Did the Pope Help the Jews?

It's not hard - in fact, it is appallingly banal - to understand why the Pope kept silent while the Jews were gassed.

Giulio Meotti

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צילום: עצמי

Under pressure from the Vatican, Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem is expected to unveil a new wall text describing the actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II, softening a previous message stating that the Vatican had not protested verbally or in writing to the mass murder of Jews.

Let’s try to explain why during the war Pope Pius sat on the throne of St. Peter in stony silence and the question still urgently matters in our time.

Pius XII was not “Hitler’s Pope” of British historian John Cornwell, nor the “Righteous Gentile” ridiculously evoked by Rabbi David Dallin.

More simply, the gassing of Jews was not on the the Vatican’s list of priorities.

During the war the Pope always spoke, and wrote, in generic phrases, in allusions, with judgments marked by indirectness, naming no names and no country. Not once did Pope Pius mention the Jews publicly during the war or in his dealings with Hitler. It is true that in late 1943 and early 1944, he undertook private initiatives to aid Jews, but by that time 4.5 million Jews had been murdered and Germany was clearly on the road to defeat.

We also know that hundreds of Jews found refuge in Rome’s convents and the in Vatican itself. We are also familiar with some individual acts of heroism of very few Catholics who saved Jews.

The apologists, including some Jewish historians, exonerate Pius XII by saying that he did not understand the meaning of the Holocaust. They are wrong. The Pope knew everything about the Holocaust.

As brave historian Daniel Goldhagen wrote, “It is not that Pius XII did not understand but that he understood only too well”. Pius was given daily briefings of Nazi atrocities by the British envoy to the Vatican.

The pontiff resisted calls from Roosevelt’s representative to the Holy See, the president of the Polish government in exile, the bishop of Berlin, and the chief rabbi of Palestine to speak out specifically and forcefully on behalf of the Jews.

The Pope could have done much to stop the Zyklon B gas. He did little or nothing.

The gas was purchased by Obersturmfuehrer Kurt Gerstein, the “chief disinfection officer” in the hygiene department of the Waffen SS. Gerstein’s connection with Zyklon B is fascinating and enigmatic. Born in 1904, he joined the Nazi Party in 1933 but was expelled for his activities on behalf of the dissident Professing Church. As an engineer, Gerstein became an expert in the Zyklon B. He was sent to the Treblinka and Belzec camps in order to substitute the Zyklon B for the gasoline exhaust fumes in use until then.

On his return to Berlin, Gerstein tried to stop the murders. He told the Vatican what he had seen, but encountered only disbelief and indifference (in 1963, the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth cast Gerstein as one of the central figures in his play “The Deputy” which attacked Pope Pius XII for his failure to condemn Hitler's persecution of the Jews).

How many Roman Catholic SS men and Nazi functionaries would have had, at the very least, second thoughts about their work had the Pope, for example, ordered Vatican Radio to broadcast round-the-clock denunciation of the Shoah, condemning it ex cathedra, and excommunicating the perpetrators? And how many Jews hearing such broadcasts from the voice of the Vatican would have learned that “resettlement” was a euphemism for death by gas, like insects?

In a landmark 1950 essay, historian Leon Poliakov wrote: “It is painful to have to state that at the time when gas chambers and crematoria were operating day and night, the high spiritual authority did not find it necessary to make a clear and solemn protest that would have echoed through the world”.

In a letter to Bishop von Preysing of Berlin on April 30, 1943 referring to the extermination of the Jews, the Pope said, “Unhappily in the present state of affairs, we can bring no help other than our prayers”.

The Jews didn’t need prayers, but heroic resistance from the Christian bystanders.

The Pope also refused to publish what has now become known as the “hidden encyclical”. In June 1938, more than a year before the outbreak of World War II, Pius XI commissioned a draft papal statement attacking anti-Semitism called “Humani Generis Unitas” (“The Unity of the Human Race”). He died before it was completed. Pius XII buried it until it was published in France in 1995. Had Pius XII published the document it might have saved hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Jews.

The Catholic Church and relief organizations like the Red Cross were suffering from the moral blindness induced by centuries of Christian “teaching of contempt”. That’s why Pius XII did intervene only on behalf of baptized Jews, as they were considered by the Church as Catholics.

The Pope chose cowardice in the face of overwhelming evil. That’s why our moral judgment about the most important modern event concerning Jews in the history of the Catholic Church should remain that of culpability.

Pius XII did intervene - only on behalf of baptized Jews, as they were considered by the Church as Catholics.
While millions were cannibalized and devoured in crematorium IV of Birkenau and their skin was used for lamp shades, the Pope turned a blind eye to the Israelite cataclysm.

That’s why Pius’ behaviour during the war has a very deep resonance in our days: Did the Church learn that the road to the hell is paved with silence? And next time, will Christians be brave or cowardly in face of evil, should it be rockets on Sderot, suicide bombers in Hadera, slitting throats in Itamar, atomic bombs on Tel Aviv, Islamic exterminationism or the old anti-Semitism raising again its head in Europe?

Exactly as during Pius XII’s time, there will be just two possible reactions: being concerned and resisting or being complacent and collaborating..