Pius and the Prisoners

Crusade of Charity: Pius XII and POWs


by Margherita Marchione

Paulist Press, 2006

284 pages, $19.95

To order: (800) 218-1903


Though much of this book reveals Pope Pius XII’s efforts to help the families of imprisoned combatants of the Second World War, a good chunk is devoted to debunking the libel against Pius XII that first gained currency with Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy. His complaint that the Pope kept silent about the Holocaust because he was anti-Semitic merits rebuttal because it has lately been revived by liberal Jewish lobby groups such as Abe Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League, and embittered ex-Catholic seminarians such as John Cornwell (Hitler’s Pope), Gary Wills (Papal Sin) and ex-priests such as James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword).

Both groups seem to author Sister Margherita Marchione of the Religious Teachers Filippini to be afflicted with “historical amnesia.” But Hochhuth’s monstrous calumny began, she shows, with Soviet propaganda during the Second World War.

Presenting letters, telegrams and reports translated into English for the first time, the book reveals Pope Pius XII as a dedicated humanitarian of immense organizational ability. He first put this to use in the First World War, when, while still a monsignor, he organized the exchange of 65,000 prisoners of war. At the outbreak of World War II, he swiftly set up the Vatican Information Service to succor families torn apart by the conflict.

The Vatican Information Office grew to more than 800 staff and processed more than 10 million requests, many of them addressed to the Pope by mothers, fathers and sisters of missing combatants. Ordinary diocesan clergy around the world were dispatched to POW and internment camps to find the missing men. The priests overcame the resistance of petty bureaucrats to provide Christmas presents for Allied prisoners in Japan, radios for Italians in Ohio, letters from home and even stenographers.

“Most Holy Father,” begins one typical letter from one young Italian wife, “deign to listen to the humble prayer of your faithful devoted servant.” A year later, her husband was located in British POW camp No. 310 in Egypt. Interspersed with several dozen like letters are accounts of papal diplomatic intercessions on behalf of displaced persons, escaping Allied airmen and especially Jews in hiding.

Though now derided as “Hitler’s Pope,” at the time, Sister Margherita shows, Pius XII received many entreaties from American and Canadian Jewish leaders to privately intercede with authorities and to rescue and conceal Jews throughout Europe. As Italian Jewish leader Raffaele Cantoni said, “[We] did not want the Pope to make some public pronouncement. … At the time we did not know how Hitler would react. What we wanted from him was practical aid. That we did receive.”

Their caution was warranted: When Dutch bishops protested the rounding up of Jews, the Nazis retaliated by seizing Catholics of Jewish ancestry, while ignoring Protestants with Jewish blood.

Here is a 1944 letter Sister Margherita discovered in the Vatican archives from the National Jewish Welfare Board of New York to Pope Pius XII: “As freedom is being won back for the oppressed people of Europe, word comes to us from our army chaplains in Italy telling of the aid and protection given to so many Italian Jews by the Vatican and by priests and institutions of the Church. … We are deeply moved by these stirring stories of Christian love, the more so as we know full well to what dangers many of those, who gave shelter and aid to Jews hunted by the Gestapo, exposed themselves.”

To know history is to cease being a Pius persecutor.

Steve Weatherbe writes from

Victoria, British Columbia.