THE HOLY SEE
THE THIRD REICH
Why Pope Pius XII Was Right
Ronald J. Rychlak
Ronald J. Rychlak is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and
Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is
currently putting the finishing touches on a book-length manuscript entitled Hitler, the War, and the Pope.
During World War II, the Catholic Church, on the instructions of
Pope Pius XII, sheltered Jews and other victims of the Nazis, provided falsified
travel documents to those who could benefit from them, distributed food and
clothing to those who suffered, comforted the injured and grieving, and
transmitted vital infonnation to the Allied military leaders. But because Pius
XII did not publicly and repeatedly denounce Adolf Hitler, his role remains a
point of controversy.
Some commentators charge that Pius II's "silence" reflected moral
cowardice, and that he failed to, give guidance to his flock. Others variously
assert that the Vatican was concerned only about Catholic victims, not Jews; or
that the Church was overly influenced by worldly considerations; or that the
Holy See was anti-Semitic; or that the Pope's dread of Communism blinded him to
the truth about the Nazis. One writer (Jack Chick, Smokescreens, 1983)
has gone so far as to say: "Pope Pius XII should have stood before the judges in
Nuremberg. His war crimes were worthy of death."
Let us leave that ferocious assessment to one side while we reacquaint
ourselves with the historical record, a record quite accessible yet not widely
known. It shows not only that Pius did an enormous amount of work on behalf of
suffering humanity., but also that his choice to work steadfastly behind the
scenes was the best choice he could have made.
We must go all the way back to the First World War, when the man who
would become Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, was hard at work in Munich as the
Vatican's nuncio (ambassador) to the German state of Bavaria. Germany was a
major participant in that war and was viewed by many as the chief aggressor.
Pacelli was charged with presenting Pope Benedict XVs peace plan to German
leaders. He carried out the assignment and, while it did not directly lead to
peace, several of Benedict's proposals were included a year later in President
Woodrow Wilson's 14-point plan that helped bring the hostilities to an end.
Pacelli remained in Munich after the war, and on behalf of the Holy See
he negotiated a concordat (agreement or treaty) between the Vatican and the
state of Bavaria. Such concordats were important to the Holy See because without
them the Church might be denied the right to organize youth groups, make
ecclesiastical appointments, run schools., or even conduct religious services.
Later Pacelli moved to Berlin as the Vatican's representative to the Weimar
Republic, where he tried, without success, to secure a concordat to guarantee
the Church's rights throughout all of Germany. He was called back to Rome in
December 1929, elevated to the cardinalate, and named the Vatican's Secretary of
State in 1930.
Adolf Hitler assumed the leadership of Germany in 1933, and one of his early
international actions was the negotiation of a concordat with the Vatican, the
very sort of agreement that Pacelli had tried to obtain almost a decade earlier.
Hitler agreed to terms that were favorable to the Church, but he also made it
clear that if the Vatican refused this offer he would impose harsh terms on
Catholics throughout Germany. The concordat was signed by Pope Pius M on the
advice of Secretary of State Pacelli. But Pacelli, who had negotiated on behalf
of the Vatican, had no illusions about Hitler's trustworthiness. Pacelli joked
that "at least the Nazis could not violate all of the provisions at one time,"
but even he must have been surprised at how quickly and how regularly the German
leadership ignored the concordat. Only five days after it was signed, the Nazis
passed a sterilization law that was clearly in violation of the agreement.
Between the Nazis' rise to power in 1933 and the summer of 1936, the Vatican
filed more than 50 protests with the Gen-nan govemment. The first protest -
objecting to a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses - was one of 45 that the Nazis
never even deigned to answer.
In August 1936 the German bishops asked the Pope to address the
problems they were facing under Nazism. Since Pacelli was the Vatican official
best informed on German matters, Pius XI asked him to draft an encyclical. (When
the German Catholic hierarchy later thanked Pius XI for having written the
encyclical, he politely declined and told them to thank Pacelli.)
The encyclical Mit brennender Sorge ("With burning anxiety") was
one of the strongest condemnations of a national regime that the Holy See had
ever published. In fact, the Vatican took pains to ensure that Nazi officials
could not prohibit its distribution. Unlike most encyclicals, which are written
in Latin, Mit brennender Sorge was written in German. It was then
smuggled into Germany, secretly distributed, and read at the Masses on Palm
Sunday, March 14,1937. Mit brennender Sorge condemned not only the
persecution of the Church in Germany but also the neopaganism of Nazi theories,
the idolizing of the state, and the use of race and bloodlines to judge human
value. It declared:
Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form
of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the
human community however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly
things - whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes
them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned
and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of
life which that faith upholds.
One statement in particular is an evident swipe at Hitler and Nazism:
None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national
God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single
people, within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the
universe, King and Legislator of all nations before whose immensity they are "as
a drop of a bucket" (Isaiah 11:15).
The encyclical concluded that "enemies of the Church, who think that
their time has come, will see that their joy was premature."
The Nazis confiscated all available copies of the encyclical, arrested
printers who made copies, and seized -their presses. Those distributing the
encyclical were arrested, payments due to the, Church from Germany under the
concordat were reduced, and several priests were subjected to trials on
trumped-up currency or momfity charges. In May, Hitler was quoted in a Swiss
newspaper as saying, "The Third Reich does not desire a modus vivendi with the Catholic Church, but rather its destruction with lies and dishonor,
in order to make room for a German Church in which the German race will be
glorified.' Pope Pius M was henceforth considered an enemy by the Nazis.
During his pontificate Pius XI concluded concordats with at least 21
nations in an effort to secure world peace and protect the spiritual mission of
the Church. At his death in February 1939, however, the world was perhaps less
stable than ever. Germany had already annexed Austria and was looking
belligerently eastward, having placed troops in the Sudetenland and threatened
Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Romania.
A week after the Pope's death, the German ambassador to the Holy See
addressed the Sacred College of Cardinals in what was expected to be a customary
presentation of sympathy. Rather than merely offering condolences, the Nazi
emissary spoke of an 'evolution of a new world which wants to raise itself upon
the ruins of a past which, in many ways, has no longer any reason to eidst. " He
adverted to the election of the next pope, and made it clear that Germany would
view the election of Pacelli very unfavorably, based on the policies he had
followed as Secretary of State. (The French foreign minister expressed France's
hope that Pacelli would be elected, for the same reason.)
In one of the shortest conclaves in history, the Cardinals chose for
their next pope Eugenio Pacefli, the 'most well-traveled and experienced
diplomat available. The Canadian Jewish Chronicle commented that
"although the election of two hundred and sixty-one pontiffs has hitherto been a
matter of indifference to Jews ... the election of the two hundred and
sixty-second pope was one which elicited considerable interest." The editorial
The election of Cardinal Pacelli is more than merely a tribute to
personal talent. It is the choice of a policy.... The frantic attempt,
therefore, which has been made by Nazis and Fascists to influence the election,
by speech, suggestion, and counsel, in favor of a cardinal friendlier to Hitler
and Mussolini ... was ultimately foiled. The clumsy advice which ...
Germany'sAmbassador to the Vatican recently gave to the College of Cardinals ...
has already received an answer as unequivocal as the advice was arrogant. The
plot to pilfer the Ring of the Fisherman has gone up in white
In Jerusalem the Palestine Post of March 6, 1939, reported: "The
cordial reception accorded the election, particularly in France, England and
America - and the lukewarm reception in Germany - are not surprising when we
remember the large part he [Pacelli] played in the recent papal opposition to
pernicious race theories."
Nazi media complained about the "prejudiced hostility and incurable
lack of comprehension" shown by the Holy See. The morning after Pacelfi's
election, the Berlin Morgenpost reported: "The election of Cardinal
Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to
Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his
predecessor." Das Schwarze Korps, the official publication of the elite Nazi Schutzstaffel (better known to us by the dreaded initials 'SS"),
said: "As nuncio and secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli had little
understanding of us; little hope is placed in him. We do not believe that as
Pius XII he will follow a different path." Germany was the only major power that
did not send a representative to the new Pope's coronation. Three days later,
Hitler invaded interior Czechoslovakia.
As all-out war threatened, the new Pope pledged to direct his energy
toward preventing hostilities. Pacelli took the name Pius (in Latin meaning
pious, kindhearted, and gentle; in Hebrew signifying conciliation) in honor of
his predecessor. He selected a dove holding an olive branch in its beak as his
coat-of-arms. For his device, he chose "Opus Justitiae Pax" ("the work of
justice is peace"). His first message on Vatican radio was a pledge to work for
unity and a plea for peace.
Unfortunately, Pius' was unable to prevent the war from escalating.
Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939 and, with Europe at war, Pius had to
change his objective and his tactics. Rather than issuing appeals to secular
authorities, he decided to offer aid to the victims of war and to pray for
peace. Any. activities that might compromise the Church's neutrality would have
to be top-secret. This decision to work behind the scenes was what permitted
Pius to carry out what one Jewish newspaper would later call "one of the
greatest manifestations of humanitarianism in the twentieth century."
There were many practical reasons for Pius XII's decision to speak
softly as he undertook dangerous lifesaving acts. Official neutrality permitted
the Pope to offer his services as a peace broker; permitted the Vatican to cross
behind belligerent lines to feed, clothe, and care for victims of the war; let
the Vatican serve as an, avenue of communication between the two sides; may have
lessened persecution of innocent Christians in Nazioccupied areas; and was in
keeping with Vatican precedent. The Pope, however, provided another explanation
of his motivation.
In his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus ("On the Unity of
Human Society"), released in October 1939, Pius wrote with anguish of the
outbreak of war and laid out his plan for peace. The Church, he wrote, "spreads
her matemal arms towards this world not to dominate but to serve. She does not
claim to take the place of other legitimate authorities in their proper spheres,
but offers them her help after the example and in,the spirit of her Divine
Founder Who "went about doing good" (Acts 10:38). Quoting Jesus, Pius wrote,
"render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's." In other words, the
Church had an important, but limited, role to play in resolving disputes in the
The Pope's obligation was to pray for peace and offer comfort to the
afflicted. This did not mean, however, that he was blind to political reality. Summi Ponfificatus identified the cause of the current situation as "the
ever-increasing host of Christ's enemies" who "deny or in practice neglect the
vivifying truths and the values inherent in belief in God and in Christ." This
was a clear reference to Hitler's Nazism. Pius wrote of "our dear Poland, which,
for its fidelity to the Church, for its services in the defense of Christian
civilization ... has a right to the generous and brotherly sympathy of the whole
world, while it awaits, relying on the powerful intercession of Mary, Help of
Christians, the hour of a resurrection in harmony with the principles of justice
and true peace." With the Nazis having just overrun Poland, there was no room
for interpretation. The American Israelite called the encyclical the
Pope's "denunciation of Nazism." Later, as part of the propaganda war, French
planes would drop leaflets containing the encyclical on German troops.
On the same day that Germany invaded Poland, Pius telegraphed the papal
nuncio in Warsaw with instructions to organize Polish Jews for a passage to
Palestine. One of the crucial terms of the concordat with Germany was that
German officials were to regard baptized Jews as Christians. Accordingly, Pius
ordered his nuncio in Turkey (Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XUII) to
prepare thousands of baptismal certificates for refugee Jews arriving in
Istanbul in the hope that such papers would gain them passage into the country.
(When he was later thanked for his extensive lifesaving work, Roncalli said, "In
all these painful matters I have referred to the Holy See and simply carried out
the Pope's orders: first and foremost to save Jewish lives.") As the war went
on, such documents were freely distributed in all occupied nations, and Pius
established a committee that helped thousands of Jews leave Europe with
identification showing that they were under the protection of the Catholic
Shortly after the invasion of Poland., several members of the German
High Command began to fear that Hitler was going to lead their nation into ruin.
They decided to explore the possibility of overthrowing him and installing a new
govemment. They were concerned, however, that even if they brought Hitler down,
the British and French might occupy Germany and mete out harsh justice. These
patriotic anti-Hitlerites wanted to reach an understanding with the Allies
before taking action.
Colonel Hans Oster of the German Intelligence Service recruited Dr.
Josef Mueller, a leading Munich lawyer and a devout Catholic, to travel to the
Vatican to convince the Pope to help broker a peace agreement between Britain
and the anti-Nazi Germans. At great risk to the Church, Pius had his private
secretary write a letter describing the plan and declaring that the Pope was
ready to intervene with Britain for reasonable terms of peace. Unfortunately,
the plot never advanced beyond this stage.
But in early 1940, when they learned that Hitler was preparing to mount
an attack to the west, these anti-Hitler Germans again turned to the neutral
world leader in whom they had the most confidence, P'Ope Pius XR. With his
consent, their warning was passed through the Vatican by coded radio signals to
the nuncios in Belgium and Holland, then forwarded to the Allied leaders in
London and Paris. The warning went out about a week before the German invasions
of Holland, Luxembourg, and Belgium, but the Allies were not able to stop the
After the Nazis invaded these small nations, Pius sent expressions of
sympathy to the Queen of Holland, the King of Belgium, and the Grand Duchess of
Luxembourg. When the Italian Fascist dictator Mussolini learned of the warnings
and the telegrams of sympathy, he took them as a personal affront and had his
ambassador to the Vatican file an official protest, charging that Pius had taken
sides against Italy's ally Germany. The Pope responded that his conscience was
at ease and added, "We are not afraid to go to a concentration camp."
In June 1941 Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, breaking his neutrality
pact. The Soviets, who had been all too willing to be officially neutral
vis-hvis Hitler in the first years of the war, were now invited to join the
Allies against him. This created some concern inside the Catholic Church. Pius
XI had written in Divini Redemptoris ("On Atheistic Communism," 1937)
that no one who wanted to save Christian civilization could collaborate with
Communists. Yet here it was: The Allies had made, the Soviet Union a full
partner in the war.
The United States was officially still neutral, but the lend-lease law
permitted President Roosevelt to lend or lease arms and equipment to nations
whose defense was deemed vital to American national security. This law let
American manufacturers provide war materiel to Great Britain, but American
Catholics were very concerned about extending this special benefit to a
Communist nation. Roosevelt asked Pope Pius to help change their minds. After
being reassured that the Allies were not actually supporting the spread of
Communism, Pius appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland, Michael Ready, to
"reinterpret" Divini Redemptoris and explain that it did not
forbid the U.S. to assist the Soviets. American Church officials also put out
the word that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was opening the way to religious
freedom in his country. This was in keeping with the current Allied position,
and it helped dissolve American Catholic opposition to extension of the
lend-lease program to the Soviets.
Rome was, of course, particularly dear to the Pontiff s heart. He at
first had tried to keep Italy out of the war. When that failed, he tried to
obtain assurances from both sides that they would not bomb the Italian capital.
Yet bombs fell on Rome several times, including a heavy raid on the moming of
July 19, 1943. As was his practice throughout the war, Pius refused to go to a
bomb shelter. Instead he watched from a window as for more than two hours waves
of American bombers dropped hundreds of tons of explosives on Rome. As soon as
the all-clear had sounded, he withdrew the cash reserves from the Vatican Bank
and drove into the city. The ancient Church of San Lorenzo was partially
demolished, as was the cemetery of Campo Verano, where bodies (including the
remains of the Pope's parents) had been blown from their graves. Pius did what
he could to comfort the injured, administered the Last Rites to those he could
not save, and distributed money to those in need of food and clothing. One month
later, when the district of San Giovanni was bombed, he was again among the
first on the scene.
Pius encouraged the Italian leadership to seek a separate peace with
the Allies, but Mussolini would not turn his back on Hitler. King Victor
Emmanuel deposed Mussolini, having him arrested on July 25, 1943. Hitler,
sensing that the King might now seek an accord with the Allies, decided to send
his troops into Italy and essentially occupy his nominal ally. This created
particular difficulties for the Holy Father. Italians had hitherto resisted the
German call for deportation of Jews (some German leaders blamed this Italian
reluctance on the influence of the Catholic Church), but now that the Germans
were about to take charge in Rome, Jews were in grave danger. Pius helped many
Jews flee Rome and offered sanctuary to those who could not or would not leave.
He also had the Vatican secretary of state write to the heads of all religious
orders, asking them to help refugees in any way they could. The Pontiff s swift
action came none too soon.
On September 26, 1943, Nazi officials demanded of Jewish leaders in
Rome 50 kilograms of gold (or the equivalent in dollars or sterling) within 36
hours. Otherwise, they would send two hundred Roman Jews to the concentration
camps. Unable to come up with the full amount, the Jews needed help from a
source they could trust. In his memoir Before the Dawn (reissued in 1997
as Why I Became a Catholic), Eugenio Zolli, then Chief Rabbi of Rome,
recounts that he was selected to go to the Vatican and seek help. With false
identificati on papers he got past the German guards that ringed the Vatican.
Once inside, he explained the situation to Vatican officials, and they retreated
to consult with Pius. After a short time they returned and offered an open-ended
loan of any amount needed. The Germans would receive their payment.
But this won only a brief respite. Pius knew that though the Nazis
wanted loot they also wanted Jews. Pursuant to his orders, nearly two hundred
Catholic institutions in and around Rome were made available to shelter
thousands of Jewish people. St. Peter's Basilica itself was made available. Pius
took away the ceremonial halberds of his Swiss Guards and replaced them with
machine guns, and for the first time in history the doors of the great Basilica
were sealed during daylight hours.
As the Pope had anticipated, within a month the Gestapo conducted a
door-to-door search of Rome. All Jews, regardless of sex, age, or health, were
rounded up and sent to concentration camps. The number deported came to 1,015.
Of these, only 16 would survive the war. At the time of the search, thousands of
Roman Jews were safely hidden in the Vatican and in other Church properties
around Rome. Had the Pope hesitated even for a few days to give these people
sanctuary, most of them would have vanished into the Nazis' machinery of
The Germans never violated Vatican property in Rome, but churches,
convents, and rectories elsewhere were sometimes raided. When this happened, the
Pope filed protests with the proper authorities. He also devised subterfuges,
such as encouraging the clergy to teach the Jews to chant the liturgy and, where
possible, to dress them in religious garb. Jews who hid in Catholic buildings
later told stories of switching from the Hebrew prayer Shema to the Latin Ave Maria in mid-sentence when they heard suspicious noises outside.
At the direction of the Pope, efforts to save Jews were carried out in
Nazi-occupied nations across Europe. In Hungary, for example, many Jews went
through actual conversions to Catholicism. Undoubtedly many of these were
expedient conversions undertaken to avoid Nazi persecution, and many such
converts returned to their Jewish faith after the war. Yet here - as with
Roncalli and the Istanbul baptismal certificates - we may choose to consider it
a measure of Pius's cornmitment to saving Jewish lives, that he would approve of
what might be viewed as a questionable religious practice in order to carry out
vital humanitarian work. Church officials were not unaware of the meaning of
their sudden success at evangelization. One small church in Budapest had
averaged four or five conversions a year before the German occupation. In 1944,
when Hungary was occupied, the number shot up: Six were converted in January, 23
in May, 101 in June, over 700 in September, and over 1,000 in October. When the
Nazis recognized that such conversions were being done only to avoid
deportation, they began persecuting the "converts," and the numbers fell
Despite the Church's efforts in Hungary, 437,000 Jews had been deported
by mid-summer 1944. On June 25 Pius XII intensified the campaign with an open
telegram to the Regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy. In, it he wrote:
Supplications have been addressed to Us from different sources that We
should exert all Our influence to shorten and mitigate the sufferings that have
for so long been peacefully endured on account of their national or racial
origin by a great number of unfortunate people elonging to this noble and
chivalrous nation. In accordance with Our service of love, which embraces every
human being, Our fatherly heart could not remain insensible to these urgent
demands. For this reason We applied to your Serene Highness appealing to your
noble feelings in the full trust that your Serene Highness will do everything in
your power to save many unfortunate people from further pain and
Pius also sent an open telegram to Hungarian Cardinal Seredi, asking for
support in protecting victims of the Nazis. This telegram was read publicly in
many churches before all copies were confiscated by the government. Admiral
Horthy complained to the occupying Germans that he was bombarded with telegrams
from Church officials and that the nuncio was calling on him several times a
day. In the face of these protests, Horthy withdrew Hungarian support from the
deportation process, making it impossible for the Germans to continue. More than
170,000 Hungarian Jews were saved from deportation on the very eve of their
intended departure, thanks to the intervention of the Pope.
Back in Rome, nine months of Nazi occupation ended in June 1944. When
the Allied forces entered the city, thousands who had been in hiding ran outside
for the first time in months. There was a massive, joyous march up to the
Vatican City to thank God for bringing them through the war. These people had no
doubts about where the Pope stood. Crowds streamed into the square and called
for Papa Pacelli, who appeared on the loggia and spoke to the people,
thanking God and the saints for saving Rome.
As for Jewish testimonials to Pius XII's effectiveness by those on the
spot, they are unequivocal. A Jewish Brigade officer recalling Rome's liberation
later (in Davar, the Hebrew daily newspaper of Israel's Federation of
Labor) said: "When we entered Rome, the Jewish survivors told us…: If we have
been rescued; if Jews are still alive in Rome, come with us and thank the pope
in the Vatican. For in the Vatican proper, in churches, monasteries, and private
homes, Jews were kept hidden at his personal orders." The Committee on Army and
Navy Religious Activities of the American Jewish Welfare Board wrote to the
Pope. The letter said, in part:
We have received reports from our military chaplains in Italy of the
aid and protection given to Italian Jews by the Vatican, priests, and church
institutions during the Nazi occupation of the country. We are deeply moved by
this extraordinary display of Christian love - the more so as we know the risk
incurred by those who afforded shelter to Jews.... From the bottom of our hearts
we send you the assurances of our undying gratitude.
By working behind the scenes, the Catholic Church was directly
responsible for saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Had Pius decided to take
to the pulpit to denounce Hitler's terrible treatment of the Jews (or, for that
matter, his treatment of Catholic clergy), Hitler almost certainly would have
directed his might against the Church, and she would have been unable to engage
in her lifesaving activities.
Let there be no mistake. Hitler occupied Rome from September 1943 until
June 1944, and he would have overrun the Vatican if the Pontiff had sufficiently
provoked him. Written statements by the German ambassador to Italy, Rudolf Rahn,
describe a plot to take over the Vatican, kidnap Pope Pius and his cardinals,
and hold them hostage. 'The fact of [the plan's] existence and its target is
solidly anchored in my memory.' reported Rahn. Albrecht von Kessel, an aide to
the German ambassador to the Vatican, and Karl Otto Wolff, a German general who
was the SS chief in Italy toward the end of the war, both confirmed that there
was such a plan.
The Germans were smart enough to avoid the public relations nightmare
that an invasion of the Vatican would entail unless it were absolutely
necessary. They tolerated minor objections without reprisal, but when voices
were raised too loudly they struck ruthlessly. Consider the well-known events in
German-occupied Holland in 1942. When the Nazis first started deporting Dutch
Jews to the concentration camps, converts to Christianity were exempted.
Nevertheless, many Christian leaders protested. The Nazis replied that the men
of the cloth should keep quiet or things would get worse. The Catholic
Archbishop of Utrecht ignored this warning and issued a letter of protest that
was read at all Masses on July 26, 1942. Five days later the Nazis announced a
"countermeasure" against the letter. "If the Catholic clergy does not bother to
negotiate with us, we are compelled to consider Catholics of Jewish blood as our
worst enemy, and must consequently deport them to the East." The Nazis
immediately began rounding up those Jews who had converted to Catholicism,
including Edith Stein, the Jewish philosopher who had become a Carrnelite nun.
She died at Auschwitz and has been beatified as Blessed Edith Stein.
An overt condemnation from the Pope would be something the Nazis could
not ignore. Such a statement would almost certainly have resulted in the Nazis
killing many of the innocent people Pius had made it his duty to protect, and
would have been the end of the Church's lifesaving efforts. The most important
testimony concerning the Pope's wartime performance comes, of course, from those
who were there. During the war, Grand Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Jerusalem wrote:
I well know that His Holiness the Pope is opposed. from the depths of
his noble soul to all persecution and especially to the persecution ... which
the Nazis inflict unremittingly on the Jewish people.... I take this opportunity
to express ... my sincere as well as my deep appreciation ... of the invaluable
help given by the Catholic Church to the Jewish people in its
After the war Moshe Sharett, who would become Israel's prime minister, told
Pius XII that it was his "first duty" to thank the Pope and the Catholic Church
"for all they had done...to rescue Jews." Maurice Edelman, President of the
Anglo-Jewish Association, visited Pius XII to thank him personally for saving
the lives of so many Jews. Pinchas Lapide, the Israeli consul in Italy, wrote
that "the Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other
churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together."
In 1958, when Pius XII died, the Israeli ambassador to the United
Nations (and future prime minister), Golda Meir, said, "During the ten years of
Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope
raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their
victims." Nahum Goldmann, President of the World Jewish Congress, said, "With
special gratitude we remember all he has done for the persecuted Jews during one
of the darkest pen'ods of their entire history." Rabbi Elio Toaff, who would
later become Chief Rabbi of Rome, said, "More than anyone else, we have had the
opportunity to appreciate the great kindness, filled with compassion and
magnanimity, that the Pope displayed during the terrible years of persecution
and terror, when it seemed that there was no hope left for us." The Jewish
Post (Winnipeg) reported on November 6, 1958:
It is understandable why the death of Pope Pius XII should have called
forth expressions of sincere grief from practically all sections of American
Jewry. For there probably was not a single ruler of our generation who did more
to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy, during the Nazi occupation
of Europe, than the late Pope.
Pius guided the Church with a combination of caution, courage, and
compassion. In so doing, he lessened suffering, saved many lives, shortened the
war, and even helped the Allies win. In the midst of Europe's deadliest crisis,
he was true and sure, a defender of the Church and a protector of humanity. Pius
XII was right, and his detractors are wrong.
This article appeared in the
issue of the New Oxford Review.