Pope Francis has requested the digital publication of the archives of the pontificate of Pius XII, the pope of World War II. While Pius XII is sometimes accused of doing little to help Jews or stop Hitler, historians contend this is not an accurate portrayal.
The Vatican press office announced Pope Francis’ request on June 23, 2022. The 179 volumes, almost 40,000 unique files, contain requests for help addressed to Pius by Jews from all over Europe after the start of Nazi and Fascist persecution.
Some 70% of the material – the digital photographs of each document – is available initially, pending the gradual digitization of the remaining 30%. The site is accessible in English and Italian.
The decision to open the archive comes a day after Pope Francis received about 30 members of the Simon Wiesenthal Center at the Vatican. This organization is famous for its promotion of the memory of the Shoah and for tracking down the last people responsible for the genocide of the Jews during the Second World War.
2,700 requests for help
In the columns of L’Osservatore Romano, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher comments on several letters he was able to consult. They were all sent to Pius XII by Jews who asked him for help in the face of persecution.
A fund was made possible because Pope Pacelli entrusted an employee of the Secretariat of State, Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, with the task of processing the requests that were sent to him “with the aim of offering all possible help.” In all, 2,700 requests – almost always concerning families or groups of people – were sent to the pope.
“For the majority of the requests for help […], the result of the request has not been reported” in the archives, Archbishop Gallagher acknowledges. He also points out that in many cases, requests may have been made for visas or passports to assist expatriation, offer asylum, reunite families, obtain release or transfer from one camp to another, obtain information, or deliver food or money.
A collection at the heart of a controversy among historians
The archives of the pontificate of Pius XII were opened to researchers in March 2020. The contents of the “Jews” file were amply displayed by the historian and director of the Historical Archives of the Section for Relations with the States, Johan Ickx, in a book published in French in September 2020.
Based on this collection, the Belgian historian asserts that the Pontiff did indeed intervene on behalf of the Jews. During a conference organized near the Vatican on June 22, 2022, on the theme “Popes and Peace,” the historian expressed his annoyance that certain publications have “foggy minds” as soon as Pius XII is mentioned.
In particular, he pointed to the latest book by American historian David Kertzer, published in June 2022 – The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler (Random House) – which is based primarily on consultation of this same collection.
This work, which challenges the idea of Pius XII as a “friend of the Jews” and puts forward a darker reading of his “silences” during the war, was criticized on June 21 by L’Osservatore Romano.
Johan Ickx considers that the book contains a lot of false information and that it does not take into account all of Pius XII’s actions – citing, for example, a secret friendship that he had with Franklin D. Roosevelt. More broadly, he deplored the fact that in this type of work, “the Pope’s inability to help the Jews who asked him for help is read as a fault of the Pope.”
During his speech, Ickx also criticized the media treatment of the Italian pontiff. “For them, to say that Pius XII defended Jews is to be an apologist,” he said, targeting in particular the German press. In particular, he questioned the false theory, often relayed by the press, according to which Pius XII only saved Jewish converts to Catholicism: “He saved both, converts and non-converts.”