Newly Uncovered Records Expose Pope Pius XII’s Silence During the Holocaust

How much did the Vatican know about the Holocaust?

By Daniel Gaffney

The much-anticipated opening of Pope Pius XII’s war records lasted only a week, as the coronavirus outbreak lead to the swift shutdown of the Vatican archives. But that gave researchers just enough time to uncover documents that reflect badly on the former pontiff.

German researchers have found that the Pope Pius XII – who never openly criticised the Nazi systematic slaughter of Jews – was informed by his own sources of Berlin’s death campaign, while it was in its early stages. More significantly, it has emerged that the pope kept this information from the Allies, after an aid argued that Jews and Ukrainian – the main sources of this information – was unreliable because they lied and exaggerated, the researchers said.

Pope Pius XII was head of the Catholic Church from 2nd March 1939, up until his death in 1958.

The uncovered documents represent a small drop in an ocean of vindicating information that the Vatican hid for decades, presumably to protect the pope’s image. This finding could be potentially damaging from the Roman Catholic Church, which is still searching for penance after decades worth of clerical cover ups.

The reports first emerged from Germany, after seven researchers from the University of Münster, travelled to Rome for the opening of Pius’ wartime papers on 2nd March; despite the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic. Researchers from Israel and the US were also invited to attend, but decided not to as the pandemic was worsening.

The German research team was lead by Hubert Wolf, 60, a Catholic priest as well as a prolific author and a historian of the Catholic Church. He has been searching through the Vatican’s secret archives (now called the Apostolic Archives) since his student days.

“We have to first check these newly available sources,” he told Kirche + Leben, the Catholic weekly in Münster, last week. “If Pius XII comes out of this study of the sources looking better, that’s wonderful. If he comes out looking worse, we have to accept that, too.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Pius XII, a candidate for canonisation, was the most controversial pontiff of the 20th century. His failure to denounce the Holocaust publicly earned him the title of “Hitler’s pope,” and critics have for decades asked for his wartime archives to be opened for scrutiny.

The pope’s defenders have long argued he could not speak out more clearly for fear of a Nazi backlash, and they cite his decision to hide Jews at the Vatican and in churches and monasteries as proof of his good deeds. They note the Vatican had already published an 11-volume series of documents selected from his archives to prove his innocence.

A Catholic-Jewish commission was launched in 1999 in order to resolve the case, however the Vatican refused to open it’s archive until 2028.

Now the archive has finally been opened, the Münster team of researchers has begun to publish its first findings, and it does not look good for the Catholic Church.

What do the Records Show?

The chain of events dates back to Sept. 27, 1942, when a U.S. diplomat gave the Vatican a secret report on the mass murder of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. It said about 100,000 had been massacred in and around Warsaw and added that an additional 50,000 were killed in Lviv in German-occupied Ukraine.

The report was based on information from the Geneva office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Washington wanted to know whether the Vatican, which received information from Catholics around the world, could confirm this from its own sources. If it could, would the Vatican have any ideas about how to rally public opinion against these crimes?

The archive included a note confirming that Pius read the American report. It also had two letters to the Vatican independently corroborating the reports of massacres in Warsaw and Lviv, according to the researchers.

A month before the American request, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop of Lviv, Andrey Sheptytsky, had sent Pius a letter that spoke of 200,000 Jews massacred in Ukraine under the “outright diabolical” German occupation.

In mid-September, an Italian businessman named Malvezzi told Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, of the “incredible butchery” of Jews he had seen during a recent visit to Warsaw. Montini reported this to his superior, the Vatican’s secretary of state (akin to a prime minister), Cardinal Luigi Maglione.

Pope Paul VI was head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1963 until his death in 1978.

But the Vatican told Washington it could not confirm the Jewish Agency report.

The basis for this rejection is written in a memo by another staffer at the Secretariat of State, Angelo Dell’Acqua, who later became a cardinal. In that memo, he warned against believing the Jewish report because Jews “easily exaggerate” and “Orientals” — the reference is to Archbishop Sheptytsky — “are really not an example of honesty.” 

That memo is in the archive but did not make it into the 11-volume series of wartime documents the Vatican published to defend Pius’s reputation.

The research team also found three photographs showing emaciated concentration camp inmates and corpses thrown into a mass grave. A Jewish informer had given them to the Vatican ambassador, or nuncio, in neutral Switzerland to send to the Vatican, and the Holy See confirmed reception of them in a letter two weeks later.

Could the Vatican have Helped War Criminals Escape Trial?

Another potentially embarrassing issue is the ‘Rat Line’, an informal network that helped former top Nazis escape from central Europe to Italy and from there to South America.

It has long been known that the Catholic Church — possibly with covert U.S. assistance — helped ex-Nazis, like the Holocaust bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann, concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele or Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, flee to South America. These men were fierce anti-communists, and Rome and Washington considered communism their enemy.

The orchestrators of the Holocaust that did not escape were tried in Nuremberg after the war.

Reports from the papal ambassador in Buenos Aires could indicate a Vatican role in the Rat Line, Wolf told KNA. “What did he know about this activity?” he asked. “The Vatican might have been able to get them passports. … Was the nuncio the middle man? Did the Argentine embassy in Rome do all the work?”

Questions must be asked of Pius’s relations with U.S. political and intelligence networks during and after the war, his role in promoting European unity, and his thoughts about allying with Muslims in a campaign against communism.

Answers to these and other questions could also influence a drive by conservative Catholics to have Pius declared a saint. Wolf serves as a historian for this cause and says it will take years to assess his career.

The archive will remain closed at least until this summer, which Wolf considers a catastrophe for his research project.

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How much did the Vatican know about the Holocaust?