He grew up hating Pope Pius XII, but now Gary Krupp, the Jewish founder of Pave the Way Foundation, is possibly the best-known defender of the wartime pontiff. He recently met with the Register in London, where he was stopping over, following meetings at the Vatican.
In this interview, he tells the Register about the dramatic change that became his consuming passion; how he hopes Pope Pius will be named “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem; and wonders if Hollywood producer Steven Spielberg will make a movie about the Pope who saved the Jews.
How does a Jewish businessman from the U.S. become the best-known defender of a wartime pope and trusted ally of the Vatican?
You need to understand that I grew up hating Pius XII. I believed all the stories about him doing nothing to stop the mass murder of Jews — that’s where I was coming from, to start with. Anyway, I still found myself helping the Catholic Church over in Italy.
My background was building medical facilities, so a friend introduced me to some delegates, including bishops, from the Padre Pio hospital in San Giovanni Rotondo. I offered to help them get the best deals for the medical equipment they needed.
I supported the hospital for about 25 years and received a papal knighthood from Pope John Paul II. For our work helping the Vatican Library obtain the Bodmer Papyrus, through our friend and donor Frank Hanna III, I was raised in rank in my papal knighthood by Pope Benedict XVI, but my view on Pius XII remained the same throughout.
Well, it was 2006, and I was having lunch with my wife, Merry, and the new nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, and he was telling me about this plaque that had been put up in Yad Vashem that was critical of Pius XII, asking if I could do anything about it. After lunch, I was like, “Why would I want to do anything for that pope? No way.”
Then a strange thing happened. Very soon after, I got a call from the executive director of the New York Board of Rabbis, asking if I could help Dan Kurzman, a Jewish writer who was doing a book about Pius XII. I didn’t really want to, as there was enough hostility without another book about it. So my wife and I decided to meet with Dan, first. He started telling us about the Nazi plans to invade the Vatican and kill the Pope. I couldn’t believe it. I was astonished.
I started researching online newspaper archives for reports on the Pope during the war years and after, and they were all positive — nothing negative at all. My shock turned to anger: It felt [like] I had been lied to, and for Jews, the worst flaw is ingratitude. We’d been robbed of the chance to thank this Pope.
I called my friend Archbishop [Celestino] Migliore, who was then nuncio at the U.N. He listened and told me to meet [with a] Pius XII researcher and author, which we did, and it went from there.
You must get asked a lot if you’ll convert to the Catholic faith. Will you?
Never. Why? Because I walk the path God has set for me. I was born a Jew, and I’ll die a Jew. God doesn’t want me to do this as a Catholic.
Can you tell us about your recent visit to the Vatican?
Sure. I went for a number of meetings with Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa and a brief meeting with Pope Francis. I’ve actually met Pope John Paul II four times, Benedict 19 times, and this was the fourth time meeting Francis.
On this occasion, I had Ayoob Kara, the Israeli deputy minister for regional cooperation with me, as I’m doing some work on getting state funding for Christian schools, and we’re also working on finalizing the fundamental agreement over outstanding issues on relations with the Holy See and Israel.
When I met Pope Francis, I gave him a DVD copy of the National Geographic documentary about Pope Pius. There are only two of these DVDs in the world: They were specially made for the Pope and for Cardinal Parolin.
Did you raise the issue of the Vatican Archives?
I did. I asked Cardinal Parolin if he would consider opening up all the archives on Pius, rather than waiting [as the Vatican has not opened the wartime archives]. I really tried to impress upon him the urgency of doing it, and he understands, but he’s under pressure — not everyone is in favor.
You know, there’s evidence in those archives about Pope Pius having a letter of resignation in his desk, just in case the Nazis kidnapped him. He ordered the cardinals to flee to Portugal and elect a new pope. People don’t know about this stuff and all the things he did to save the Jews of Rome. It needs to be revealed.
Does the opening of the Vatican’s Argentine “dirty war” archives give you hope?
Okay, so Pope Francis has just opened up the Vatican Archives covering the “dirty war” years of the Argentine [civil] war, which is fine, if that’s what he wants to do. I understand. He was a Jesuit superior in Argentina at the time. But it can set a bad precedent. It’s like a stick for opponents of Pius to beat the Church with.
What do you mean?
My fear is that there will be some among the enemies of the Church and the Pope who will say the Pope is more concerned with protecting his own reputation, rather than the reputation of Pius — that it suggests the victims of the Argentine war are more important than the victims of the Holocaust. That’s the analogy people will make, and it’s problematic. It could raise questions that reinforce theories the Vatican is hiding something from the war years.
You’ve been at this for 16 years now. How are things changing?
There’s less hostility now; people listen. Our work is generally well received by Jewish audiences, but I still get criticized by liberal left-wing Catholics. They criticize Pius; they’ve got a different agenda. The mainstream media are looking again. National Geographic just made a great documentary drama about Pius, based on the book Church of Spies. And I recently met with producers at the Discovery Channel, who are making a documentary about Christianity and Hitler.
Steven Spielberg made a movie, Schindler’s List, about Oscar Schindler saving 1,600 Jews. Pius saved close to a million. One day, when all this is done, I hope Spielberg makes a movie about the Pope.
Let’s say the archives are opened, Pius is vindicated, and the critics are silenced. Would that be “case closed” for you?
Absolutely not. I want Pope Pius XII recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” at Yad Vashem. That’s want I want to keep working for. It’s the highest honor Judaism can give to a non-Jew, and he deserves to be recognized — he risked his life.
What would you want to say to Pope Pius if he were here now?
I think he’d want to say it to me: “Thank you. Thank you for believing in me.”
Register correspondent Daniel Blackman writes from London.