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Scholars dispute charge of Pius XII Holocaust cover-up

May 1, 2020 CNA Daily News 3

Denver Newsroom, May 1, 2020 / 12:15 pm (CNA).- Scholars say charges that Pope Pius XII covered-up the Vatican’s knowledge of the Holocaust are based on exaggerated claims and do not represent the truth.

Fr. Hubert Wolf, a professor of history at the University of Munster, claimed last month that in the Vatican’s recently opened archives on Pope Pius XII, he had found an anti-Semitic memo which suggested that Pope Pius XII knew about the Holocaust in Europe before the U.S. government did, but made efforts to conceal his knowledge.

But Ronald Rychlak, a professor at the University of Mississippi’s law school and the author of “Hitler, the War, and the Pope” told CNA that Wolf’s argument doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny.

What Pope Pius XII knew and did during World War II has been a source of controversy for years. That controversy was reignited in early March, when the Vatican opened to researchers its archives on Pius XII. Wolf was among the researchers. But a week after the archives were opened, the coronavirus lockdown in Italy forced researchers to pause their work.

Undeterred, Wolf told German and American media this month that he had found a key document which, he said, could prove that Pius XII lied to the U.S. government by claiming in 1942 that he could not verify intelligence reports, which came from the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Geneva, about death camps for the mass murder of Jews in Poland and Ukraine.

When the U.S. entered World War II in 1942, it did not yet have knowledge of the scale of atrocities committed against Jewish people across Europe, especially the mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe. It had received reports of those atrocities, however, and was making efforts to verify them.

In 1942, the Vatican, too, had received reports, mostly from Church leaders, about the mass murder of Jews by Nazi forces.

Nevertheless, in September 1942, when a U.S. official asked the Vatican to verify a report from the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Vatican officials said they could not independently confirm the information it contained regarding the existence of death camps, but that the Vatican did know, and had received reports, about atrocities committed by Nazi forces, adding that “the Holy See is taking advantage of every opportunity offered in order to mitigate the suffering.”

Rychlak told CNA that the Holy See’s concern to be judicious about verifying any report “can logically be traced to WWI, when false stories of atrocities were often circulated,”

But after examining the Pius XII archives for a week in March, Wolf pointed journalists this month to a 1942 memo from a staffer in the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Msgr. Angelo Dell’Acqua, who later became a cardinal. The memo, which has not been released to the public, apparently cautioned against verifying the report from the Jewish Agency for Palestine.

Wolf told journalists that the memo warned against believing the report because Jews “easily exaggerate.”

“This is a key document that has been kept hidden from us because it is clearly anti-Semitic and provides background information on why Pius XII did not speak out against the Holocaust,” Wolf told a Munster Catholic newspaper.

German journalist Michael Hesemann was also among the researchers who examined Pius XII’s archives in March. In a statement sent to CNA, he said that Wolf has made his claim about Pius XII without understanding the meaning of the memo he found, or its significance.

He added that the memo “warns not to draw premature conclusions on the new information, [stating]: ‘It is necessary to assure that they are true, since exaggerations happen easily, also among Jews.’ With other words: Trust but verify!”

“For Wolf, this is evidence for the Vatican’s anti-Semitism during the pontificate of Pius XII. For him, it means, and this is how he paraphrases it in several interviews with German media: ‘All Jews are liars,” Hesemann said.

“But it means nothing like that, Hesemann said, explaining that the memo was intended to urge caution against any exaggeration.

“And indeed the Jewish Agency’s report contained several rumors which were not true at all, as we know today. It claimed that ‘in all Eastern Poland and the occupied Russian territories, not a single Jew is alive anymore.’ We know that thousands survived in the underground or became partisans.”

“No government in the world would act on a single report, but waits for an independent verification – that’s why President Roosevelt asked the Vatican, in the first place,” Hesemann added.

In either case, Hesemann said, the memo “did not influence papal policy, which remained the same before and after, nor does it contain any new information. It is one man’s reminder to trust and to verify and nothing more.”

The memo is not included in an 11-volume cache of Vatican documents from the Second World War. To Wolf, this is a reason to be skeptical about the volumes, according to the Washington Post.

But to Hesemann, the memo was not included “not because of a Vatican cover-up, but because it’s irrelevant.”

Hesemann cautioned that Wolf, who has “promoted conspiracy theories” about Pius XII in the past “draws premature conclusions, blames the Vatican of a cover-up and creates sensationalist headlines,” to further “his own agenda,” namely, “stop the ongoing beatification process of Pius XII – at least until he and his team have evaluated the last of the pages Pope Francis made available for historical research.”

Rylchak pointed out evidence, presented in his book, of Pius XII’s concern to oppose the Nazis, which he says was well-recognized by journalists and bishops during the Second World War. He also pointed out that Pius XII, through “ a long series of communications with the American bishops,” encouraged opposition to Nazi ideology.

“Despite all of this, Wolf would have us believe that Pius did not make his opinion known due to a cover note from a low-level assistant,” Rylchak said, calling the assertion “ridiculous.”



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Scholar hopes Vatican archives will give ‘fuller, transparent’ picture of Pius XII

March 15, 2020 CNA Daily News 1

Washington D.C., Mar 15, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- A researcher from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum told CNA that she hopes the recent opening of the Pius XII archives in the Vatican will give historians a fuller, more transparent image of the wartime pope. 

Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming, the museum’s director of international academic programs, has been unable to travel to Rome to view the archives due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but told CNA that she hopes to make the trip in April. 

Brown-Fleming spoke to CNA Thursday about what she expects to find in the archives. 

The Vatican officially opened the archives, which cover Venerable Pius XII’s entire pontificate — March 1939 through October 1958 — on March 2. It is the first time scholars have been granted access to the  approximately 16 million documents they contain. 

Pius XII remains a disputed figure, with some historians criticising him for not making a more explicit denunciation of Hitler and the Nazis, and others pointing to Mit brennender Sorge, his 1937 encyclical to the Church in Germany, and the limits imposed on him by the Lateran Treaty.

After examining the documents in the archives, Brown-Fleming said that historians will “definitely have a more fair reading of [Pius XII].”

“I think that on both sides of the argument there has been picking and choosing as to ‘let’s show this document and interpret it this way and ignore these five documents,’ and his critics have done the same,” she said. “So I’m not sure either side has been completely fair, because there’s been no access to the full documentation.” 

Brown-Fleming thinks that the public opinion will likely end up “somewhere between the two polar opposites that we’re seeing now,” but that this will not happen until the archives have been fully studied. 

“But it will be a fair and transparent reading,” she said. 

Pius XII died in 1958, his cause for canonization was opened in November 1965, by Pope (now Saint) Paul VI during the final session of the Second Vatican Council. On December 19, 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared him “Venerable,” meaning the Church has determined that he led a life of heroic virtue.

A practicing Catholic, Brown-Fleming told CNA that she hopes she is able to find documentary proof that the Church and individual Catholics in Europe invoked the tenets of their faith and tried to save their Jewish neighbors. 

“Did they respond in a uniform ‘love thy neighbor’ way, or did they parse in their minds? I think it’s going to be very interesting to know,” she said. 

A big question, and one that Brown-Fleming hopes will be answered by the archives, concerns Pius XII’s actions in September 1943, when Rome’s Jewish population was rounded up and deported. 

“There’s a big question around whether Pius XII gave orders to have Roman Jews hidden. Many Jews were hidden including on Vatican grounds,” she said. “Did he order that? Did he know about it and say, okay, ‘this is not a good idea because it puts Vatican property in danger’? Did he say, ‘yes, please do this and save who you can’?” 

“We know that Jews were rescued by Catholic families in Italy and in France,” said Brown-Fleming. She told CNA that she was hopeful her time in the archives will reveal the motivations behind why these families chose to risk their lives to save people: “Was it because of messaging from the pope or was it spontaneous?”

Another question Brown-Fleming wants the archives to answer is what Pius XII knew in the post-war era, when a Vatican “ratline” enabled many former Nazis to escape to South America.

“In the Cold War period, many Nazis escaped to South America with the help of the Vatican–lower level officials,” she said. “But how much did the Pope know about this? That’s a very big question.” She is also hoping to find information about Pius XII’s personal attitude towards the Jewish people, which is “something that’s very hard to discern in public messaging.” 

Once she is granted permission to travel to Italy and examine the archives, Brown-Fleming intends on starting her research in the Vatican Apostolic Archive. She explained that there are four reading rooms in the archive, and that the first room is dedicated to indices. She says the plan is to look for certain keywords in the indices.

Once those keywords are found, Brown-Fleming will request the entire folder. She hopes that, similar to the 2003 opening of Pius XI’s archives, the United States Holocaust Museum would be given permission to reproduce the some of the contents of the archives and keep them in Washington.

Regardless of what is found, Brown-Fleming said she is glad that there will finally be answers about the legacy of Pius XII, and she is confident that whatever is uncovered will be a positive move for the Church.

The archives will “kind of settle those questions” regarding Pius XII and the actions of the Church during World War II, “even if the answers aren’t always good. And I don’t think they always will be, because we’re talking about human beings and even a pope makes mistakes.” 

“We’re going to find a mixed record, but at least we know what it is,” she said. “And then once we know what it is, we can really wrestle with that.”


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Vatican to open WWII secret archives of Pope Pius XII

March 4, 2019 CNA Daily News 19

Vatican City, Mar 4, 2019 / 07:33 am (CNA).- Pope Francis announced Monday that the Vatican will open its archives on the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. Confidential files of the pope who led the Church during World War II will be made available next year.

“Serious and objective historical research” will be able to evaluate Pius XII’s “hidden but active diplomacy” “in its proper light,” Pope Francis said March 4. The pope said that the full confidential files, called a “secret archive,” will be released March 2, 2020.

The pontificate of Pius XII has been often misunderstood. Critics have accused him of indifference to the plight of the Jewish people during the Second World War, despite several already public documents which show the pope’s systematic efforts to assist Jews in Italy.

In the late 1990s, debate over whether Pius XII did enough to counter the Nazis reached a high point with the publication of the deeply controversial book, “Hitler’s Pope,” by British journalist John Cornwell. The book was highly critical of Pius XII, charging that he was culpably silent – if not an accomplice – in the rise of Nazism.

A book published in 2015 documented how Pope Pius XII chose to resist Adolf Hitler with covert action in lieu of overt protest. Historian Mark Riebling, author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, drew on wartime documents and interviews with American intelligence agents to tell how Pope Pius XII secretly provided support for three attempts to overthrow Hitler.

“The Church is not afraid of history, rather, loves it and would like to love it more and better, as God loves it!” Pope Francis said in a meeting with Vatican secret archives personnel in which he made the announcement.

The Vatican archives for the entirety of Pius XII’s pontificate March 1939 – Oct. 1958 will open on March 2, 2020. The complete catalog is expected to include approximately 16 million documents.

Pius XII “found himself leading the Barque of Peter at one of the saddest and darkest moments of the twentieth century,” Pope Francis said.

He faced “moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which some might have seemed reticent,” he explained. For this, some have criticized Pius with “some prejudice or exaggeration,” Francis added.

Pope Francis has previously considered Pope Pius XII’ cause for sainthood, according to a source in the Vatican’s Congregation for Causes of Saints.

Benedict XVI declared Pius XII Venerable on Dec. 19, 2009, based on the recommendation of the committee investigating his cause.

When Pope Paul VI started the beatification and canonization process in 1967, nine years after Pius XII’s death, he formed a committee of historians to conduct an in-depth study of his predecessor’s life and behavior, giving particular attention to the events of World War II.

Their work led to the publication of “Actes et Documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale” (Acts and Documents of the Holy See related to the Second World War), an 11-volume collection of documents from the Vatican’s Secret Archive about Pius XII’s papacy during that tumultuous time. The remainder of the documents from Pius XII’s papacy have remained unpublished.

“Knowing what I do about Pius XII, and having researched him for many years, I believe he wanted to be a saint. He wanted people in Germany to be saints,” Riebling previously told CNA.

“When he heard that a priest was arrested for praying for the Jews and sent off to a concentration camp, he said: ‘I wish everyone would do that’ … But he didn’t say it publicly,” the writer acknowledged.