The 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is an occasion for taking stock — and not just for those whom general opinion deems remote accessories to the crime. As Solzhenitsyn discovered in the Gulag, the true divide of good and evil runs not between guard and prisoner, between tormentor and victim, but rather through the heart of every human being. Relatively few during World War II made heroic efforts to save the Jews. There were obviously many, Catholic and non-Catholic, who could have done more and didn’t.
But the Church is often accused of what amounts to a serious crime against humanity with regard to the Final Solution. Since 1963, when Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy indicted Pius XII for complicity in the Nazi genocide, it has been a commonplace of editorial writers that the Vatican was a silent, and therefore guilty, bystander to the murder of six million Jews. Thus, a few years ago, the New York Times saw fit to print an Op Ed piece by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, asserting that the sight of a crucifix anywhere near a Nazi killing ground is “sickening” because the Church had not lifted a finger to help the Jews. (Would the Times run a piece claiming, for whatever reason, that a display of the Star of David or the Crescent of Islam was sickening? One hopes not.) As always, there was a flurry of indignant letters from both sides and then the issue went away — for a while.
Perhaps the only way to deal with media eruptions about Pius XII and the Jews is to write letters. Although received truths are by nature resistant to empirical falsification, it may be that a long process of attrition will wear down all but the most hardened cases. For this purpose a simple fact sheet is helpful:
• Before he became Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Pacelli drafted the papal encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge, in which Pius XI denounced Nazi paganism and racism; the document was smuggled into Germany in March, 1937 and read from all Catholic pulpits, which infuriated the Nazis.
• It is well documented by Jewish scholars like Joseph Lichten of B’nai B’rith that Pius used the assets of the Vatican to ransom Jews from the Nazis and that the Vatican ran an extensive network of hide-outs. Even the Pope’s summer residence, Castel Gondolfo, was used to hide fugitive Jews. The Pope, moreover, took personal responsibility for the children of deported Jews.
• Largely as a result of the Church’s efforts, the Jews in Italy had a far higher survival rate under Nazi occupation than was the case in other countries; estimates of the number of Jews saved by the Vatican’s efforts throughout Europe range up to several hundred thousand; this was one reason why the chief Rabbi of Rome converted to Catholicism at the end of the war.
• In appreciation of what Pius did for the Jews, the World Jewish Congress made a large cash gift to the Vatican in 1945; in the same year, Rabbi Herzog of Jerusalem sent a “special blessing” to the Pope “for his lifesaving efforts on behalf of the Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy”; and when Pius died in 1958, Israel’s Foreign Minister Golda Meir gave him a moving eulogy at the United Nations for the same reason.
• What was to be gained by Pius’s getting up on a soap box and lashing out at the Nazis? Both the International Red Cross and the World Council of Churches came to the same conclusion as the Vatican: relief efforts for the Jews would be more effective if the agencies remained relatively quiet. Yet, you never hear anybody attacking the Red Cross for its “silence” about the Holocaust.
• In 1942, the Catholic hierarchy of Amsterdam spoke out vigorously against the Nazi treatment of the Jews; the Nazi response was a redoubling of round-ups and deportations: By the end of the war, 90 percent of the Jews in Amsterdam were liquidated. Jewish relief officials were in complete agreement that a public attack by the Vatican against the Nazis would, first, not have the slightest effect on Hitler, and, second, would seriously jeopardize the lives of those Jews who were being hidden in convents and monasteries, etc.
• Nevertheless, Pius’s Christmas message in 1942 decried the fact that hundreds of thousands were being persecuted “solely because of their race or ancestry.” The German ambassador to the Vatican complained that Pius was “clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews.” A New York Times editorial on Christmas day praised Pius as “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”
• The scurrilous lie that Pius somehow quietly abetted the Final Solution began with the Hochhuth play in 1963 — a total fabrication. One does not need to be a psychologist to understand why a German playwright might do this: it’s called guilt transference.
• Finally, apropos of the Vatican’s 1933 concordat with the Nazi government, which Pius XI signed with great misgiving: the Vatican throughout history has had to sign concordats with governments of which it disapproves; the Church’s primary mission is to serve Catholics wherever they may be and it must have a modus operandi with all governments, even (or especially) bad ones. The German concordat guaranteed Catholic marriages, protected Catholic education, and allowed the creation of new dioceses; it was not meant to endorse the Nazi government, which the Church condemned on many occasions.
That is a simple outline of the case. The Church’s record was not perfect, but how many other institutions did this much?