The Pope and the Shoah: Getting the Facts Straight

In recent decades, “the silence of Pius XII” joined Galileo and the Inquisition among the stock arguments against the Catholic Church. That Pius XII helped facilitate the Holocaust by failing to protest the Nazi persecution of the Jews is a commonplace not only among journalists but among scholars who ought to know better. There has been a torrent of books and articles depicting Pius as indifferent to the plight of the Jews, many of them written by the sort of anti-Catholic Catholic— Gary Wills, John Cornwell, James Carroll— who is always available whenever an editor of a glossy magazine is in need of a scurrilous distortion of Catholic history.

Hardly anyone enters the debate over Pius' role in the Holocaust with pure objectivity. Pius' detractors have the sharpest ax to grind and seldom give him the benefit of the doubt. They make selective use of the evidence and are not above peddling falsehoods. Pius' defenders have a much stronger case, but they sometimes confuse loyalty to the magisterium with a pietistic approach to history which can obscure certain discomforting facts, such as Pius'failure to criticize the brutally fascist (and Catholic) Croatian Ustasha regime during the war.

Jos´ M. Sánchez's Pius XII and the Holocaust is an honest effort to sort through the evidence. This brief scholarly book is so dispassionate and evenhanded that, even though it mostly supports their side, Pius' defenders will become impatient. Professor Sánchez appears to enter the controversy with no emotional commitment one way or another. His purpose is to get the facts straight and not score debating points. The book is well done, although many Catholics, understandably exasperated by the attacks on Pius, will close it as I did with a fierce craving for the high octane polemics of Ralph McInerny's recent The Defamation of Pius XII.

It is a fact— inconvenient to the Pope's detractors — that Pius XII went to great efforts to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. He ordered Italian monasteries and convents open to Jewish refugees; he harbored thousands of Jews both in the Vatican and his summer residence; he took personal responsibility for the children of deported Jews, spent what was left of his personal family fortune to help Jewish refugees, and directed papal nuncios to do whatever they could to save Jewish lives. While the figure of 860,000 tallied by the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide may be high and is, in any case, not strictly verifiable, there is no question that Pius was responsible for saving many more Jewish lives than were justifiably celebrated figures like Oskar Schindler.

If it is true, as Cornwell and Carroll assert, that Pius acquiesced in the Holocaust, why did so many Jewish leaders, including Chief Rabbi Zolli of Rome, praise him for his efforts on behalf of the Jews? In 1945, Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Jerusalem sent a special blessing to the Pope “for his lifesaving efforts on behalf of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy.” Dr. Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, wrote on Pius' death: “With special gratitude we remember all he had done for the persecuted Jews during one of the darkest periods of their history.”

The roll call of gratitude toward Pius expressed by prominent Jews is impressive. And it was not limited to public figures. A priest I know who worked in the chancery of the New York Archdiocese tells me that at the time of Pius' death in 1958 scores of letters arrived from survivors of the Holocaust thanking the Church for what Pius had done. To assert, as historian Susan Zuccotti does, that all these Jews suffered from “benevolent ignorance”— in other words, were stupid— amounts to a species of antiSemitism.

Sánchez's account of what Pius actually did for the Jews is guarded and inadequate. His book is much more helpful in analyzing the “silence” itself. First, it is not true that Pius was silent. He condemned the Nazis and their treatment of the Jews on many occasions. For example, Pius' Christmas message in 1942 de-cried the fact that hundreds of thousands were being persecuted “solely because of their race or ancestry.” The German ambassador to the Vatican complained that Pius was “clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews.” A New York Times editorial on Christmas Day, 1942 praised Pius as “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

But, say his critics, these statements were too general; he did not specifically mention the Jews. Part of the problem, Sánchez argues, is Pius' unspecific and convoluted manner of expressing himself, a product of his diplomatic training. More to the point, as Pius affirmed on many occasions, he could not speak out more forcibly, because to do so would only provoke the Nazis to a more brutal treatment of the Jews.

Pius' 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 publicly against the Nazi treatment of the Jews. The Nazi response was a redoubling of roundups and deportations. 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. Yet, you never hear anybody attacking the Red Cross for its “silence” about the Holocaust.

Like most people on the left, critics like James Carroll and Gary Wills seem to view public posturing as an end in itself. Pius, however, was concerned with saving Jewish lives. The documents show that he decided that speaking out publicly would endanger the lives of thousands of Jews while not having the slightest effect on Hitler. Stalin's famous remark that the Pope has no divisions is perhaps relevant here.

Any book about Pius XII and the Holocaust ought to mention (as this one does not) that few during the war made heroic efforts to save the Jews. There were obviously many, Catholic and non-Catholic, who could have done more and didn't. Franklin Roosevelt's refusal to let more than a handful of Jewish refugees into America was inexcusable, as was David Ben-Gurion's making the establishment of a Zionist state in Palestine a higher priority than rescuing European Jewry from destruction. But to single out for opprobrium a Pope who, despite being in a difficult and dangerous situation, saved thousands of Jews from the camps is a misguided exercise in selective indignation.