A Vatican decision to begin opening some of its secret, Holocaust-era archives falls short of Jewish demands that all its documentation from that period be made available to scholars.
Just the same, Jews involved in interreligious dialogue welcomed the move as a major step in the quest to clarify the wartime role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII.
Pius, who held the papacy from 1939-1958, long has been accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust and allowing Jews to die because of his silence.
“We welcome the Holy See’s announcement that it plans to release some unpublished World War II documents from its secret archives ahead of schedule,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, known as IJCIC. “This response to the longtime request of historians and other scholars is an important development.”
Unfortunately, he added, the Vatican announcement, made last Friday, was unclear as to whether all relevant documents from the pontificates of Pius XII and his predecessor, Pius XI, would be released.
“We urge that all documents be released and made available to scholars,” Reich said.
Britain’s Lord Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, agreed.
“Any opening of post-1938 documents is valuable, partly because of what they may reveal, and partly because it sets a new precedent,” he told JTA. “However, I am concerned that there may be a selective cull of the archives, and although the fact that there is an agreement to open them is new, important, and welcome, I would urge that the Vatican allows the archives to be available to independent researchers.”
In its statement last Friday, the Vatican said Pope John Paul II felt it important to open the archives on Pius XII’s pontificate for “evident reasons” — that is, because it coincided with World War II “and the deportation of the Jews and the tragedy of the Shoah.”
In effect, the statement provided a rough timetable for executing earlier Vatican pledges that the archives would be opened when technically feasible.
It said the pope, acting “to help bring an end to unjust and thankless speculation,” had decided that selected archives leading up to 1939 would be opened to scholars next year.
The first documents to be released will deal with relations between the Vatican and Germany from 1922-1939.
This was the period when the future Pius XII served as the Vatican’s representative in Germany and the Vatican secretary of state.
It said documents relating to Vatican-German relations during Pius XII’s papacy will be made available starting in about three years time.
A new film by Greek-born French director Constantin Costa-Gavras is sharply critical of Vatican inaction during the Holocaust.
Called “Amen,” the film is based largely on “The Deputy,” a 1963 play by German author Rolf Hochhuth.
The Vatican has consistently defended Pius XII, saying he did not speak out for fear of prompting reprisals. They say he also worked behind the scene to save Jews.
John Paul has been steadfast in his defense of Pius.
Scholars and Jewish groups long have called for the Vatican’s secret wartime archives to be opened to clarify the matter, particularly because a process to beatify Pius XII is under way.
David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director for interreligious affairs, said the decision to release some documents is “an enlightened step.” He added, however, that the move “advances things, but does not resolve” the question.
The twin issues of Pius XII and the Vatican archives have clouded Jewish-Vatican relations.
A joint Catholic-Jewish team of scholars set up to study already published wartime Vatican archives collapsed last year amid angry recriminations because the scholars did not obtain access to all the archives.
As early as last summer, however, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief liaison with the Jews, said the archives would be opened when technically possible.
“The wish of many historians to have access to the archives relating to the pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII is understandable and legitimate,” he said.
“Out of respect for the truth, the Holy See is ready to consent to the access of the Vatican’s Secret Archive as soon as the reorganizing and cataloguing work is concluded,” he said. “The Catholic Church is not afraid of the historical truth.”
Last Friday’s statement nonetheless acknowledged that the Vatican expected some scholars to be “disappointed” with only the partial opening, and asked them for patience.
It also said the Vatican would release detailed documentation on prisoners of war that would show Pius had carried out “a great work of charity and help” for prisoners of “all nations, religions and races.”
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.