National Catholic Register

Commentary

In Tearing Down Pius XII, Revisionist Historians Forget the Facts

BY George Sim Johnston

November 23-29,1997 Issue | Posted 11/23/97 at 1:00 PM

 

Here they go again.

Ever since Rolf Hochhuth's 1962 propaganda play The Deputy indicted Pius XII for complicity in the Nazi genocide, it has been a commonplace of editorial writers that the Vatican was a silent, and therefore guilty, bystander to the murder of 6 million Jews.

The recent Declaration of Repentance by French Catholic bishops, asking forgiveness for “an attitude of conformism, caution, and abstention” among French Catholics under the Vichy regime, was a fitting and noble gesture. But its main effect on editorial writers was to prompt them to pull out their boilerplate phrases about Pius XII's supposed complicity in the Jewish Holocaust.

Thus, James Carroll—formerly a priest, currently an anti-Catholic Catholic—writes in the Boston Globe that it is high time John Paul II follow the example of the French bishops and apologize for the Vatican's “silence” during the Holocaust. The New York Times chimed in with the complaint that John Paul “has not yet apologized for the behavior of the Church during the war. Pope Pius XII kept silent when he was given credible reports of the genocide.”

Before asking the Pope to apologize for the behavior of the Vatican during the Holocaust, these writers ought to consult the historical record. Jewish scholars like Joseph Lichten, Pinchas Lapide, and Leni Yahil have documented the considerable efforts made by the Vatican to save Jewish lives. The Vatican ran an extensive network of hideouts, and even the Pope's summer residence at Castel Gondolfo was used to shelter Jewish refugees. Pius, moreover, took personal responsibility for the children of deported Jews.

Largely as a result of the Church's efforts, the Jews in Italy had a far higher survival rate under Nazi occupation than was the case in other countries. Estimates of the number of Jews saved throughout Europe by the Vatican's efforts range up to 700,000. This was one reason why Chief Rabbi Zolli of Rome converted to Catholicism at the end of the war, taking as his baptismal name Pius's own, Eugenio, in gratitude for what the Pope had done.

In appreciation for Pius's efforts for the Jews, the World Jewish Congress made a large cash gift to the Vatican in 1945. In the same year, Chief Rabbi Herzog of Jerusalem, who had been deeply involved in efforts to save Jewish refugees, sent a “special blessing” to the Pope “for his lifesaving efforts on behalf of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy.” And when Pius died in 1958, Israel's Foreign Minister Golda Meir gave him a moving tribute at the United Nations for the same reason.

As for Pius's “silence” about the Holocaust, the editors of the Times might look at their own editorial page on Christmas day, 1942, which applauded Pius as “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.” This was after Pius had publicly decried the fact that hundreds of thousands were being persecuted “solely because of their race or ancestry.”

Ought Pius to have made stronger public statements? His critics fail to address the fact that in 1942 the Catholic hierarchy of Amsterdam did exactly what they fault Pius for not doing: it spoke out vigorously against the Nazi treatment of the Jews. The Nazi response was a redoubling of roundups and deportations. (Blessed Edith Stein was among the victims.)

Like most people on the left, Mr. Carroll seems to view public posturing as an end in itself. But what was to be gained by Pius's getting up on a soap box and lashing out at the Nazis? Both the International Red Cross and the World Council of Churches came to the same conclusion as the Vatican: relief efforts for the Jews would be more effective if the agencies remained relatively quiet.

Fervent public statements by Pius would have amounted to a death warrant for the thousands of Jews hidden in churches and convents. The documents show that he decided that speaking out publicly would not only endanger Jewish lives but would not have the slightest effect on Hitler. Stalin's famous remark that the Pope has no divisions is highly relevant here.

Relatively few during the war made heroic efforts to save the Jews. Those that did— Raoul Wallenberg and Schindler, for example—are rightly celebrated heroes. But the number of Jews they saved from the camps does not compare with what Pius accomplished. The constant editorial harangues about his “acquiescence” (Carroll's word) in the Holocaust are an appalling exercise in historical injustice.

George Sim Johnston is a Catholic writer based in New York City.