Pius XII: Guilty as Charged?

Charles DeCelles



The records of the Nuremberg trials carry the testimony of S. Szmaglewska, a Polish guard at Auschwitz during the summer of 1944. Regarding the murder of Jewish children by the Nazis, he said:

When the extermination of the Jews in the gas chambers was at its height, orders were issued that children were to be thrown straight into the crematorium furnaces, or into a pit near the crematorium, without being gassed first....'They threw them in alive. 'Their screams could be heard at the camp.[1]

Rivka Yosselevscka told a Jewish court something of what he saw take place on a Sabbath at the beginning of Elul, the 12th month of the Jewish year, in the Pinsk district of Nazi-occupied Belorussia (Belarus).

'They tore off the clothes of the old man and he was shot. I saw it with my own eyes. And then they . . . caught Mother and shot her too; then there was my father's sister. She had children in her arms and was shot on the spot with the babies in her arms.... 'They were lying all over, all dying; suffering, not all of them dead, but in their last sufferings; naked; shot but not dead.... There were children crying "Mother!" "Father-but they were all smeared with blood and one could not recognize the children. I cried for my daughter.[2]

These two statements provide a glimpse into the phenomenon called The Holocaust: a uniquely absurd and utterly diabolical event, defying both human and religious comprehension. Albert Speer, Hitler's minister of armaments from 1942 until the end of the war, a man who belatedly condemned Nazism, and the only criminal convicted at the Nuremberg trials to admit his guilt, said of the Holocaust in a 1977 interview: "Killing a people simply because you don't like the people is something you can't compare with anything in history. I don't have any example of it."

In the spring of 1994, a magnificent concert was held in the immense Paul VI Hall (Sala Nervi) next to St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Titled "The Papal Concert to Commemorate the Holocaust," it was conceived and organized by American conductor Gilbert Levine and Pope John Paul II, and attended by 7,500 people, including Elio Toaff (the chief rabbi of Rome) and three additional rabbis, 22 cardinals and more than 200 survivors of the Holocaust from 12 countries.

The concert was a first in many ways. It was the first time that the Vatican commemorated the Jewish Holocaust. It was the first time that a rabbi visited the Vatican for the purpose of co-officiating at a public function. It was the first time Catholics and Jews gathered under the roof of the Vatican to pray for those who perished in the Holocaust.

Intended, according to Gilbert Levine, "to unite the hearts of those who would hear the music in the memory of terrible events so that they are never repeated," the concert marked, in the words of a Vatican official, "the best relations between Catholics and Jews in 2,000 years." The concert underscored the fact that the State of Israel and the Vatican have recently established formal diplomatic relations.

The event could be viewed as the logical and fitting culmination of the generous and courageous support and spirit of cooperation extended by European Catholics in general and by the papacy in particular toward the suffering Jewish community in Nazi—occupied territories, especially in Rome, during the years of the Final Solution—an assistance not universally recognized, at least, when it comes to Pope Pius XII. Martin Luther King once wrote, "To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it."[4]

Today, Christians and Jews alike recognize the great evil involved in the failure to speak out publicly against atrocious crimes—especially in the case of someone in a position of considerable authority, whose voice could stir multiple millions of people to constructive action, such as the refusal to cooperate with the perpetrators of atrocity. Consequently, some historians and some literary figures have passed a harsh judgment upon Pope Pius XII because of his silence on Nazi crimes. During the years of the Final Solution, numerous religious leaders and diplomats beseeched and implored the Pope to speak out clearly, specifically and forcefully against the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews. But he never did.[5] He feared that to do so would risk even worse atrocities[6]—in hindsight an apparently colossal misjudgment on his part.

The farthest he went was to produce a vague exhortation in his Christmas message of 1942. He spoke about a vow that "all righteous and magnanimous hearten must take to lead society back to divine law." Without mentioning either the Nazis or the Jewish people by name, he pleaded that "Humanity owes this vow to hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own and solely because of their nation or their race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction."[7] The questionable silence from Rome and from many Protestant churches, some claim, "helps to explain the suffocating moral atmosphere that made the extermination of the Jews possible."[8]

Among the critics of the Pope was the playwright Rolf Hochhuth, whose 1963 play "The Deputy" created a veritable storm over the Pope's knowledge of and alleged inaction in response to the Holocaust. But Hochhuth has not been alone in his criticism. According to Carlo Falconi, Pius XII not only failed the duty of his office, but his duty "to Christianity and mankind. His refusal to speak out played into the hands of evil and this grew bolder and fiercer and became more provocative. Silence amounted to complicity with iniquity...."[9]

Father John Morley points out that the Pope's reserve and prudence could not coexist with humanitarian concern. The Vatican acted "in ways that ignored the depth of suffering that was so widespread among both Christians and Jews."[10] Recently, Pope Pius XII was criticized by Michael Berenbaum in a volume that is a kind of compendium of the contents of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. His criticism focuses on Rome and the Pope's "failure" to speak out against the deportation of Jews from Rome that began in the fall of 1943.

Berenbaum mentions that the Jewish leaders of Rome had been alerted to the impending deportation, but they did not act. They neither heeded the warning nor passed the information on to the Jewish community, convinced that the Germans would not deport the Jews from Rome, the immediate entourage of the Pope. Berenbaum adds:

The Vatican also had been informed of the planned deportations, but the Pope failed to issue private protests or public disapproval either before or after the fact. The German ambassador to the Holy See commented to his foreign ministry that the Pope had not allowed himself to be drawn into any demonstrative censure of the deportations. The Pontiff appeared to be more concerned with preserving his own institutions.[11] Berenbaum creates the impression of an aloof, disinterested, neutral Pontiff—a smoke screen, by the way, that the Pope chose to create for Nazi consumption—who, he implies later, refrained from assisting his Jewish neighbors. Berenbaum, however, goes on to admit something that the enlightened observer would certainly find rather incongruous with that image, something therefore that suggests more than a little naivete on Berenbaum's part in seemingly getting caught up in the smoke screen. He writes, in words that immediately follow the above citation: "Nevertheless, hundreds of priests and nuns, bishops and ordinary clerics did come to the aid of Jews. Priests hid Jews in churches; monks and nuns opened monasteries and convents to them "[12]

This rescue effort indeed happened not only in Rome but all over Nazi-occupied Europe. It occurred not in small part due to the Pope.[13] While the Pope did not speak out loudly and clearly, he acted. Pius XII directed covert rescue operations to save Jews from deportation and death. These operations, which often consisted of shipping Jewish people out of Nazi-controlled countries, required a considerable amount of diplomatic work and the expenditure of large sums of money-mostly American.[14]

During the nine-month German occupation of Rome (Sept. 10, 1943-June 4, 1944), Pius XII personally saw to the sheltering of the Jewish population. Convents, monasteries, churches and schools became havens for the oppressed Jews.[15] According to Israel Zoller, then chief rabbi of Rome, in one of the convents the sisters slept in the basement, having surrendered their beds to their Jewish guests; 4,000 to 5,000 Jews were protected in this manner. Another 2,000 or 3,000 were given sanctuary by their mostly Catholic, Italian neighbors. Of the 8,000 or so permanent Jewish residents of Rome, about 7,000 were saved by going into hiding.

Regarding the personal involvement of the Pope in the rescue of Jews, Rabbi Zoller (who later changed his name to Eugenio Zolli) writes in his autobiography:

The Holy Father sent by hand a letter to the bishops instructing them to lift the enclosure from the convents and monasteries so that they could become refuges for the Jews. I know of one convent where the sisters slept in the basement, giving up their beds to the Jewish refugees.[16]

Elsewhere in his autobiography, the former chief rabbi and noted biblical scholar states:

The attic of one of the great churches in the center of Rome is divided into many sections, each bearing the name of the saint in whose honor the altar below is dedicated. The refugees are divided for the distribution of food according to the names of these saints.[17]

In September 1943, after the Germans had occupied Rome but before they initiated an all-out attack on the Jewish community, a Gestapo commander informed the Jewish leadership that Jews had 24 hours in which to produce 50 kilograms (more than 100 pounds) of gold. Should they fail to do so, 300 hostages would be seized, some would be deported, others shot. A frantic effort on the part of the Jewish population to raise the gold left the community short 15 kilograms. The Jewish council bid Zoller to seek help from the Vatican.

Although the Gestapo was in active pursuit of him, Rabbi Zoller agreed. He gained an audience with Cardinal Lulgi Maglione, the secretary of state, who accompanied him to the Vatican treasurer, before whom he pleaded the cause of the Roman Jews. The treasurer excused himself to confer personally with the Pope. The Pope agreed to the request and a certificate for more than 30 pounds of gold was given to Zoller.[18] While the collected gold did not save the Jewish community of Rome, the noteworthy donation by the Pope indicates his personal involvement in the Jewish rescue effort. Rabbi Zoller eventually converted to Catholicism, taking the name Eugenio—in honor of Pope Pius XII, the former Eugenio Pacelli. He came to recognize in the Pope a Christ-like concern for all human beings, a desire to extend the hand of healing to each of God's children. He writes eloquently about Pius XII:

As from the Cross of Christ, so from the Chair of Peter proceed spiritual rays which aim at reaching and illuminating and doing good to all without distinction. One might say of the reign of Pius XII that he is inspired by Isaias' words: Peace is harmony, peace is salvation, to those near to those afar off I want to heal them all.[19] There is no place of sorrow where the spirit of love of Pius XII has not reached.

Volumes could be written on the multiform works of succor of Pius XII. The Catholic priesthood throughout the whole world, religious men and women and the Catholic laity, stand behind the great Pontiff. Who could ever tell what has been done?[20] Pope Pius XII is followed by all with the fervor of that charity that fears not death. No one asks for anything except to follow in the footsteps of the Master under the guidance of Pius XII.[21]

The direct aid that the Pope accorded the persecuted Jews of Rome—according to Russian Jew, World War II resistance fighter and historian Leon Poliakov—included sheltering and protecting some dozens of Jews in the buildings and offices of the Vatican itself. This aid, he says, was "only the symbolic expression of an activity that spread throughout Europe, encouraging and stimulating the efforts of Catholic churches in almost every country."[22] ("The Vatican exerted itself to help the Jews by a thousand different means."[23])

Poliakov claims ("there is no doubt") that the Pope sent out secret instructions urging the national churches to intervene on behalf of oppressed Jews in whatever ways they could. In Hungary, Slovakia and elsewhere, communications of this type were dispatched from the Vatican directly to civil authorities. Such communications saved numerous Jews, especially in Slovakia where Msgr. Jozef Tiso was chief of the Slovak puppet state.

According to Poliakov: "From German diplomatic reports of the time, it appears that the cessation of deportations of Jews from Slovakia in the summer of 1942 (and consequently the survival of nearly 25 percent of the Slovakian Jews) must be attributed to such pressures exerted on Msgr. Tiso, chief of the Slovakian puppet state."[24] Everyone acknowledges that Pope John XXIII—as Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the papal nuncio in Istanbul, Turkey—helped rescue thousands of Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. What is not generally known, but which Pope John himself admitted, is that he had always acted on precise orders received from Pope Pius XII.[25] Pinches E. Lapide, at one time Israeli consul in Italy, contended that "the Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together. Its record stands in startling contrast to the achievements of . . .Western democracies."[26]

Poliakov concurs: "No statistics will ever tell how many lives were saved by the Church; in any case, it is certain that a great many of the Jewish survivors of the Nazi occupation benefited from its aid at some moment in their odyssey."[27]

In addition to the many initiatives that the Pope undertook to directly assist the Jewish populations of the various Nazi-occupied European countries, Pope Pius XII involved himself in an action which, had it succeeded, would indirectly but significantly have assisted the Jews. Acting as an intermediary for certain German anti-Hitler generals, Pius XII attempted in January 1940 and again in February 1940 to elicit the aid of the British in a plot to curb Hitler's militaristic ambitions. His interventions failed.

In 1970, a large number of British Foreign Office documents relating to the year 1940 were made available to the public. They contain evidence that a group of Germans, including generals of the German army, obtained the services of Pope Pius XII in a peace mission.

The Pope willingly served as a channel through whom the Germans conveyed to the British government their plans for a revolt against Hitler. The generals were hoping to obtain from the British favorable terms of peace for Germany, if the revolt proved successful. "On 12 January the Pope spoke to the British Minister (to the Holy See, Sir D'Arcy Osborne) about a violent, bitter and unscrupulous offensive planned against Holland in February, and said that certain anti-Hitler generals were prepared to frustrate this if they could be assured about peace terms."[28]

Initially told that his request was too vague, the Pope renewed the inquiry on Feb. 7. He informed Osborne "that parts of the German army were ready to act, even at the cost of civil war, as long as the territorial sovereignty of Germany, with Austria, could be guaranteed."[29] When Britain's foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, relayed to the Pope through Osborne that numerous conditions would have to be met before such a guarantee could be provided, the subject was dropped. Two months later, in April, the Pope explained to Osborne that whatever hopes there had been for favorable developments were dashed.

In his book The Conspiracy Against Hitler, in the Twilight War, Harold Deutsch (professor of history at the University of Minnesota in 1968 and one of the interrogators attached to the United States intelligence services in Germany in 1945) quotes a high British official as saying to Father Leiber, S.J. (the Pope's secretary), after the occupation of Rome by the Allies, that "Pius XII, in his efforts for peace, went to the outer limits of what was possible for a pope."[30]

The Pope displayed admirable courage and a deep concern for peace and justice in the intermediary role that he played between the German generals of goodwill and the British. He demonstrated profound compassion and generosity in his tireless work on behalf of the Jewish people of Europe.

One wonders what would have happened had this courage and desire for justice been directed toward open and public confrontation with Hitler. What would have occurred if Pope Pius XII had denounced Hitler's criminal activities from every pulpit in every Catholic cathedral, church and chapel the world over? No one really knows. But an event that occurred Sunday, Aug. 3, 1941, is worth some reflection.

On that date, Clemens Count Galen, bishop of Munster, the most courageous and outspoken Catholic bishop of World War II, a man who dared directly challenge the authority of the Gestapo, preached a powerful sermon. In his homily, he informed the congregation that the German government was in the process of murdering "unproductive" citizens—in particular, the mentally ill.

He explained that according to German law it was his obligation to inform the proper authorities, and that he had complied. He had proceeded to set forward charges with the local district attorney against the civil employees involved in the murders. He also told his congregation of his insistence that the district attorney keep him abreast of the police investigation into this criminal matter.

Very interestingly, 20 days later, on Aug. 23, 1941, Hitler dissolved Aktion T[4], the program aimed at exterminating the "unfit."[31] Why the program was shut down is uncertain, but there may have been a causative link between Bishop Galen's powerful sermon and the termination of Aktion T[4]. (Another program was already in process, however. Aktion 14F[13], "begun in the spring of 1941, to 'comb out' the concentration camps, and exterminate the physically or socially undesirable, continued." 32) If the Bishop Galen story-involving a German ordinary in a large city of western Germany-can be viewed as illustrating favorably what open, public confrontation with Hitler could accomplish, another story, with less favorable consequences, must also be told.

The story involves Jewish converts to Christianity in Holland. In July 1942, the Catholic and Protestant churches of Holland agreed to publicly protest the Nazi deportations. They had prepared a message to be read publicly. Intimidated by German threats, the Protestant churches backed down at the last minute and did not read the protest message. The Catholic churches, however, went through with the agreed-upon plan. "Consequently, the Jews who had converted to Catholicism were arrested and deported, whereas the Protestant converts remained in Holland."[33]

This last story indicates that the Pope's fear of speaking out with resounding clarity against Hitler's atrocities was not unfounded. Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine more extensive brutality occurring than did in fact take place-including the annihilation of 6 million Jews, a million Gypsies and thousands of mentally and physically handicapped people.

It is likely that hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of lives destroyed in the death camps and elsewhere could have been saved had the majority of Catholic Christians, in response to papal exhortations, flatly refused to cooperate with the Nazis- spurning, for example, their requests to have them finger Jewish families, or to indicate their whereabouts.

Nevertheless, it is easy to understand how the Pope could have thought that greater atrocities were possible, given his lack of perspective on the immediate historical situation and his limited access to the secret goings-on inside the death camps. Amazing as this might appear to some people, it is possible to state, even today in the light of current historical knowledge on the Holocaust, that had history unfolded differently -for instance, had the United States remained neutral and uninvolved-it is not inconceivable, in view of Hitler's disdain for the value of human life, that even more lives could have been extinguished than actually were. According to Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein: "Had the Nazis won, their death machines would have been self-perpetuating. The demise of the last Jew would have been followed by the acceleration of an enlarged extermination campaign against the Russians and other Slavs."[34]

Even without a change in the historical circumstances, noncooperation with the Nazis on the part of the Poles and other defeated peoples would certainly have been met with great harshness. Father Maximilian Kolbe, as you recall, was one of 10 men of Cellblock 14, Auschwitz, executed by the Nazis in the summer of 1941 in retaliation for the fact that one Polish prisoner fled the German concentration camp.

The Pope had good reason to fear that a very heavy blow could have been dealt to the Catholic Church in Nazi-controlled countries. The words of Harold H. Tittmann, an American diplomat at the Holy See, dispatched to the State Department on Oct. 6, 1942, could possibly be indicative of such a fear on the part of Pius XII: "The Holy See is still apparently convinced that a forthright denunciation by the Pope of Nazi atrocities, at least as far as Poland is concerned, would only result in the violent deaths of many more people."[35]

As it was, in Poland "during the course of the war, 18 percent of all Polish diocesan priests were killed."[36] Hitler hated Christianity. This is a persistent theme of his wartime "table talk."[37] Rubenstein claims that the ultimate intent of the Nazis was to uproot the hold of Christianity upon the German people.[38]

The Pope was well aware of the Nazi intention of stifling the life of the Church in Germany and elsewhere. In an April 30, 1943, letter to the archbishop of Berlin, he enumerates German injustices against the Church. Then he writes: "All of this has been and is only part of a vast plan which aims at stifling the life of the Church in the territory where there German writ runs."[39]

While Pope Pius XII undoubtedly feared that even greater atrocities might be inflicted upon Catholic Christians if he openly and forcefully denounced Nazism and the deportation of Jews, and especially if he exhorted Catholics to block deportation efforts, he also feared that reckless moves or use of authority on his part could lead to an increase in the deaths of innocent Jewish people.

On Sept. 5, 1944, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi of Palestine, met in Cairo with Msgr. Hughes, papal delegate to Egypt and Palestine. The chief rabbi had been seeking a meeting with the Pope so that he might plead for his help on behalf of Hungarian Jews being deported by the Germans. Msgr. Hughes explained that a telegram to the chief rabbi inviting him to come to Rome had been held back by the Vatican at the last minute. "The reason was the Holy Father's fear that Your Reverence's coming to the Vatican in connection with measures to save the people of Israel might, perhaps, drive the Germans to wreak vengeance on the remnants of Jewry in Europe."[40]

Later, in the same Cairo meeting, Msgr. Hughes told the chief rabbi of an interview he had had with the Pope in the company of J.A. Clifford, the British minister in charge of dealing with refugee matters in Italy, a man who conjured up numerous rescue plans to save Jews. During the interview, an expression of extreme suffering came over the Pontiff's face. According to Msgr. Hughes, the Holy Father then said: "We must do all in our power to save the people of Israel. But every step we take must be calculated with the greatest caution, because I could not bear the idea that our activity might have an effect opposite to the one intended and cause the death of still more Jews."[41]

In response to a request by the chief rabbi that the Pope publicly appeal to the Hungarian people to place obstacles in the way of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, Msgr. Hughes responded: "I believe the Holy Father will fear that a public appeal to the Hungarian people may drive the Germans to liquidate the rest of the Hungarian Jews. The Germans still have sufficient strength in Hungary to do that, even against the will of the Hungarians."[42]

In summary, the Pope should not be judged and condemned for what he did not do. Rather, he should be appreciated and praised for his many accomplishments and endeavors, and imitated in these. Pope Pius XII acted vigorously, courageously and decisively in favor of peace and on behalf of the lives of innocent Jews. His successes were many and significant.

In hindsight, it would seem that he should have followed the lead of Bishop Galen and publicly and clearly condemned Nazi crimes.[43] He should have vigorously exhorted Christians the world over not to cooperate with Nazi deportation and extermination efforts—not even in identifying Jews. It does not seem at all probable that such speaking out would have resulted in a greater number of tragedies occurring than did in fact transpire, nor in ultimately more devastating tragedies. However, we cannot know these things with absolute and unqualified certainty.

In any event, and far more significantly, it must be remembered that the Pope was not operating with a post-World War II vantage point on history. His decisions were reached prior to the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps by the Allied forces.[44] Pope Pius XII bequeathed to us a legacy of compassionate action on behalf of a helpless, oppressed religious minority that we as Catholic Christians would do well to take pride in and emulate, remembering all the while the importance of speaking out fearlessly against moral evil—never forgetting the screams of the children.

ENDNOTES

1 Raul Hilberg, Documents of Destruction (Chicago: 1973), pp. 50-51; cited in Irving Greenberg, "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernity after the Holocaust," in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era?, ed. Eva Fleischner (New York: Ktav, Cathedral of St. John and Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, 1977), pp. 16-17.

2 Eric Kulka and Uta Kraus, The Death Factory (Oxford: 1966), p. 114; cited in Greenberg, pp. 9-10.

3 Hans Knight, "Conversation With Albert Speer," The Sunday Bulletin/Discoverer July 21, 1977), p. 9.

4 Martin Luther King, "Black Agony," Critic 25 June-July 1967), p. 12.

5 Both the Allies and the Axis Powers pressured the Pope to publicly condemn or protest specific actions committed by the other camp during the war. Instead, the Pope consistently spoke in general terms, condemning savagery and barbarism, but not specific persons, groups or actions. Cf. Samuel Nigro, "The Silence About Pope Pius XII," Social Justice Review 86 (July-August 1995), p. 100.

6 Saul Friedlander, Pius XII and the Third Reich: A Documentation, trans. from the French and German by Charles Fullman (New York: Octagon Books, 1966), pp. 118, 139, 226, 228 and 231. Among other things, he may have feared that to condemn Nazism without also condemning the Bolsheviks and their atrocities would be to risk weakening the Reich as bulwark against the advances of communism. Ibid., p. 134.

7 Ibid., pp. 130-31. Unspecific as it was, Pope Pius XII's Christmas message constituted quite a courageous speech. It was recognized by German security as including not only a defense of the Jews but an accusation against the German people of perpetrating injustices toward the Jewish population. Samuel Nigro states that the Pope's words "spoken while surrounded by malignant, brutal, beastly, unscrupulous savages, is an event unique in history, given the circumstances. His survival is miraculous." Nigro, p.101.

8 Alfred Kazin, "The Heart of the World," <Auschwitz>, p. 70.

9 Carlo Falconi, The Silence of Pius XII,> trans Bernard Wall (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), pp. 72-73.

10 John E Morley, Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust 1939-43 (New York: Ktav, 1980), pp. 208-9. Jewish historian, Leon Poliakov, however, writes: "It is painful to have to state that at the time when gas chambers and crematoria were operating day and night, the high, spiritual authority of the Vatican did not find it necessary to make a clear and solemn protest that would be echoed through the world; and yet one cannot say that there may not have been pertinent and valid reasons for this silence." Cf. Leon Poliakov, "The Vatican and the 'Jewish Question': The Record of the Hitler Period-and After," Commentary 10 (1950), p. 443.

11 Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993), p. 168. A 1983 movie, starring Gregory Peck, depicts the true story of an Irish priest, Msgr. Hugh O'Flaherty, who boldly masterminded a massive rescue operation in Nazi-occupied Rome, hiding refugees and Allied POWs from the Germans. The jacket of a 1992 video version of this film, released by Live Home Video, Inc., describes the Pope in a manner consistent with Berenbaum's perspective: "Pope Pius XII remains aloof, insisting on the Church's neutrality."

12 Berenbaum, p. 168.

13 It occurred even though the Pope may not have been opposed in principle to some of the restrictions imposed upon the Jewish people by the Nazis and by the quisling regimes under the German aegis, including requiring them to wear the Jewish badge, consigning them to ghettos and treating them as second-rate citizens (Poliakov, pp. 441, 443-5). If this seems contradictory, it was the situation in the Middle Ages. Yosef Yerushalmi, a Jewish historian, points out that medieval Christianity was dedicated to holding the Jew down in a subservient position, but it was also dedicated to his preservation. Laws existed to protect Jewish property and life (Yosef Yerushalmi, "Response to Rosemary Reuther," Auschwitz, pp. 97-107). The Late Middle Ages introduced the ghetto walls and the Jewish badge. The latter was sanctioned by the Fourth Lateran Council, 1215 (Poliakov, p. 441). The Church's medieval policy toward the Jews was therefore complex. It affirmed that Jewish life was inviolable. But it also approved of measures to insure that Jews were humiliated and remained second-class citizens. Medieval popes originated many anti-Jewish measures. Rosemary Reuther writes: "The paradox of the Church's attitude to the Jews was that it was simultaneously committed to their preservation and to making them exhibit externally the marks of their reprobation" (Rosemary Reuther, "AntiSemitism and Christian Theology," Auschwitz, pp. 85-86). St. Thomas Aquinas' theological position on the Jews reflects certain practices that existed in Christian society during the Middle Ages. Aquinas held that nonbelievers, including members of the Jewish faith, should not be allowed to acquire authority over Christian believers since the latter could easily be influenced by them into fallacious thinking, and if they swayed from the faith, the nonbelievers would hold the faith in contempt (The "Summa Theologica" of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province [London: R. & T. Washbourne, 1917], Vol. 9, p. 140; Part II: 2, Quest. 10, art. 10). St. Thomas wrote: "The Church altogether forbids unbelievers to acquire dominion over believers, or to have authority over them in any capacity whatever" (Ibid.). This resulted, it seems, in their being prohibited access to public office, and in their being admitted into the liberal professions and the universities only according to a quota system (Poliakov, p. 445). Jews, however, are to be allowed to practice their faith, states Thomas Aquinas. He recognized Jewish rites as constituting a foreshadowing of the truth of the Christian faith, and therefore as bearing witness to the faith. "For this reason they are tolerated in the observance of their rites" (art. 11, p. 143). With regard to the baptizing of Jewish children, Aquinas indicates that "it was never the custom of the Church to baptize the children of Jews against the will of their parents" (art. 12, p. 145). Once the child has attained the use of reason, then he or she can be baptized even against the parents' wishes if he or she consents freely (p. 146). With regard to the question of the deportation of Jews in the Middle Ages, Yerushalmi states that this was not done with papal encouragement. Even the most anti-Semitic popes of the Middle Ages did not advocate expelling Jews. "Rome was the one city of Europe from which the Jews were never expelled" (Yerushalmi, p. 104).

14 Friedlander, p. 141. Friedlander cites an April 30, 1943, letter of Pope Pius XII to the archbishop of Berlin, in which the Pope refers to his work on behalf of Jews and the warm thanks he received from Jewish organizations. 

15 Francis J. Weber, "Witness for Pius XII," American Benedictine Review 26 (1975), pp. 227-30.

16 Eugenio Zolli, Before the Dawn (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1954), pp. 140-41.

17 Ibid., p. 188. Msgr. Hughes, papal delegate to Egypt and Palestine, confirms the fact that the Pope demonstrated a solicitude for Jewish well-being in Rome, and Italy in general. In a September 1944 conversation with Dr. Herzog, chief rabbi of Palestine, he talks about the many Jews saved by the Church. "When the Germans took control of the country, orders were given to all monasteries to conceal Jews. In Rome, for example, my brothers, the White Friars, have a monastery which houses four priests; we kept 32 Jews hidden in that monastery for a whole year.... In the convent of the English Church, dozens of Jews had been hidden.... A great many Jews were concealed inside the Vatican itself and particularly at Castel Gandolfo, where the Holy Father spends his holidays" (Friedlander, p. 228-29).

18 Zolli, pp. 159-61.

19 Ibid., pp. 185-86.

20 Ibid., pp. 186-187.

21 Ibid., p. 188.

22 Poliakov, pp. 441-42.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Anthony Rhodes, The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators (1922-1945) (New York: Holt, Rinehart &c Winston, 1973), pp. 339-40.

26 Ibid., p. 339.

27 Poliakov, p. 443.

28 Sir Alec Randall, "The Pope and the Plot Against Hitler," The Tablet 225 (Jan. 23, 1971), p. 80.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Joachim Remak, ed., The Nazi Years: A Documentary History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 99 and pp. 139-40.

32 Ibid., pp. 140-41. When the deportation of Jews from France was underway in 1942, numerous French bishops and priests protested vigorously. Jules-Gerard Saliege, archbishop of Toulouse, directed the priests of his diocese (Aug. 30, 1942) to read a powerful pastoral letter from the pulpits. It states in part: "It has been reserved to our time to witness the sad spectacle of children, of women, of fathers and mothers being treated like a herd of beasts; to see members of the same family separated one from another and shipped away to an unknown destination" (Friedlander, pp. 112 and 115). From his pulpit, Msgr. Theas proclaimed (Aug. 30): "The present anti-Semitic measures are a mockery of human dignity, a violation of the most sacred rights of the person and family" (Ibid., p. 116).

According to Msgr. Hughes, papal delegate to Egypt and Palestine, when the Germans began deporting French Jews, the Catholic bishops "went into the streets wearing a yellow star" (Ibid., p. 233). These protests may have made a difference, for Msgr. Hughes stated in September 1944 in reference to the bishops' wearing of the star: "This action made a considerable impression and, in some places, rendered deportation impossible" (Ibid.).

33 Poliakov, p. 443.

34 Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), p. 35.

35 Friedlander, p. 123.

36 Berenbaum, p. 63.

37 Rubenstein, p. 8.

38 Ibid., p. 9. On Dec. 13, 1941, Hitler stated in conversation: "One day, the war will end. It will then be the final great task of my life to solve the religious problem. Only then will the German nation be secure" (cf. Adolf Hitler, Hitler's Table Talk [London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1953], p. 90; cited in Friedlander, p. 150). 39 Friedlander, p. 140.

40 Ibid., p. 227.

41 Ibid., p. 228.

42 Ibid., p. 231.

43 The Pope did approve of some resounding protests made at the local level, but he "did not consider it wise to add to these protests the authority of his own voice" (Poliakov, p. 442). He preferred leaving the protest actions to local pastors who could better assess the dangers of reprisals and the like (Friedlander, p. 139).

44 "No one can be accused of really knowing what the Holocaust was until the slave, labor and death camps were liberated.... To judge retrospectively is unreasonable" (Nigro, p. 102).

MR. DeCELLES holds the rank of professor in the department of religious studies at Marywood College in Scranton, Pa.

This article was taken from the January, 1996 issue of "The Priest". To subscribe please write: "The Priest", Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.

 


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