Pius XII, Lifesaver

BOOK PICK: The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews From the Nazis

The Pope’s Jews

The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews From the Nazis

By Gordon Thomas

Thomas Dunne Books, 2012

320 pages, $26.99

To order: us.macmillan.com


The Nazi slaughter of the Jews in Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia was well under way in February 1939, when Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli assumed the papacy, taking the name Pius XII. Horrified as he surely was by what was happening throughout Europe, it was his judgment that public denunciation of the persecution “would inevitably provoke further reprisals against the Jews,” according to Gordon Thomas in The Pope’s Jews.

The furor over Pius’ alleged “silence” that has occupied the public’s attention for decades has overshadowed the success of his efforts to save the lives of millions of Jews, as well as thousands of Allied troops who escaped from German imprisonment.

The Pope’s Jews offers an extraordinarily well-researched account of those efforts, as well as a magnificent portrait of the refugees, the residents of Rome’s ghetto and Rome’s Catholic community, who formed the infrastructure of the papal plan. In doing so, Thomas has provided a most welcome addition in the fight to preserve Pius’ good name.

Rome, and indeed all of Europe, was engulfed in fear as Hitler’s thugs worked to carry out his goal to slaughter the Jews. But the courage of its people, Jews and Catholics alike, was tangible. The proof lies in the willingness of the ghetto’s residents to stay despite the danger, a stubbornness that proved costly, as well as in the determination of their non-Jewish neighbors, who risked their own lives in order to protect them.

This book follows the timeline of events as they actually occurred. Thus, there is a constant jumping back and forth on almost every page. Ordinarily, such tactics tend to turn off many readers. Not in this case. 

Thomas takes his readers back in time to such headline-making events as the Ardeantine massacre, Hitler’s demand for gold, the bombing of Rome by Allied planes and the battle for Rome. But he also gives us insights into the daily tensions and the triumphs of the people who lived there.

Of all the people who make up this story, two stand out. One was Israel Zolli, Rome’s chief rabbi, who, during those wartime years, made the spiritual journey from Judaism to Catholicism. Rabbi Zolli witnessed to the Pontiff’s support: “[The Pope] made it clear there was money in the Vatican treasury to help our people. No hero in all of history was more heroic than Pope Pius in his readiness to defend the children of God.” The second outstanding witness was Sister Pascalina, who served the papal household for 41 years, from the time Pius was nuncio to Germany until he died.           

To his credit, the author lists his sources. Unfortunately, there’s no index, most likely due to the fact that there are more than 70 “principal personae” mentioned. The good news is that he has divided them into groups, such as the Jewish community, the resistance, relief workers,  spies, diplomats, gossip mongers, the Vatican and, believe it or not, criminal gangs.

For decades, papal critics have used the delay in opening the papal archives as an alibi to justify their complaint that Pius was silent. Given the public record, so well scrutinized in Thomas’ The Pope’s Jews and by others, there’s little reason to expect the opening of archives will alter the end results, namely that the Catholic Church, under Pius’ leadership, rescued more Jews than any other institution or government.


     Bill Loughlin writes from Glendale, California.