New Revelations about Catholic Action (and Inaction) During the HolocaustHistorians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII
Recently unsealed documents from Vatican City archives in Rome shed new light on the Catholic Church’s action—and inaction—during the Holocaust. While researchers say it’s still too early to make any firm conclusions, they have made some surprising discoveries.
“This was one of the great mysteries, one of the last few critically important Holocaust related collections in the world that was not yet open,” Suzanne Brown-Fleming, who leads the Vatican Archives Initiative at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, tells TIME ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 18.
As part of the effort to survey the approximately 16 million never-before-seen files, unveiled in March 2020, researchers hope to find out more about what happened inside concentration camps and how the Holocaust was carried out, sifting through cables to find out what the church knew and when. Scholars have long known what decisions the church made, including taking a position of neutrality and impartiality as 6 million Jews and millions of others were killed, but hope recently unsealed archives will show why those decisions were made. The documents reveal a complicated mix of actions and views among European Catholics and church leadership; there was both silence and aid, support for Jews and their Nazi tormenters, antisemitism and empathy.
“The church is not afraid of history,” Pope Francis said in March 2019, when he announced that he was making accessible the records produced under Pope Pius XII, the Pope during the Holocaust. He acknowledged that Pope Pius XII’s legacy includes “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”
David Kertzer’s 2022 book The Pope at War explores this policy of neutrality and impartiality and the consequence of Pope Pius XII’s public silence on the mass killings of Jews. Kertzer’s review of newly unsealed files revealed that Pope Pius XII worked hard not to offend Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and feared that publicly opposing Hitler would turn off German Catholics. Kertzer told the New York Times that he was “flabbergasted” to discover a German Nazi prince who acted as a go-between with Hitler and the Pope and that a top Vatican advisor wrote a letter to the Pope urging him not to protest an order to roundup Italy’s Jews and send them to concentration camps.
But while the Catholic Church’s top leadership shied away from publicly condemning the atrocities in Germany, the documents also provide information on the Catholics who hid thousands of Jews across Europe. Over 6,000 Jews were hidden in Rome and on Vatican property. There are hundreds of thousands of letters to the Pope from Jewish families begging for help. “The Vatican dealt mainly with distribution of economic relief and by helping [mostly baptized Jews] emigrate to North or South America,” according to Giovanni Coco, Staff Archivist in the Vatican Apostolic Archives.
In some ways, researchers have found more contradictions than clear answers. At the same time Catholic rescuers were helping Jews, some of those same people were also helping Nazis.
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