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Israeli diplomat praises Pope Pius XII for saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust

At a presentation of a Yad Vashem medal to a Catholic priest who saved Jews during the Holocaust, an Israeli ambassador has added to the controversy surrounding the person who some call 'Hitler's Pope'.

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pparently breaking with a taboo among critics of the Catholic Church and of Pope Pius XII – who reigned during the Second World War and the Holocaust – Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican has recognized that the pontiff did actually save thousands of Jews during the years of Nazi predation.

Ambassador Mordechai Lewy affirmed on June 23 that “as of the raid of 16 October 1943 and the days following in the ghetto of Rome, the monasteries and orphanages of the religious orders opened their doors to Jews, and we have reason to believe that this occurred under the supervision of the highest authorities of the Vatican, who were aware of these measures.” The diplomat spoke at a ceremony in which a Catholic priest, Gaetano Piccinini of the order founded by Don Orione, was post-humously awarded a medal honoring him as numbering among righteous Gentiles.

Media reports in Italy claim that it was Pope Pius XII, who is largely dismissed as having done little to save the victims of the Holocaust, who transmitted an appeal to religious orders through his Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione.  The pontiff’s desire that the Jews of Rome be sheltered from the Nazi storm was transmitted in conversations and messages so as to avoid Nazi reprisals.  Besides the approximately 5,000 Jews who took refuge in Rome’s convents, schools, and monasteries, several thousands more were sheltered at the papal villa at Castelgandolfo in Rome. 

Ambassador Lewy said “the fact that the Vatican could not prevent the departure of the train that took the captives from Rome to the extermination camps can only have contributed to reinforcing the desire, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own premises as a refuge for Jews.”  In any event, continued the diplomat, “we must recognize that the train that left on 18 October 1943 was the only convoy that the Nazis managed to organize in Rome for Auschwitz.”

In view of these facts, Ambassador Lewy affirmed that “it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican or the Pope himself were opposed to activities to save Jews.  It is quite certain that it was to the contrary: they always gave the help that they could.”

 Some historians, despite contrary claims made by writers such as John Cornwell, argue that it was the Catholic Church that saved more Jews than any other institution during the Second World War and the Holocaust.  Historian Pinchas Lapide,  an Israeli consul to Italy in the 1960s, claimed that this number may amount to 750,000.  Renowned British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, who has written about righteous Gentiles who gave their lives to save Jews, has also praised the work of Pope Pius XII.  

The Jewish Virtual Library, a website dedicated to the history and culture of the Jewish people, wrote however of the wartime pope, “Pope Pius XII's (1876-1958) actions during the Holocaust remain controversial. For much of the war, he maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed. He refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality, while making statements condemning injustices in general. Privately, he sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials, encouraging them to help the Jews.”

Pope Pius XII did receive thanks during his lifetime for his actions to save Jews.  At the end of the Second World War, Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli of Rome entered the Catholic Church and took the name Eugenio in homage to the Pope whose baptismal name was Eugenio.  In addition, a wealthy Italian senator and member of Italy’s Jewish community presented the pope with a luxurious villa in the center of Rome that still serves as the Vatican’s nunciature in the Italian Republic.

Golda Meir, who would go on to become a prime minister, spoke as Israel’s foreign minister in 1958 and praised Pope Pius XII following his death.  Speaking on behalf of her government, the US-born Meir said that “during the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people suffered the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice in condemnation of the oppressors and to lift up the victims.” While the pope had spoken generally against the extermination of human beings, his critics still maintain that he could have done more.   

Info: Sacred Heart University



Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.

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