Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum has modified its account of Pope Pius XII’s actions toward the Jews during World War II, following a long diplomatic dispute with the Vatican.
Critics have long contended that Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, could have done more to prevent the systematic slaughter of Jews in Nazi-Europe. The Vatican claims otherwise. The controversial issue has since become the single most divisive issue in Vatican-Jewish relations.
A wall panel at the Yad Vashem memorial still lists occasions when the wartime Pius did not protest the slaughter of Europe’s Jews, but also offers accounts those who say the church’s “neutrality” helped save lives.
“This is an update to reflect research that has been done in the recent years and presents a more complex picture than previously presented,” Yad Vashem said in a statement.
“This change is not a result of Vatican pressure,” the statement added.
Antonio Franco, the papal envoy in Israel, called the move a “positive evolution.”
In 2007, Franco threatened to skip that year’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Yad Vashem to protest the panel’s text. While he eventually relented, the dispute heightened tensions between the Vatican and Israel, as well as damaging the Pope’s image among world Jewry.
While the Vatican claims that more Jewish deaths would have resulted if the Pope had been more critical of the Nazis, critics argue that he could have and should have done more.
The old panel displayed at Yad Vashem said Pius XII was "active" in obtaining a treaty with Germany to protect the Church's rights "even if this meant recognising the Nazi racist regime."
It said he cancelled a letter denouncing racism and anti-Semitism, and failed to protest publicly the murder of Jews.
It accused him of declining to sign the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of Jews and said he had failed to take actions to prevent the transport of Jews from Rome to Auschwitz.
The new panel attributes the signing of the deal to Pius XI, and notes that he made reference to the deaths of hundreds of people during a 1942 radio address, though he did not specifically mention Jews.
"The pope's critics claim that his decision to abstain from condemning the murder of the Jews by Nazi Germany constitutes a moral failure," the panel says.
"The lack of clear guidance left room for many to collaborate with Nazi Germany, reassured by the thought that this did not contradict the Church's moral teachings."
"His defenders maintain that this neutrality prevented harsher measures against the Vatican and the Church's institutions... thus enabling a considerable number of secret rescue activities," it adds.
Yad Vashem in the past said the panel would only be changed if the Vatican agreed to open its archives to researchers and evidence showed Pius XII's role had been misrepresented.
The Vatican has yet to open those archives fully, though it has made public selected documents. But Yad Vashem said on Sunday that new research "has clarified certain issues, while still leaving many questions open."
After decades of reluctance, the Vatican recognized Israel in 1993, followed by Pope John Paul II’s official visit to the Jewish state in 2000, during which he stopped at Yad Vashem. The current pope, Pope Benedict XVI, visited Israel in 2009.