Saviour of the Jews

Author: Michael O'Carroll


Michael O'Carroll C.S.Sp.

There is scarcely any case of a dramatist influencing historians to the extent that Rolf Hochhuth did with his play about Pope Pius XII, "The Representative" (Der Stellvertreter). He maintained that by not publicly denouncing the Jewish genocide, Pius was responsible for the massacre.

He tried to do the same in another play which blamed Churchill for the death of Polish General Sikorski. However, on that, he was demolished in a BBC programme by David Frost.

But why did he have such success against the Pope - to the extent, that this old and thoroughly discredited canard was revived on another BBC documentary recently?

Was there a dearth of historical evidence and documentation? Certainly not after the publication of the Vatican War Documents. Before that, in the published German State papers and in the Nuremberg transcripts, there was plenty of material to satisfy honest research. For instance, those who thought that there was no protest by the Pope against Nazi atrocities could have read what Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister declared: "I know that we had protests from the Vatican, that we had a whole deskful of protests." They could also have read that these protests were ignored on Hitler's orders.

At the National Archives in Washington, which I was able to visit, there is a mass of unpublished documents relevant to the history of the second world war. Enough has been published to vindicate the policy of Pius XII.

Hitler's Jewish policy

In January 1939, when the war clouds were gathering over Europe, Hitler declared publicly that if it came to war the principal victims would be the Jews; later in his "Table Talk" he could assert that he had kept his word.

His essays and discourses show an all-out annihilation policy towards the race. He spoke of them as "vermin". And, the war gave him the motive to seek their extermination; it also gave him the possibility of achieving his sinister project.

But he could not have hunted the Jews all over Europe without the initial success which gave him control of so much territory. Without this, it is doubtful that he could even have herded the Jews in Germany itself.

Regarding the nations which had declared war on Hitler, they surely had an obligation towards the Jews. They had put them in mortal danger. But what did they do to help the endangered Jews? Nothing.

They talked - mostly to Pope Pius XII, telling him what he should say. But the real question was one of action and the one who saw this was Pius XII.

Pope as scapegoat

Let me illustrate the indifference of the allied governments. They should have had one obvious duty: to bomb the railway to Auschwitz. That was the death line and should have been cut at once. (My personal conviction about this was reinforced by a visit to the camp site in 1966.)

Martin Gilbert, biographer of Churchill, in his book Auschwitz and the Allies, reveals that Churchill accepted the idea, but was overruled by subordinates. The obvious comment is that Churchill did not tolerate any such action from his subordinates in matters he deemed important.

The excuse for not bombing the line was that it would endanger valuable allied lives. But the same lives were being put at risk on every other mission which carried them over the Auschwitz area.

There is also the grim chapter only recently opened, in the refusal of western countries to allow the thousands of proscribed Jews to leave Germany, on the grounds that they would not be able to cope with the influx.

There were many who needed a scapegoat. A Pope was ideal and they could count on the support of "modern" Catholics, eager to show how critical they could be of their own.

Public statements and further deaths

If Pius XII had protested, would Jewish lives have been saved? It was official Nazi policy to answer with reprisals. Prisoners came to dread such public statements.

Holland was the glaring example. When the Dutch bishops issued a condemnation, all Jews who had become Catholics were seized and sent to Auschwitz. Among them was the convert Edith Stein, Sister Benedicta of the Holy Cross in Carmel, later beatified by John Paul II.

A different policy was adopted in nearby Belgium: no public protest by the hierarchy, but assistance to the Jews to go into hiding and financial support, such as that given by the Archbishop of Brussels who allowed a Jewish group to use his bank account. True, the commanding general, Von Falkensen, was relatively humane and helpful. But the eventual outcome is significant. In Holland, 79 per cent of Jews were killed; in Belgium, 73 per cent were saved.

The Pope knew the Allied Governments wanted his word, regardless of its effect on the Jews, towards whom they showed utterly irresponsible indifference. He said he was keeping silent because he loved the Jews.

His housekeeper, Sister Pasqualina, later related in her <Memoirs> that she once saw him tear up and burn a denunciation of the anti-Jewish measures which he had prepared; he had just got news of the tragic events in Holland. Thereafter his mind was made up.

Was silence the only weapon available to the Pope?

Pope encouraged rescue programme

Here is where his critics grossly wrong him. Pius XII initiated, sustained and encouraged a programme of rescue ail over Europe, principally through the Nuncios. With what results? The facts are available from Jewish historians.

The first and greatest Jewish authority on the subject was Hungarian Jew, Jeno Levai. He defended the Pope at the Frankfurt trial of the last Auschwitz personnel taken prisoner, as late as 1964. However, on the papal side, the blockbuster is the work of Pinhas Lapide, one-time brigade major in the British army, Jewish journalist and diplomat.

Lapide worked in Israel and had access to the great centre of archives, "Yad Vashem". In his book The Last Three Popes and the Jews (London, 1967), he surveys the entire area covered by the anti-Jewish policy, points out the measures taken and the lives saved in each region. He reaches a total of 860,000 lives saved through Pius XII's programme. Another writer, David Herstig, writing in 1967 (Die Rettung, Stuttgart) calculated that 360,000 Romanian Jews in Israel owed their lives to the Pope.

Lapide, whom I interviewed in 1967, says that the Pope saved more lives than all government or international agencies together.

Other prominent Jews testified to his relief and rescue work, among them Isaac Halvei Herzog, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, with whom I spoke about Pius XII, and in this country, Dr. Bethel Solomons who, when he was President of the College of Physicians, paid him public tribute.

It cannot be forgotten that the Jewish genocide was a policy worked out at the highest level, at Wannsee in January, 1942, with so many officials of high rank that it was styled the "Meeting of Secretaries". The destructive plan included all Jews in Europe, listing them, country by country, including 4,000 in Ireland. Yet those who were once my colleagues in the wartime Jewish Christian Society, the "Pillar of Fire", did not know this. Nor the extent of the genocide.

Dublin art dealer, Victor Waddington, gave me, at one meeting, a copy of the pamphlet by Victor Gollancz which on its cover stated that the victims numbered 300,000. Should not Gollancz, a publisher with multiple contacts, have been better informed? We know that already at that time the number of lives taken was ten times this figure. The whole plan comprised eleven million Jews, marked down for death. Hitler had foretold annihilation (Vernichtung) of the whole Jewish race in Europe. The master idea, strategic and tactical planning, a command structure, logistics, equipment, were all in place.

Let us thank God this was not to be.

Taken from the February 3, 1995 issue of The Irish Family

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