The protection of the Jews and Pius XII: a story to be clarified
What was the attitude of the Catholic Church during the Nazi persecution of Jews in Italy? We talked about this with Liliana Picciotto, on the sidelines of the recent conference on Pius XII
Liliana, in the conference dedicated to the new documents emerging on the pontificate of Pius XII, you illustrated a report regarding initiatives to help persecuted Jews. What emerges from that?
Studies carried out in recent years on the Italian Jews or those present in Italy who were saved from the Shoah show that, compared to the initial 39,000 people, more than 7,000 were deported, 4,500 managed to reach the Swiss border network and be received. They remained trapped in occupied territory 27,500 people. I emphasize in the meantime an element that few people mention. The Italian population then numbered about 32 million. Generally speaking, the percentage of Jews in need of relief is absolutely insignificant. That said, about 81 percent of the Jews were saved, in many cases thanks to relief received from several quarters.
Is it possible to say that Pius XII’s Church expressly came out in favor of the Jews?
Some general considerations need to be made in this regard. In the Italy of 1943-1945, many thousands of people had to go into hiding on pain of arrest: Italian servicemen who refused to serve Nazi-Fascism, Allied servicemen cut off from their armies, prisoners of war who escaped from prison camps. They formed an army of people who had, perforce, to go underground. In addition, Rome filled with displaced people, from war zones to the south, homeless, poor, anti-fascist politicians and their families. Jews were part of this picture. The Church offered, where it could, relief and shelter to all, because it followed its “vocation” to charity. Some members of the CLN (national liberation committee) even lived at the Major Seminary.
What about the Jews?
For the Jews, no document emerges of any specific intention to bring them to safety. No device tending toward this was created.
Can this omission be explained by the risk involved in saving Jews from the Nazi-Fascists?
I would say no. Indeed, we can say that, in one respect, it was more dangerous to give protection to an American or British militiaman than to a Jew, because in the former case one risked being shot for treason. Keep in mind, however, that in dictatorships people do not really know what the law is and breaking it, even unknowingly, is very easy.
How many Jews found refuge in religious institutions?
The CDEC Foundation, of which I am the official historian, between 2008 and 2016 fielded a great deal of research based on thousands of sources, written and oral, and on a specially created source, the direct interview of more than 650 Jews, now elderly and now all gone. [The research is published in the book “Saving Yourself,” Einaudi, 2017, ed.] From this study I was able to glean that, of all the Jews saved in Italy, 16 percent owe their lives to the protection of the Church. We are talking about statistics, of course, not absolute truth.
What about the others? Who else protected the Jews?
Individuals, or social groups: think of doctors, for example. In many cases we have accounts of Jews who saved themselves in hospitals, disguised as patients or doctors. There were also some organized networks such as the Jewish network, Delasem, greatly helped by the Archbishop of Genoa and his secretary Don Repetto; in Rome, the Clandestine Military Front led by Montezemolo, martyred at the Fosse Ardeatine; in Milan, the network of lay Catholics led by the lawyer Giuseppe Sala; in Florence, that of the Partito d’Azione. But I do not want to fail to point out that the family leaders of that time often found the strength, courage and means to find salvation solutions on their own.
As for the Church, what kind of protection was offered to Jews?
Refugees in religious institutes could have a roof to sleep under and some food. Relief was offered, to them as to others, to help them live. In addition to cots and blankets, solidarity and love were also offered, this we will never forget.
How do you explain this lack of precise attention aimed at protecting Jews?
Perhaps the radical nature of what was taking place was not understood. I repeat: the Church helped the Jews within the broader framework of helping the needy. All the more so in Rome, where everyone converged, because it was hoped that it would be the first city to be liberated and that it suffered relatively little bombing compared to the industrial cities of the North.
Is it established, in the cases where Jews were given protection, that there was a generalized attempt at conversion?
Let us keep in mind that, in general, for the Church, converting basically means saving. “The “initiative” of attempting conversion was left to the choice of individuals. We have recorded some examples of attempted conversions that Jews resisted and others that Jews allowed, but they seem to me to be limited. In some cases we have evidence to the contrary: Msgr. Roberto Ronca, rector of the Pontifical Roman Major Seminary, rebuked one of the nuns in his service who had asked for conversion in exchange for protection.
Can we say that when the church saves Jews, it does so because the religious receive directives from the Vatican leadership?
The initiative seems to me to start from middle managers, even prominent figures who acted autonomously. Just to give a few examples: Monsignor Franco Bertoglio, rector of the Pontifical Lombard Seminary, at the time of the raid by the fascists, had in his building more than 100 “guests” of all kinds, including Jews. The Pope had words of disapproval of his actions, which he called “tinkering with the folds of false papers and mental restrictions that are half lies.” Monsignor Roberto Ronca had as many as 200 “guests” including 50 Jews. When he was discovered, he had to apologize to the Pope for endangering the entire institution.
If there is no policy aimed at protecting Jews, the conference proceedings brought out how, in the postwar period, Pius XII’s Church protected many Nazi criminals.
As Gerald Steinacher’s paper showed, in the postwar period, the Church felt that there was room for a new policy of evangelization that would attempt to win back to Catholicism the lands where Protestantism was prevalent. The salvation of many Nazi hierarchs can also be explained in this way: think of Priebke, who converted to Catholicism (he was baptized Lutheran) before receiving protection from the Church of Rome. The new evangelization of states, including Germany, is an old idea of the Church, which actually originated centuries earlier, from the creation of nation states. This is why many Nazis find protection. There is also to be recalled Pius XII’s very strong anti-communism, which dictates that Germany should be seen as a bulwark against the expansion of communism to the East. In a sense, Pacelli anticipates the Cold War anxieties that gripped the West two years later.
Can the protection of war criminals also be explained by the persistence of anti-Jewish prejudice in the Church?
There is no connection between the two. Anti-Jewishness was persistent after the end of the war; it was a widespread feeling and came from centuries of teaching contempt. The Shoah had not erased it. I want to emphasize, however, that such prejudice did not exempt many churchmen from intervening to save Jews; paradoxically, the two could coexist.
At the end of the conference, can initial conclusions be drawn about the figure of Pius XII?
The opening of the Vatican archives is an operation of courage and truth on the part of the current Pontiff. We confronted each other for 3 days, Jews and Catholics, believers and non-believers, historians and theologians. Everyone learned what others think and the point of current studies. I hope that from here we proceed to look together at the great problems facing humanity in these times.
Indeed, World War II was the focus of the conference, while another war is blanketing Israel these days. Hamas terror attack in Israel has claimed more than 1,200 lives
It is horrendous, and at times I followed the work with a strong sense of unreality. What we are seeing, the radical violence even on bodies, takes us back to the past, to massacres and violence like those carried out by the Nazis at St. Anna di Stazzema or the Fosse Ardeatine. We must call a spade a spade, otherwise, the Italian public does not understand them.
Critical voices also emerged at the conference about some church statements made in Jerusalem that were not clear enough in condemning Hamas terrorism.
Even the Red Cross has not spoken out so far. There are still pockets of misunderstanding in the Catholic world. I hope that occasions like this conference will make it possible to overcome them. I do want to point out one thing, however. The Osservatore Romano of October 10, in which there is a very open article of mine on my positions on Catholic relief during World War II, displays on its front page two photographs of three desperate women. On the left are Israeli women during the funeral of a boy who did nothing wrong but exist; on the right are Arab women who had the same grief, but their boy only had it in his head to destroy Israel. This equating does not hold up.
One last question: after this conference do you consider the cause for the sanctification of Pius XII archived?
I think and hope that The File is back in the drawer forever.