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The Black Legend of Pius XII

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00535 / CC-BY-SA

Can a sober assessment of history rehabilitate the WWII pontiff?

Postwar interviews, if not documents, reveal that behind the scenes, Pius gave his tacit encouragement to rescue efforts on behalf of threatened Jews, and in at least one case helped to ransom Jews held by the SS. Also, 4,238 Jews were hidden in monasteries and other religious buildings in Rome and 477 in the Vatican itself when German forces occupied the Eternal City between 1943 and 1944. Nonetheless, over 1000 Roman Jews were arrested by the Nazis in October 1943; they were deported to Auschwitz, and almost all were killed — only 17 survived the war.

In the wake of the October razzia, Pius did not issue a public protest, only a private phone call to the German ambassador, which may have prevented another roundup by offering the veiled threat of a public protest. Documentary evidence here is lacking. In 1944, more behind-the-scenes papal diplomacy persuaded the Hungarian government to call a temporary halt to the deportation of their Jews, although the Germans soon stepped in to resume the process. Rescue efforts by the Catholic Church in various countries, including providing shelter and issuing thousands of baptismal certificates, continued throughout the war.

Later Years and Posthumous Reputation

When the war ended Pius was widely praised, even revered for both his deep piety and humanitarian efforts. Postwar tributes and expressions of gratitude came in from Jewish leaders around the world. Perhaps most strikingly, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism, and chose “Eugenio” as his baptismal name. Before World War II had even ended the Cold War had begun — into the 1950s Pius continually condemned the clear and present danger of communism, but not the fading threat of antisemitism. On at least one occasion, he was asked to formally reject antisemitism on behalf of the Church, but declined.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, who served as his country’s ambassador to the Holy See for three years after the war, met with Pius in July 1946, and asked for a papal encyclical condemning antisemitism. Pius judged that a general statement he had recently made condemning “the hatred and folly of persecution” should suffice. The kind of statement Maritain sought would only come in 1965 with the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate.

However, in 1955, Pius made a significant gesture in restoring the genuflection during the Good Friday prayer for the “unbelieving Jews,” paving the way for further liturgical reforms. On the other hand, he remained steadfast in his conviction that Jewish children rescued by Catholics and baptized during the war should not be returned to their Jewish relatives. This instruction was ignored by both Monsignor Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) and Father Karol Wojtyla.

When Pope Pius died in 1958, he was almost universally mourned in the western world. Tributes came in from numerous Jewish leaders. The chief rabbi of Jerusalem wrote that the free world had just lost one of its greatest champions, and Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir said the following: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict.”

Yet five years later, Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy cast Pius in a very different light, charging the now-deceased pontiff with silence and indifference during the Holocaust. When Pope Paul VI announced the causes for sainthood of both John XXIII and Pius XII in late-1965, the latter was already shrouded in controversy, a situation that remains unsettled down to the present.

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