The Vatican has announced on Monday that it will open its secret archives and allow, for the first time ever, access to files pertaining to World War II-era Pope Pius XII, who has long stood accused by Jews and other groups of remaining silent in the face of the Holocaust.
By: Howard M. Riell
According to Pope Francis, official Vatican documents spanning the period from Pius’s election in 1939 to his death in 1958 will be released from the archives beginning on March 2, 2020.
“The Church is not afraid of history,” the Pope said, taking the opportunity to insist that his predecessor’s reputation and legacy have been treated with “some prejudice and exaggeration.”
Francis expressed certainty that historical research would properly evaluate Pius’ legacy “with appropriate criticism.” He said the Pius papacy included “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.” Instead, he said, they could be seen as attempts “to keep lit, in the darkest and cruelest periods, the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy” aimed at possibly “opening hearts.”
The decision was celebrated by Israeli officials and Jewish groups the world over who have long claimed that Pope Pius did not do nearly enough to rescue Jews from the genocidal machine of Hitler’s Nazis during World War II; worse, that he intentionally overlooked what was happening.
The move is said to be a departure for the Vatican, which has traditionally allowed seven decades to go by following an event before unlocking its archives. Widespread pressure, however, had grown fierce in recent decades. Beyond that, the number of Holocaust survivors is dwindling.
According to the Vatican’s version of history, Pope Pius XII worked behind the scenes and without fanfare to rescue the Nazis’ Jewish victims. Opponents have pointed to the Pope’s dogged maintenance of the Holy See’s neutrality and his apparent unwillingness to confront the German war machine as betraying a reluctance to act.
Vatican archivists had already started preparing the documentation for consultation back in 2006, at the behest of Francis’ German-born predecessor, Benedict XVI.
Israel’s Isaac Herzog, Director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, termed the Pope’s move a “very brave and important step toward historical justice.” He tweeted, “Pope Francis’s decision to open the archives from the WW2 period is a very significant and historical meaningful decision. This is a very brave and important step toward historical justice. I have always known of the request made by my grandfather, Chief Rabbi Herzog, to Pope Pius XII to ‘let my people go’ and his pleads went unanswered and about their charged meeting right after the war.”
In a March 4th article that appeared in the Jerusalem Post, Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center office in Israel said, “the decision by Pope Francis to open the secret Vatican archives was welcomed by many Jewish institutions and organizations, especially those that deal with the Holocaust and Jewish-Catholic relations. Assuming that none of the documents that reflect negatively on the pope and the Catholic Church have been laundered, this step will allow historians to answer the four key questions that will determine how history will view the role of Pius XII, and whether or not he will be declared a saint.”
Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, on Monday “commended” the Vatican’s decision to open the Pius XII Archives, covering the years 1939-1958, and specifically those of the Holocaust.
“For years, Yad Vashem has called for the opening of these archives, which will enable objective and open research as well as comprehensive discourse on issues related to the conduct of the Vatican in particular, and the Catholic Church in general, during the Holocaust,” Yad Vashem stated.
“Yad Vashem expects that researchers will be granted full access to all documents stored in the archives,” it added.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry stated that it is “pleased by the decision” and expressed its hope that “it will enable free access to all relevant archives.”
World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder has thanked Pope Francis for his “principled decision” to fully open the Vatican’s archives on Pope Pius XII.
In a letter to the Pope, Lauder wrote: “The World Jewish Congress has long urged the Vatican to make such a vitally important move, in order to clarify the many questions and concerns that have prevailed for decades regarding what the Holy See did and did not do during World War II. It is critical, for the sake of history, that historians have full access to these essential documents.
“Your agreement to make public potentially sensitive information relating to Pope Pius’ legacy is a true demonstration of your dedication to the remembrance of the Shoah, and a testament to your commitment to strong and open relations between Catholics and Jews.
“I am truly grateful that under your papacy, the ties fostered between the Catholic Church and Jews over the past few decades have continued to flourish and thrive and appreciate that you are always a willing partner for dialogue with the global Jewish community.
“We look forward to many more years of friendship and cooperation,” he wrote.
The American Jewish Committee said in a statement that, for more than 30 years, it “has called for the full opening” of the archives “to shed light on his activities as pontiff during World War II.”
Pope Francis’s decision to open the archives “is enormously important to Catholic-Jewish relations,” said AJC International Director of Interreligious Affairs David Rosen.
It is important for experts to “objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times – to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the systematic murder of six million Jews,” Rosen said.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also welcomed the announcement by Pope Francis.
“The opening of the Vatican’s archives is an extraordinarily important announcement and a welcome moment in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations,” said Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, ADL Director of Interreligious Dialogue. “The inaccessibility of the archives has been a continued source of tension in Jewish-Catholic relations and a frustration for historians. Assuming all of the documents will be made available to researchers, then this is precisely what historians and those of us concerned about an accurate account of the actions of the pope and the Vatican during the war have been asking for. What transpired during those years cannot be known and assessed until researchers have complete access to the archives.”
ADL has been calling for the archives to be fully opened to scholars and historians for decades, as the Vatican usually waits 70 years after the end of a pontificate to open up relevant archives. At an international conference of Vatican and Jewish interfaith leaders in Paris in 2011, ADL requested a special conference to discuss opening the Vatican’s secret World War II archives for humanitarian purposes: for the sake of aging Holocaust survivors and their families. The issue was raised again during the first official meeting between Pope Francis and Jewish leaders on June 24, 2013 in Rome.
“The issue of what Pius XII did or did not do to help save Jews during the Holocaust is a profound question that must be resolved, especially as efforts are underway to declare him a saint,” said Rabbi Sandmel. “To proceed on the process toward sainthood without having all of the facts would be premature when so much is not known about the historical truth.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, meanwhile, praised Francis’ decision as one of “moral urgency.”
“Since the end of World War II, scholars, Holocaust survivors, and others have asked important questions about the role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust,” said Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield said in a statement. “It is long overdue for speculation to be replaced by rigorous scholarship, which is only possible once scholars have full access to all of these records. This is important for the sake of historical truth, but there is moral urgency too: we owe this to the survivor generation, which is rapidly diminishing.”
Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik, executive vice-president of the Rabbinical alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim stated: “The RAA welcomes the Vatican in opening their records as they pertain to Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during World War II. From a historical perspective we owe it to the victims and the survivors of the holocaust to set the record straight…. Honesty is the fiber that will enhance the relationship of the Jewish and Catholic community worldwide. We especially owe it to the aging survivors to allow to set the record straight and to afford them closure on this sensitive issue. The truth will serve to remind the world to be compassionate to the needs of humanity and as a safeguard that history should not repeat itself.” Mirocznik further stated, “that a lot of progress in creating a warm Catholic Jewish relation has occurred since Pope John XXIII was selected as Pope on October 28, 1958. Opening now the Vatican Wartime records is in harmony with this positive change and will further enhance and build on this positive development of building and creating an even stronger relationship.”
The question of Pope Pius’s actions during the Holocaust were the subject of British journalist John Cornwell’s 1999 book, “Hitler’s Pope.” It looks critically at the actions of Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII, before and during the Nazi era. Cornwell also dives into the charges that he assisted in the legitimization of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany.
The book reports that Pacelli had shown antisemitic tendencies for years before the war. Cornwell relates that in 1917, the future pope would not help facilitate the exportation of palm fronds from Italy to be used by German Jews in Munich to celebrate the festival of Tabernacles. Though a minor incident, the author felt that it “belies subsequent claims that Pacelli had a great love of the Jewish religion and was always motivated by its best interests.”
Author Cornwell also claimed to have discovered a letter signed and personally annotated by Pacelli that had been sitting in the Vatican’s archives since 1919, regarding the actions of communist revolutionaries in Munich. Regarding this letter, Cornwell stated “The repeated references to the Jewishness of these individuals, amid the catalogue of epithets describing their physical and moral repulsiveness, gives an impression of stereotypical anti-Semitic contempt.”
Pope Pius XII was reported to have approached Hitler towards war’s end and asked him to cease the mass murder of Europe’s remaining Jews. Hitler was said to have cynically retorted, “I am just finishing the job that you (The Catholic Church) started centuries ago.”
The Jewish Voice has been covering this unfolding story for years. Back in 2016, editor, researcher and investigative journalist Fern Sidman wrote, “While it is common knowledge that there has been a perennial shroud of mystery surrounding the church’s wartime records, Gerald Posner (the author of “God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican”), noted that “the Vatican is the only country in Europe that refuses to open all of its World War II archives to independent historians and researchers.”
Because the church’s files are thought to contain important information about the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, Sidman noted, “it is of no surprise that historians are eager to study the Vatican’s Holocaust-era papers. During the war, thousands of parish priests communicated details of the atrocities that they witnessed to their bishops, who then passed the information on to the secretary of state at the Holy See in Rome, according to Posner’s meticulous research.”
For more information on the Vatican and their relationship to Hitler and the Holocaust please see the following link: http://thejewishvoice.com/2016/08/03/vatican-refuses-to-release-holocaust-files-as-pope-visits-auschwitz-in-historic-trip/
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