VATICAN CITY — The decision of Yad Vashem’s Holocaust museum to alter a caption describing Pope Pius XII should be seen as evidence of “honesty and growing trust” among those researching the controversial record of the wartime Pope, the outgoing papal nuncio to Israel has said.
Speaking to the Register July 3, Archbishop Antonio Franco said the decision “is a demonstration of trust; not that the differences have been resolved, but that we can search and study in a peaceful way.” The papal nuncio said it also marks a “step forward” toward ending the controversy, though he did not know if that would happen soon.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust museum announced July 1 that it had altered the wording after years of contentious debate between Yad Vashem and the Vatican. Matters came to a head in 2007, when Archbishop Franco threatened to boycott a Holocaust commemoration over the wording.
Pope Pius XII
“Pius XII’s reaction to the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust is a matter of controversy. In 1933, when he was secretary of the Vatican state, he was active in obtaining a concordat with the German regime to preserve the Church’s rights in Germany, even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime. When he was elected Pope in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared. Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest, either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. The Pope maintained his neutral position throughout the war, with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia towards its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged Churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react.”
“The Vatican, under Pius XI, Achille Ratti, and represented by the Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, signed a concordat with Nazi Germany in July 1933 in order to preserve the rights of the Catholic Church in Germany.
The reaction of Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, to the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust is a matter of controversy among scholars.
From the onset of World War II, the Vatican maintained a policy of neutrality. The Pontiff abstained from signing the Allies’ declaration of December 17, 1942, condemning the extermination of the Jews. Yet, in his Christmas radio address of December 24, 1942, he referred to ‘the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or ethnic origin (stirpe), have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.’ Jews were not explicitly mentioned. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pontiff did not publicly protest. The Holy See appealed separately to the rulers of Slovakia and Hungary on behalf of the Jews.
The Pope’s critics claim that his decision to abstain from condemning the murder of the Jews by Nazi Germany constitutes a moral failure: The lack of clear guidance left room for many to collaborate with Nazi Germany, reassured by the thought that this did not contradict the Church’s moral teachings. It also left the initiative to rescue Jews to individual clerics and laymen.
His defenders maintain that this neutrality prevented harsher measures against the Vatican and the Church’s institutions throughout Europe, thus enabling a considerable number of secret rescue activities to take place at different levels of the Church. Moreover, they point to cases in which the Pontiff offered encouragement to activities in which Jews were rescued.
Until all relevant material is available to scholars, this topic will remain open to further inquiry.”
Instead of presenting only the critics’ view, the new text contains arguments from both sides. In a separate statement, the museum said it “looks forward to the day when the Vatican Archives will be open to researchers so that a clearer understanding of the events can be arrived at.” According to Catholic News Service, Archbishop Franco explained that the Vatican’s archives "continue to be catalogued and will be open to the public once the work is finished." He offered no timeline for completion of the work.
The museum denied reports and accusations from Rome’s Jewish community that the move was due to Vatican pressure. Rather, it said it had taken the decision “following the recommendation of the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research.”
It also cited new research, including documents released from the Vatican Archives up to 1939, and the results of an international academic workshop on Pius XII and the Holocaust held at Yad Vashem in 2009 (the full proceedings of the workshop will be published over the next couple of months, according to the museum).
Archbishop Franco also denied the Vatican had exerted undue force.
“We have been insisting on this change, if you like, but we haven’t used pressure in the sense that we have blackmailed or done this or that,” he said. “It’s been an honest quest, an honest dialogue on the human aspect, to make present the concerns and to consider the research openly and together.”
Yet the change to the text appears to have accelerated after the nuncio’s 2007 public protest, and the subsequent discovery of documentary evidence and new documentation. Archbishop Franco said he met the president of Yad Vashem several times after the incident “to try to analyze some points and all the issues that were mentioned in the old caption.” He said the 2009 workshop, which took place shortly before Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land that year, was “organized in the same spirit: to try to deepen the understanding of the question raised in the caption and to give honest views on those issues.”
“From that time, there was already assurance there would be a revision of the texts, that there could be evolution of the text,” he said. “Finally the text came. Obviously, it’s not what I personally would have written, but it’s a great evolution that shows a deeper understanding of the situation.”
Speaking to the Register July 3, professor Dan Michman, head of the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research, said some visitors to the museum “didn’t understand the controversy,” so the new caption “presents this controversy in more detail.”
He stressed the importance of being able to view the 1939-1945 Vatican Archives before any further revisions of the caption can take place. He also said it was important to conduct more research into religious orders to see if their efforts to save Jews came from the initiative of Pius XII.
“If there’s anything that dramatically changes our mind, we’ll have to sit down and see what it is,” he said. “Not one single study will change everything.”
He claimed some people are trying to rid Pius XII of criticism so he can be beatified, but that Yad Vashem is “not doing that at all.”
“We are committed to an academic approach and to research that brings up new things; these findings cannot be expressed even in 200 words, but we’re moving towards it,” he said. But he did not agree with the view that the text had been “softened,” saying it had been changed to reveal the complexity of the controversy.
Similarly, Archbishop Franco did not see it as a “softening” of the text, as the negative interpretation of events is still there, alongside the positive one. “The negative view is very tough, very hard, and I would not agree at all with this,” he said, noting that the new version claims the Pope’s alleged inaction “constitutes a moral failure” — words that weren’t present in the earlier version.
Pave the Way Foundation, a non-sectarian organization that seeks to remove the use of religion as a tool to justify private agendas and violence, said in a statement July 3 that it welcomed the decision and that it fully appreciated the need for further research. The organization, which has been at the forefront of efforts in searching for the truth, has uncovered 76,000 original documents showing Pius XII worked behind the scenes to help save Jews from the Holocaust. It also claims Pius saved more Jewish lives than all other religious and political leaders combined.
It said it recognized Yad Vashem’s “dedication to historic accuracy” and its willingness “to change previously incorrect information on Pius XII, with the review of the newly revealed documentation currently available.” Elliot Hershberg of the foundation said he had “absolute confidence” that Pius XII will be vindicated once the archives are open. He stressed that, from the outset, the foundation has had no other purpose than to “set the record straight.”
Michman, when asked if he thought the change signifies a growing awareness that the defenders of Pius XII are right, replied: “No, I wouldn’t say that; the polemics are even fiercer than before.” He agreed that the controversy started with Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy, which started the spread of what has become known as the “Black Legend” of Pius XII. And he acknowledged that much research has been conducted since then that has changed historians’ positions. But he said critics have also grown stronger “as they have included a moral evaluation which wasn’t there before.”
Furthermore, he highlighted one issue which he sees as being of central importance to the debate and necessary to resolve: Pius XII’s Christmas radio address of 1942 in which he referred to those who have been “consigned to death or to a slow decline,” but did not mention the Jews by name. “He didn’t use the word Jews, so what did he really mean?” Michman said.
Gary Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, said in the organization’s July 3 statement that “while he didn’t mention the Jews by name, the message is transparent.” Krupp also welcomed the inclusion in the new caption of particular positive actions the Pope took, “specifically the fact that the Holy See did appeal to the rulers of Slovakia and Hungary on behalf of the Jews.”
One theory generally accepted by Pius’ defenders is that the smearing of the reputation of this stridently anti-communist Pontiff was the work of Soviet agents after his death. But Michman doesn’t accept this theory, nor is he willing to investigate it.
“I really don’t believe that,” he said, adding that such a reality would quickly be detected during research if it were true. Asked if he would in any case look into it, he replied: “No, I don’t think (of) it as an issue as such. There were all sorts of political issues going on at that time. When you start a smear campaign, you’re looking at issues that are hot at the time; but, for the Soviets in the 1960s, and also those in the Western world, the Holocaust wasn’t as central as it is now in the public awareness. It was not a hot topic at all.” He also did not believe Hochhuth’s play was in any way a conscious attempt to smear Pius’ name. “He raised a moral issue that is still there in the controversy,” he said.
Krupp argued that the Soviet's smear tactics involved the rewriting and distribution of the play The Deputy as part of the "Seat Twelve" plot. "This was revealed by General Ion Pacepa [a senior Romanian intelligence official and defector], who actually knew the Soviet tactics and the players of which Dan Michman would not have knowledge," he said.
Krupp predicted “the world will soon restore the heroic reputation of Pope Pius XII to its proper place in history — when the Vatican Archives open, and all will be able to see the facts.” Archbishop Franco is similarly hopeful, though slightly more cautious.
“It’s a step forward, but when will it end? We don’t know. Soon? We hope so,” he said. “For me, it’s also important how we present things, that we get into a deeper relationship of understanding a situation, and that this can evolve positively.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent. He blogs at NCRegister.com.