hoping for weeks that the Church of Christ let its voice be heard against such abuse of the name of Christ,” she wrote.
She added, “All of us who are watching the current situation in Germany as faithful children of the church, fear the worst for the image of the church itself if the silence is further prolonged. We are also convinced that this silence cannot, in the long term, obtain peace from the current German government.”
Kertzer described Stein’s appeal as a “powerful statement” that appeared to have gone largely unheeded.
“She could not have been more prescient, and her call for the pope to make a firm public protest against the Nazi persecution of the Jews could not have been more eloquent,” he said.
“That the pope chose not to listen to her but to try to stay on the good side of Hitler for the next several years is a shameful chapter in church history, one unfortunately that the Vatican has yet to recognize and, indeed, is currently doing all possible to deny,” he said.
“Fortunately, there are many in the Catholic Church who are embarrassed by the Vatican stance and are working on behalf of their church to shed light on this uncomfortable past,” he said.
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.