Pope Pius XII's (1876-1958) actions during the Holocaust remain controversial. For much of the war, he maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed. He refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality, while making statements condemning injustices in general. Privately, he sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials, encouraging them to help the Jews.
The Pope was born in 1876 in Rome as Eugenio Pacelli. He studied philosophy at the Gregorian University, learned theology at Sant Apollinare and was ordained in 1899. He entered the Secretariat of State for the Vatican in 1901, became a cardinal in 1929 and was appointed Secretary of State in 1930.
Pacelli lived in Germany from 1917, when he was appointed Papal Nuncio in Bavaria, until 1929. He knew what the Nazi party stood for, and was elected Pope in 1939 having said very little about Adolf Hitler’s ideology beyond a 1935 speech describing the Nazis as “miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel.” Pacelli told 250,000 pilgrims at Lourdes on April 28, “It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of the social revolution, whether they are guided by a false conception of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.” He believed National Socialism was “profoundly anti-Christian and a danger to Catholicism.”(1)
Even as Cardinal, Pacelli's actions regarding Hitler were controversial. Hitler took power on January 30, 1933. On July 20 that same year, Pacelli and German diplomat Franz Von Papen signed a concordat that granted freedom of practice to the Roman Catholic Church. In return, the Church agreed to separate religion from politics. This diminished the influence of the Catholic Center Party and the Catholic Labor unions. The concordat was generally viewed as a diplomatic victory for Hitler.(1a)
Pacelli was elected Pope on March 2, 1939, and took the name Pius XII. As Pope, he had three official positions. He was head of his church and was in direct communication with bishops everywhere. He was chief of state of the Vatican, with his own diplomatic corps. He was also the Bishop of Rome. In theory, at least, his views could influence 400 million Catholics, including those in all the occupied eastern territories - the Poles, Baltics, Croatians, Slovaks and others.(2)
As soon as he was appointed Pope, Pacelli did speak out against the 1938 Italian racial laws that dealt with mixed marriages and children of mixed marriages.(3) However, he issued no such condemnation of Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass) which occurred in November 1938, and which recent evidence shows he was informed of by Berlin's papal nuncio. As the security of the Jewish population became more precarious, Pius XII did intervene the month he was elected Pope, March 1939, and obtained 3,000 visas to enter Brazil for European Jews who had been baptized and converted to Catholicism. Two-thirds of these were later revoked, however, because of "improper conduct," probably meaning that the Jews started practicing Judaism once in Brazil. At that time, the Pope did nothing to save practicing Jews.(4)
Throughout the Holocaust, Pius XII was consistently besieged with pleas for help on behalf of the Jews.
In the spring of 1940, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, asked the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione to intercede to keep Jews in Spain from being deported to Germany. He later made a similar request for Jews in Lithuania. The papacy did nothing.(5)
Within the Pope's own church, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna told Pius XII about Jewish deportations in 1941. In 1942, the Slovakian charge d'affaires, a position under the supervision of the Pope, reported to Rome that Slovakian Jews were being systematically deported and sent to death camps.(6)
In October 1941, the Assistant Chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican, Harold Tittman, asked the Pope to condemn the atrocities. The response came that the Holy See wanted to remain "neutral," and that condemning the atrocities would have a negative influence on Catholics in German-held lands.(7)
In late August 1942, after more than 200,000 Ukrainian Jews had been killed, Ukrainian Metropolitan Andrej Septyckyj wrote a long letter to the Pope, referring to the German government as a regime of terror and corruption, more diabolical than that of the Bolsheviks. The Pope replied by quoting verses from Psalms and advising Septyckyj to "bear adversity with serene patience."(8)
On September 18, 1942, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, wrote, "The massacres of the Jews reach frightening proportions and forms."(9) Yet, that same month when Myron Taylor, U.S. representative to the Vatican, warned the Pope that his silence was endangering his moral prestige, the Secretary of State responded on the Pope's behalf that it was impossible to verify rumors about crimes committed against the Jews.(10)
Wladislaw Raczkiewicz, president of the Polish government-in-exile, appealed to the Pope in January 1943 to publicly denounce Nazi violence. Bishop Preysing of Berlin did the same, at least twice. Pius XII refused.(11)
The Pope finally gave a reason for his consistent refusals to make a public statement in December 1942. The Allied governments issued a declaration, "German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race," which stated that there would be retribution for the perpetrators of Jewish murders. When Tittman asked Secretary of State Maglione if the Pope could issue a similar proclamation, Maglione said the papacy was "unable to denounce publicly particular atrocities."(12) One reason for this position was that the staunchly anti-communist Pope felt he could not denounce the Nazis without including the Communists; therefore, Pius XII would only condemn general atrocities.(13)
The Pope did speak generally against the extermination campaign. On January 18, 1940, after the death toll of Polish civilians was estimated at 15,000, the Pope said in a broadcast, "The horror and inexcusable excesses committed on a helpless and a homeless people have been established by the unimpeachable testimony of eye-witnesses."(14) During his Christmas Eve radio broadcast in 1942, he referred to the "hundreds of thousands who through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction."(15) The Pope never mentioned the Jews by name.
In a September 1940 broadcast, the Vatican called its policy "neutrality," but stated in the same broadcast that where morality was involved, no neutrality was possible.(18) This could only imply that mass murder was not a moral issue.
The Pope's indifference to the mistreatment of Jews was often clear. In 1941, for example, after being asked by French Marshal Henri Philippe Petain if the Vatican would object to anti-Jewish laws, Pius XII answered that the church condemned racism, but did not repudiate every rule against the Jews.(16) When Petain's French puppet government introduced "Jewish statutes," the Vichy ambassador to the Holy See informed Petain that the Vatican did not consider the legislation in conflict with Catholic teachings, as long as they were carried out with "charity" and "justice."(17)
Robert Wistrich notes that “by the end of 1942, the Vatican was among the best-informed institutions in Europe concerning the Holocaust. Except for the Germans or perhaps British intelligence, few people were more aware of the local details as well as the larger picture.”(17a)
On September 8, 1943, the Nazis invaded Italy and, suddenly, the Vatican was the local authority. The Nazis gave the Jews 36 hours to come up with 50 kilograms of gold or else the Nazis would take 300 hostages. The Vatican was willing to loan 15 kilos, an offer that eventually proved unnecessary when the Jews obtained an extension for the delivery.(19)
Pius XII knew that Jewish deportations from Italy were impending. The Vatican even found out from SS First Lieutenant Kurt Gerstein the fate of those who were to be deported.(20) Publicly, the Pope stayed silent. Privately, Pius did instruct Catholic institutions to take in Jews. The Vatican itself hid 477 Jews and another 4,238 Jews were protected in Roman monasteries and convents.(21)
On October 16, the Nazis arrested 1,007 Roman Jews, the majority of whom were women and children. They were taken to Auschwitz, where 811 were gassed immediately. Of those sent to the concentration camp, 16 survived.(22
The Pope did act behind the scenes on occasion. During the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, he, along with the papal nuncio in Budapest, Angelo Rotta, advised the Hungarian government to be moderate in its plans concerning the treatment of the Jews. Pius XII protested against the deportation of Jews and, when his protests were not heeded, he cabled again and again.(23) The Pope's demands, combined with similar protests from the King of Sweden, the International Red Cross, Britain and the United States contributed to the decision by the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, to cease deportations on July 8, 1944.(24)
In the later stages of the war, Pius XII appealed to several Latin American governments to accept “emergency passports” that several thousand Jews had succeeded in obtaining. Due to the efforts of the Pope and the U.S. State Department, 13 Latin American countries decided to honor these documents, despite threats from the Germans to deport the passport holders.(25)
The Church also answered a request to save 6,000 Jewish children in Bulgaria by helping to transfer them to Palestine. At the same time, however, Cardinal Maglione wrote to the apostolic delegate in Washington, A.G. Cicognani, saying this did not mean the Pope supported Zionism.(26) The church did often help baptized Jews, but was less enthusiastic about assisting Jews who did not abandon their faith.
Historians point out that any support the Pope did give the Jews came after 1942, once U.S. officials told him that the allies wanted total victory, and it became likely that they would get it. Furthering the notion that any intervention by Pius XII was based on practical advantage rather than moral inclination is the fact that in late 1942, Pius XII began to advise the German and Hungarian bishops that it would be to their ultimate political advantage to go on record as speaking out against the massacre of the Jews. (27)
One of the only cases in which the Pope gave early support to the allies was in May 1940. He received information about a German plan, Operation Yellow, to lay mines to deter British naval support of Holland. Pius XII gave his permission to send coded radio messages warning papal nuncios in Brussels and The Hague of the plot. The German radio monitoring services decoded the broadcast and went ahead with the plan.(28) This papal intervention is surprising due to the pope's persistent claim of neutrality, and his silence regarding almost all German atrocities.
In Hitler's Pope, John Cromwell argues that the pope’s behavior can be partly explained because Pacelli was an anti-Semite, however, Robert Wistrich argues he was anti-Jewish only in the traditional sense of believing that Jews killed Jesus. Meanwhile, defenders of the pope have pointed to statements by Israel's consul in Italy in the 1960s, Pinhas Lapide, and by Golda Meir praising the pope as evidence of his efforts to save Jews during the war, but Wistrich says their remarks were not backed by verifiable evidence of papal action. What is clear is that the pope could have done more. In fact, Catholic Poles were the most outspoken critics of his silence. Pius did not speak out effectively after Germany overran Poland and the restrained remarks that did come from the Vatican about the oppression of the Catholic Poles ceased after Germany protested. (28a)
Wistrich also notes that while there is some controversy about the pope’s assistance to the Jews, the Church's role in helping Nazi murderers escape, and seeking clemency for convicted Nazi criminals, is well-documented. It is less clear, however, how much the pope knew about this.
The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission (ICJHC), a group comprised of three Jewish and three Catholic scholars, was appointed in 1999 by the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In October of 2000, the group of scholars finished their review of the Vatican's archives, and submitted their preliminary findings to the Comission's then-President, Cardinal Edward I Cassidy. Their report, entitled "The Vatican and the Holocaust," laid to rest several of the conventional defenses of Pope Pius XII.
The often-espoused view that the Pontiff was unaware of the seriousness of the situation of European Jewry during the war was definitively found to be inaccurate. Numerous documents demonstrated that the Pope was well-informed about the full extent of the Nazi's anti-Semitic practices. A letter from Konrad von Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, that proved that the Pope was aware of the situation as early as January of 1941, particularly caught the attention of the commission. In that letter, Preysing confirms that "Your Holiness is certainly informed about the situation of the Jews in Germany and the neighboring countries. I wish to mention that I have been asked both from the Catholic and Protestant side if the Holy See could not do something on this subject...in favor of these unfortunates." The letter, which was a direct appeal to the Pope himself, without intermediaries, provoked no response. In 1942, an even more compelling eyewitness account of the mass-murder of Jews in Lwow was sent to the Pope by an archbishop; this, too, garnered no response.
The commission also revealed several documents that cast a negative light on the claim that the Vatican did all it could to facilitate emigration of the Jews out of Europe. Internal notes meant only for Vatican representatives revealed the opposition of Vatican officials to Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine. "The Holy See has never approved of the project of making Palestine a Jewish home...[because] Palestine is by now holier for Catholics than for Jews." Some Catholic higher-ups violated this position of the Vatican by helping Jews to immigrate when they were able to; most did not.
Similarly, the attempts of Jews to escape from Europe to South America were sometimes thwarted by the Vatican. Vatican representatives in Bolivia and Chile wrote to the pontiff regarding the "invasive" and "cynically exploitative" character of the Jewish immigrants, who were already engaged in "dishonest dealings, violence, immorality, and even disrespect for religion." The commission concluded that these accounts probably biased Pius against aiding more Jews in immigrating away from Nazi Europe.
The claim that the Vatican needed to remain neutral in the war has also been refuted. In January of 2001, a document recently declassified by the U.S. National Archives was discovered by the World Jewish Congress. The document was a report in which Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Pius XII's secretary of state, detailed and denounced several abuses committed by the Soviet Army against German inhabitants of the Soviet Union. The report was widely viewed as demonstrating that the Vatican had no compunctions about speaking out against atrocities, even when doing so would violate neutrality.
The preliminary report released by the IJCHC also asked the Vatican for access to non-published archival documents to more fully investigate the Pope's role in the Holocaust. This request was refused by the Vatican, which allowed them access only to documents from before 1923. As a result, the Commission suspended its study in July 2001, without issuing a final report. Dr. Michael Marrus, one of the three Jewish panelists and a professor of history at the University of Toronto, expained that the commission "ran up against a brick wall.... It would have been really halpful to have had support from the Holy See on this issue."(29)
In 2004, news was disclosed of a diary kept by James McDonald, the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees coming from Germany. In 1933, McDonald raised the treatment of the Jews with then Cardinal Pacelli, who was the Vatican secretary of state. McDonald was specifically interested in helping a group of Jewish refugees in the Saar region, a territory claimed by France and Germany that was turned over to the Germans in 1935. The Pope's defenders cite his intercession on these Jews' behalf as evidence of his sympathy for Jews persecuted by the Nazis. According to McDonald, however, when he disccused the matter with Pacelli, “The response was noncommittal, but left me with the definite impression that no vigorous cooperation could be expected.”(30) Pacelli did intercede in January 1935 to help the Jews, but only after McDonald agreed that American Jews would use their influence in Washington to protect church properties that were being threatened by the Mexican government.(31)
In 2005, the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, discovered a letter dated November 20, 1946, showing that Pope Pius XII ordered Jewish babies baptized by Catholics during the Holocaust not to be returned to their parents. Some scholars said the disclosure was not new and that the Pope's behavior was not remarkable. The more important story, according to Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was that one of the recipients of the letter, Angelo Roncalli, the papal representative in Paris, ignored the papal directive.(32)
In 2006, an Israeli scholar, Dina Porat, discovered correspondence between Haim Barlas, an emissary of the Jewish Agency sent to Europe to save Jews in the 1940s, and Giuseppe Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII. Roncalli expressed criticism of the Vatican’s silence during the war. In June 1944, Barlas sent Roncalli a copy of a report compiled by two Jews who escaped from Auschwitz documenting the mass murder at the camp. Roncalli forwarded the report to the Vatican, which had claimed it did not know about the report until October. Earlier, Roncalli had written to the president of Slovakia at the behest of Barlas asking him to stop the Nazi deportations of Jews.(33)
After decades of Jewish groups and historians asking the Vatican to open its archives to allow them to see all the documents related to the pope and the Holocaust, Pope Francis announced on March 3, 2019, that they would be made accessible in March 2020.
In announcing the decision, Francis said Pius’s legacy had been treated with “some prejudice and exaggeration.” He also seemed to rationalize his actions, adding that the time period included “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”
The BBC’s James Reyonlds suggested “the pontiff’s decision to open up the Vatican's secret archives on Pope Pius XII may be his attempt to end decades of debate about his predecessor’s role in World War Two – and to prove that today’s Church is not suppressing argument.”(34)
Over the last 13 years, 20 members of the Vatican’s archives department have been organizing Pius XII’s files, which include records of all Papal decrees, encyclicals and Vatican diplomatic correspondence.
Efraim Zuroff said that opening the archives would allow researchers to seek answers to several questions that have concerned Jews and historians of the period. The first is “what details reached Pius regarding the persecution and murder of the Jews throughout Europe, and whether the information arrived in the Vatican from sources considered reliable by Pius and his close circle.” A second question is one of timing. “When did this information reach Rome? Was there still time to influence the fate of the Jewish communities, or had they already been either murdered or deported to death camps?” Another question is what did the pope do if he was informed? “Did he do something positive that was unknown?” The last question relates to what assistance he provided to Jews.(35)
The Pope's reaction to the Holocaust was complex and inconsistent. At times, he tried to help the Jews and was successful. But these successes only highlight the amount of influence he might have had, if he not chosen to remain silent on so many other occasions. No one knows for sure the motives behind Pius XII's actions, or lack thereof, since the Vatican archives have only been fully opened to select researchers. Historians offer many reasons why Pope Pius XII was not a stronger public advocate for the Jews: A fear of Nazi reprisals, a feeling that public speech would have no effect and might harm the Jews, the idea that private intervention could accomplish more, the anxiety that acting against the German government could provoke a schism among German Catholics, the church's traditional role of being politically neutral and the fear of the growth of communism were the Nazis to be defeated.(36) Whatever his motivation, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Pope, like so many others in positions of power and influence, could have done more to save the Jews.
Sources: Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, (MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1993);
Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, (NY: Henry Holt And Co., 1987);
Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History, (NY: Henry Holt And Co., 1992);
Israel Gutman, ed., Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vol. 3. (NY: Macmillan, 1995);
Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews. (NY: Holmes & Meier, 1985);
Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, (NY: Harper Perennial Library, 1993);
Israel Pocket Library, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1974);
International Jewish Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission. The Vatican and the Holocaust: A Preliminary Report. Submitted to The Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. October, 2000;
William R Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy: An International Policy of Genocide, (NY: Shapolsky Publishers, 1989);
Joan Gralla, WJC Says it Has New Evidence Against Pius XII, Reuters, (January 11, 2001).
1. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII's Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
1a. Berenbaum, Michael, The World Must Know, p. 40.
2. Perl, William, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 197.
3. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
4. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
5. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
6. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
7. Perl, William, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 206.
8. Hilberg, Raul, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, p. 267.
9. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
10. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 133; Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
11. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 134.
12. Hilberg, Raul, The Destruction of the European Jews, p. 315.
13. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137; Hilberg, Raul, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, p. 264.
14. Gilbert, Martin, The Second World War, p. 40.
15. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
16. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
17. Perl, William, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 200.
17a. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII's Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
18. Perl, William, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 200.
19. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 133.
20. Perl, William, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 202.
21. Gilbert, Martin, The Holocaust, p. 623.
22. Perl, William, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 201.
23. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1138.
24. Gilbert, Martin, The Holocaust, p. 701.
25. Perl, William, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 176.
26. Gutman, Israel. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1138.
27. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 136.
28. Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War, p. 59.
28a. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII's Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
29. The Jerusalem Post. "Vatican Blocks Panel's Access to Holocaust Archives." By Melissa Radler. 7/24/01
30. Peter Carlson, “A Diplomat's Diary,” Washington Post, (April 22, 2004).
31. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (April 23, 2004).
32. Jerusalem Report, (February 7, 2005).
33. Jerusalem Post, (December 4, 2006).
34. “Pius XII: Vatican to open secret Holocaust-era archives,” BBC, (March 4, 2019).
35. Efraim Zuroff, “Questions Remain Regarding The Opening Of Vatican WWII-Era Archives,” Jerusalem Post, (March 4, 2019).
36. Gutman, Israel, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1139.