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.
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.
By: Howard M. Riell
“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.”
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 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.
In an official statement following today’s announcement by the Vatican, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem praised the decision.
“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.”
The museum added, “Yad Vashem expects that researchers will be granted full access to all documents stored in the archives.”
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 in the Jerusalem Post, Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal 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.”
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 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 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/).