The solicitude of Pope Pacelli in the Journal of the House of 'Villa Lante'
The following are extracts translated from the article published in the Italian daily of L'Osservatore Romano on 11 May .
The story which we are about to tell begins in the autumn of 1943 where on the other side of the Tiber, between the Vatican walls discussions were taking place about the logistics of hiding refugees in the Vatican's extraterritorial structures. Thanks to patient and detailed research in the general archives of the Society of the Sacred Heart, a Pontifical Institute on the Janiculum Hill in Rome, this author was able to recover the hidden Journal of the House "Villa Lante" in which the nuns scrupulously annotated the events of those years day by day.
While Hitler and his general staff were making plans in Germany to exterminate the Jews and the danger of deportation was on the rise, Sr Maria Teresa Gonzáles de Castejón in the privacy of her cell, wrote in her diary: "We had a catacomb in our garden which already existed as a place of refuge. This catacomb was very large. A little later some families we knew or friends of our community slept in the refuge of our mother house. We knew that the Holy Father had opened the doors of the Vatican to refugees, especially Jews, to save them from the racial persecution. Many religious houses followed his example and Rev. Mothers Datti, Dupont and Perry also decided to hide refugees".
On 6 October 1943, we learn from the Journal of the House Villa Lante an interesting detail: "Reverend Mother (Manuela Vicente) was called to the Vatican. She went with Sr Platania to the Secretariat of State where Mons. Montini asked her, in the name of the Holy Father, to house three families that risked, like many others, being taken by the Germans. He placed an automobile at her disposal to take Mother immediately back to the Mother House to ask permission. She went with Rev. Mother Pirelli but did not receive complete approval. There were already 15 people housed in Betania and the Rev. Mother tried to find other secure accommodation in order to grant the desire of the Holy Father who deigned to trust her".
On that same day, as documents in the archives of the Office of Strategic Service, declassified some years after the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act, attest, the Allied forces learned of a secret dispatch, Cablegram n. 19 entitled, "Personal. For the Führer and the Minister of the Reich", which told of Hitler's secret plan to deport 8,000 Jews of Rome to German concentration camps to be definitively "exterminated". Then, on 11 October in an codified radio message sent from the Head of the Central Office for Security of the Reich, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, to Herbert Kappler, one learns that, "It is exactly the total and immediate eradication of the Jews in Italy which is in the special interest of the present internal political situation and of the general security of Italy. The longer the delay, the more the Jews, who are no doubt relying on evacuation measures, will take the opportunity to go [and hide] in the houses of Italians favourable to the Jews and to disappear completely".
This was only the introduction to the shameful round up of the Jews in the ghetto. A few days later, on 16 October 1943, the plan went into action. As these documents uncontrovertibly prove, the Allies were perfectly aware, with 10 days' warning, of the wicked plan the Germans were about to perpetrate!
It was necessary, therefore, to act fast and it would not seem too farfetched to hypothesize that through some diplomatic channel, the Vatican entourage was also made aware of this news. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain the rapidity with which Pius XII, through Mons. Giovanni Battista Montini, exhorted the Superior General of the Society of the Sacred Heart, Manuela Vicente, to arrange suitable places of refuge in the religious houses in order to shelter the persecuted Jews. At that point, therefore, the Holy See decided the moment had come to open the doors of all of the religious houses and institutes in Rome and offer refuge and protection to the many Jews who were in dire danger, while seeking not to attract attention and to operate in strict secrecy.
An entry on 11 October 1943 in the archives of the sisters of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus reads, "A day of great work on the one hand and great terror on the other!... While everyone is helping to remove the benches, desks, and blackboards from the schoolroom and turn it into a dormitory below in the porter's lodge, there is a constant stream of frightened young people who come and ask to be taken in for fear of the Germans who want to deport them to Germany. The Rev. Mother and the Mother Treasurer went down to comfort, advise, and reassure them: it has been a morning of anxiety and at the same time much maternal goodness and sympathy. There is a stampede: men afraid of being taken by the Germans run to hide or at least try to make sure their wives and children are safe; they ask for shelter in the convents and our Rev. Mother Saladini tries to accommodate as many as she can; everyone helps. The schoolroom has been made over to welcome entire families with their nurses, in the dining room and the adjoining room, three tables reunite adults and children from two to 60 and over; there are wives and mothers of diplomats and of soldiers and former students".
However, interestingly enough the chronological events coincide with the Vatican directive of 25 October 1943, revealed by the current Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, in which: "it gave instructions to house Jews persecuted by the Nazis in all religious institutes, to open the institutes and also the catacombs".
In fact, this document seems to have been prepared at least by 12 October 1943, as the religious of the Sacred Heart wrote in the "Villa Lante" diary: "Special temporary powers have been granted by the Holy See. In reality, many Mothers Superior already knew this. The Vatican has made it known that a document was ready, declaring that our Mother House was recognized as belonging to the Holy See. No request was made, but this protection will be very welcome. This notice can be posted in the hall of the house".
To avoid the danger of sudden requisitions by the Nazis or Fascists of the convents, monasteries and Institutes where the Jews were hidden, the Holy See delivered the notice written in German and Italian, to be affixed to the main doors of all of the properties, declaring that this building was directly dependent on Vatican City and that therefore, any search or requisition was forbidden.
In this Journal the sisters noted: "The document sent by the Holy See has been distributed to all of the pontifical, religious Mother Houses. This will be a safeguard, even though the arrival of the Gestapo in Rome is not reassuring. The searches seem to be intensifying. Villa Lante has received this document" from the parish.
Although publicly a strict order of silence was imposed by the Vatican — which should not be interpreted as a form of passivity or indifference — in fact, from October 1943, as we have shown, the Holy See took measures to impart precise instructions to all convents and churches in Italy, calling on them to open the doors of their religious houses to all those persecuted, and in a special way to the Jews.