Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust: revisiting Jewish sources

Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust: revisiting Jewish sources

Fr Michael Butler

For many years now, the reputation of Pope Pius XII has been blackened by allegations of his apparent inaction and silence while the Jews of Europe were being murdered in the Nazi gas-chambers in their millions. And the Pope supposedly did and said nothing.

The criticisms are based on two claims: he did and said nothing for the Jews of Rome (see a recent book, in Italian Sotto I Suoi Fenestre (Under His Very Windows), which claims the Pope did nothing); and as regards the Jews of Europe, indeed the whole world, Pius XII issued no public protests, nor made any effort to intervene on their behalf, and so save the Jews.

One or two years after the liberation of Rome in 1944 by the Americans, two books, written by prominent Jews, were published.

Vatican warning

The first book, Prima Del Aurora (Before the Dawn), by Rabbi Zolli, Chief Rabbi of Rome, describes his experiences in Rome during the German occupation. It was incorrectly titled Why I Became a Catholic. His book is an autobiography of his whole life, and pages 139-189 describe the German occupation and murder of the Jews in Rome.

Zolli details how the Vatican warned him, just before the Germans arrived, that there would be a German persecution, but the Jewish leadership in Rome ignored Zolli's advice to hide. Zolli wrote:

"The angelic Pastor, Pius XII, - his numberless acts of charity"; "the charity which radiated fully in the actions of the reigning Pope Pius XII" (p. 189).

And: "Volumes could be written on the multiform works of help of Pius XII" (p. 186).

In February 1945, Zolli was baptised. He took as his baptismal name "Eugenio", which is the same baptismal name as that of Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli). This was Zolli's way of thanking Pius XII.

The second book is History of the Jews in Italy, by Cecil Roth, probably the most distinguished Jewish historian of the 20th century, and a professor at Oxford, as well as editor of the seventeen volume Jewish Encyclopaedia and other works.

Roth says in his preface that basically his heart was in Italy (naturally, before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948).

While many of his close Italian Jewish friends were killed by the Nazis, his book, published in 1945, is full of praise for Pius XII as well as the Catholic Church in Rome, especially in the last chapter, written immediately after the end of World War II (pp. 533, 543-550). For example, Roth wrote:

"Pope Pius XII was horrified [by the Nazis]"; "His unforgettable gesture of humanity"; "the [Catholic] Church earned a debt of enduring gratitude"; "a large number [of Jews] were harboured in monasteries and convents"; "Jews were afforded special facilities for their [Jewish] religious observances."

Roth also observed: "The extraordinary spectacle, of which previous generations [of Jews] would have been aghast, of Jewish functions in monasteries and convents."

In Rome, 90 percent of Jews were saved. The 10 per cent who died, according to Zolli, did not follow the advice of the Pope, and Zolli, to hide. Only Denmark had a 90 percent survival rate because the Danes ferried Jews to Sweden by night (Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. 12, p. 989).

As for Hitler himself, he was a psychopathic mass murderer. The Jewish Encyclopedia says it all:

"The struggle against the Jews was the supreme task of Adolf Hitler."

"It was of more importance than the war against Russia and the West - it was his supreme task."

"Hitler personally followed and controlled every phase of extermination".

"Hitler reacted with the greatest violence to news that reached him concerning attempts to save certain groups of Jews" (All quotes from Vol. 8, p. 785).

Dutch protest

As an example, note Hitler's reaction when the Dutch Catholic Bishops publicly protested on 25 July 1942 at the first deportation of Jews (Vol. 8, p. 914). The Nazi reaction came one week later (2 August 1942) with a further deportation of Dutch Jews (Vol. 15, p. 351). Presumably this reaction came directly from Hitler, and 80 per cent of Dutch Jews were gassed, the worst rate of all Europe (Vol. 12, p. 990).

Hitler's reprisals against those who dared oppose him were overwhelming, being in the order of 100 to one. There are many examples of these, although "revenge" might be a more accurate word than reprisal.

In Rome, for example, a few German soldiers were killed in the street. This was followed by a random roundup off Rome's streets of some 300 Italian civilians who were shot outside the city. The execution site would become a mass grave, honoured by Italians after the war, with a huge mausoleum, the Fosse Ardeatina, which can still be visited.

In another instance, in the small Czech village of Lidice, one of Hitler's favourite henchmen, Reinhard Heydrich, was ambushed and assassinated by partisans. Hitler responded with the order that all males in the village were to be shot. (Vol. 8, pp. 448-9).

Yet today it is an almost commonplace opinion to claim that Pius XII should have publicly denounced Hitler's Jewish holocaust.

The Jewish Encyclopaedia tells us why the Pope did not speak out, and its explanation is based on what happened in Holland:

"In Holland, the Catholic bishops in 1942 immediately and publicly condemned the first deportation of Jews" (Vol. 8, p. 914).

"Edith Stein, of an Orthodox Jewish family, had become a Catholic at the age of 31, then a Carmelite nun. In 1938, to escape Nazi persecution, she was taken to a monastery in Holland. Then she, together with other priests and nuns of Jewish origin, were arrested by the Gestapo as a reprisal for the condemnation of the Nazis by the Dutch bishops (in 1942)." (Vol. 15, pp. 350-351).

Incidentally, the same Edith Stein was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Death rate

The Dutch bishops spoke publicly, including their Cardinal. Not only was the death rate 80 per cent, as mentioned, but also the exterminations were the most rapid of all Europe, so that "by the summer of 1942, the deportations were organised of almost all the remaining Jews" (Vol. 12, pp. 988-989).

The Dutch bishops' public opposition brought a disaster on the Dutch Jews. The reason was, of course, Hitler's way of wreaking his revenge on the Dutch bishops.

In view of all the above, Pius XII knew he was dealing with a murderous psychopath. Any external resistance would produce terrible reprisals, and the monasteries of Europe were full of Jews.

Holland was the decisive experience with the public denunciation by the Dutch Cardinal and bishops producing an immediate Hitlerian revenge, including the German occupation of Dutch monasteries.

Whereas 80 per cent of Dutch Jews were killed, the lowest death rate was the 10 per cent of Roman Jews who were killed, the same as for Denmark.

About 20 years ago, I was stationed in the Catholic parish of Liverpool in the south west of Sydney and frequently visited sick Catholics in the large hospital there. To facilitate my identification as a priest, I generally was dressed in a dark suit, with a distinguishing white collar, so people knew who I was (just as a doctor can be identified by his white coat and mandatory stethoscope around his neck).

To my surprise, on two different occasions, two Jewish doctors (who did not know each other) came up to me and told me that each had a parent hidden in a monastery during World War II. One of them said that after the war his father returned to Belgium and thanked the monks for hiding him.

Three months ago, I had another surprise. Every six months, Sydney Catholic priests have a day together with talks and a luncheon. For the self-service meal one sits anywhere, and a priest that I did not know sat next to me. In our conversation he told me that he was Dutch and had been a missionary for many years in the Pacific region.

I casually remarked that I was writing this article which would mention the Dutch bishops' condemnation of the Jewish deportations. He said to me: "I was a twelve-year-old Dutch boy in Holland, and at the Sunday Mass I heard the Dutch Cardinal publicly condemn the deportations." I was amazed!

Pius XII poorly defended

Why is it that Catholics, including this writer, have defended Pius XII so inadequately?

The book and testimony of Rabbi Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, is not highlighted in the Pope's defence. Why not?

The reason is that it is extremely insulting for any Jew to hear the evidence of Zolli, who is considered to be a deceiver and a traitor to the Jewish religion. When a practising Jew becomes a Christian, he is considered "dead". Some Orthodox Jews hold a "funeral service" on account of his betrayal.

In the case of Zolli, it is much, much worse for here was a Chief Rabbi who "betrayed" his Jewish faith and people. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, "Jewish society opinion, up to the 18th century, regarded a Jewish convert to Christianity as 'dead', the very essence of desertion and treason" (Vol. 3, p. 210).

This is still a common Jewish Orthodox opinion so Catholics hesitate to speak much about Zolli, not wanting to insult Orthodox Jews. Our hesitation means Pius XII continues to be poorly defended.

However, sooner or later, Catholics will have to publicise Zolli's book and testimony, for with this book, the whole absurd case against Pius XII will collapse. Unfortunately, what doesn't help, as mentioned earlier, is that the over-zealous translators of Zolli's book incorrectly titled the first English version Why I Became a Catholic.

Father Michael Butler is Parish Priest of St Thomas Becket Church, Lewisham, in the Archdiocese of Sydney. Eugenio Zolli's book, Before the Dawn (see page 17), is available through Freedom Publishing.

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