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Unsealed Archives Give Fresh Clues to Pope Pius XII’s Response to the Holocaust

2020-08-28 07:00:11
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ROME — When the Vatican opened its sealed archives from the World War II-era pontificate of Pius XII in March, the Brown University historian David I. Kertzer was among the first in line.

Like many other scholars, Dr. Kertzer had been eager to mine the papers of a pope — long under consideration for sainthood — whose response to Nazism and the Holocaust has become the target of fierce debate.

Some have cast Pius XII as the pontiff who remained shamefully silent as the Nazis massacred Jews during the war. Others claim that Pius worked behind the scenes to encourage the Roman Catholic Church to save thousands of Jews and other victims of persecution.

Now documents from the archives are beginning to trickle out, offering an early taste of what could emerge from the tens of thousands of papers that scholars had been clamoring to study for decades. Pius XII’s pontificate stretched from 1939 to 1958.

In an article published in The Atlantic on Thursday, Dr. Kertzer revealed previously unpublished documents, including a memorandum advising Pius against making a formal protest when the Gestapo rounded up 1,000 of Rome’s Jews on Oct. 16, 1943, for deportation to the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

Dr. Kertzer also found a trail of documents revealing that Vatican officials directed clerics in France to resist turning over two Jewish boys who had been put in the care of local Catholics and baptized when their parents were killed in Auschwitz — despite rulings by French courts ordering that the boys be given to their aunt.

Credit…Steven Senne/Associated Press

The church’s defiance of the aunt’s yearslong efforts to reclaim the two boys — Robert and Gérald Finaly — made international headlines at the time, including on the front page of The New York Times. The documents show that Pius was kept informed, even as French nuns and monks were arrested on charges of kidnapping the boys.

“Among historians, my piece I think will be fairly explosive,” said Dr. Kertzer, whose book “The Pope and Mussolini,” about Pius’s predecessor, Pius XI, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2015.

Scholars have the duty to study the archives thoroughly, said Matteo Luigi Napolitano, a history professor at the University of Molise, who has written several favorable books on Pius XII, including “The Pope Who Saved the Jews. All the Truth about Pius XII from the Vatican Archives” (co-authored with Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Vatican’s department of communications).

“You can’t publish one scoop after another just because you’ve been in the library for a few days,” said Dr. Napolitano, a delegate of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. “That’s not the way to work. It’s not a historical method.”

Dr. Kertzer only managed to work a few days in the archives when the coronavirus caused the Vatican to shut its doors, but he continued to research with a Rome-based church historian, Roberto Benedetti.

The documents include pages that Dr. Kertzer described as “steeped in anti-Semitic language.”

In one document concerning the 1943 roundup, The Rev. Pietro Tacchi Venturi, a close adviser, proposed that Pius XII tell the Germans there was no need to use violence against Italy’s Jews because Mussolini’s racial laws were “sufficient to contain the tiny Jewish minority within its proper limits,” Father Tacchi Venturi wrote. “One does not understand why and what need there is to return to a question that Mussolini’s Government considered already taken care of.”

Father Tacchi Venturi’s proposal was dismissed by a memorandum, written by the Rev. Angelo Dell’Acqua, then an official at the Secretariat of State who went on to become the cardinal for Rome, that sought to convince Pius XII not to lodge a formal protest against the Nazi roundup, but instead to speak of it privately with the German ambassador “recommending to him that the already grave situation of the Jews not be aggravated further.”

Cardinal Dell’Acqua was also involved in the much-publicized case of the Finaly brothers.

The war had left many Jewish orphans in Catholic countries, and on at least two occasions, Jewish leaders had appealed to Pius XII asking for help in ensuring that they be returned to Jewish families. As one document published in 2004 shows, in some instances, church policy had been to resist.

The Finaly boys had been secretly baptized, and the church in France had at first actively opposed attempts to give them back to surviving relatives, because the church believed they should be raised in their new faith.

Alberto Melloni, a church historian, said the anti-Semitic tones that emerge from some of the documents of the time should come as no surprise.

“It’s not for nothing that it took 20 years and five months from the end of the war for the church to produce ‘Nostra Aetate,’” Mr. Melloni said, referring to a document produced by the Second Vatican Council under Pope Paul VI, which radically redefined the church’s relationship to the Jews.

Dr. Benedetti, the Rome historian who has been assisting Dr. Kertzer in his research, said that even after the papers were unsealed in March, scholars lacked full access to every single document, because some archives were still being digitized or inventoried.

While the archive of the Secretariat of State is online, giving scholars ample access, at the apostolic archive, scholars are limited to asking to see three documents in the morning and two in the afternoon. It can be slow going.

“The documentation is truly immense, so I imagine that there will be many publications,” supporting many differing positions, said Dr. Benedetti, the director of an online history journal.

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