By Sr. Margherita Marchione, Ph.D.

On the occasion of the 50 years of independence of the State of Israel, Catholics recalled the years of solidarity with their Jewish brethren during the Holocaust as the voice of Pope Pius XII was heard around the world. It was the voice of a tireless world-leader whose contribution to humanity is incontrovertible.

No pontiff in history received as many manifestations of affection from the Jewish community worldwide as did Pius XII. There is extensive documentation. The most telling being the praise and gratitude lavished on the Pope by the entire Jewish Community. Acknowledging "the religious men and women who, executing the directives of the Holy Father, recognized the persecuted as their brothers and, with great abnegation, hastened to help them, disregarding the terrible dangers to which they were exposed" (Osservatore Romano," September 8, 1945). Among those offering praise were Dr. Joseph Nathan, representing the Hebrew Commission, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, and Reuben Resnick , the American Director of the Committee To Help Jews in Italy.

As the result of the Pope’s direct urging, hundreds of convents, monasteries, and other religious buildings were opened, not only in Italy, but also in Poland, France, Belgium and Hungary, to shelter and hide thousands of men, women, and children from Nazi cruelties. Everywhere, when apprehended, priests, nuns and members of the Catholic laity protecting their Jewish brethren were subjected to the same inhumane Nazi treatment, brutalized and murdered in reprisal killings or imprisoned in concentration camps. Carlo Sestieri, a well-known Jewish businessman who was hidden in one of the Vatican buildings, wrote: "Perhaps only the Jews who were persecuted understand why the Holy Father could not publicly denounce the Nazi-Fascist government" (Letter to Margherita Marchione, July 25, 1995).

Jewish physicist Albert Einstein testified to his appreciation of Pius XII’s actions in an article published in Time Magazine: "Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I had never any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom." (December 23, 1940, p. 40)

Today, unfortunately, voices judging Pope Pius XII’s alleged "silence" and statements regarding the Church’s responsibility for the Holocaust have increased with the issuance of the Vatican document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoa." This is a terrible injustice! The evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Through public discourses, appeals to governments, and secret diplomacy, Pope Pius XII was engaged more than any individuals or agencies combined in the effort to curb the war and rebuild the peace; and in alleviating the sufferings of Jews and other refugees during the Holocaust.

Except to the extent that he did, how could Pope Pius XII have prevented a world power, with military domination over a continent, from murdering the civilians it defined as its enemies? Would Adolf Hitler, an apostate Catholic who despised Christianity for its Jewish origins, have obeyed a directive from the Vatican? The undeniable historic realities persuasively say "No." In fact, they point to certain disastrous retaliatory reaction, with awesome responsibility upon the Pope, which was fortunately avoided.

It is doubtful that even the most flaming papal protest would have slowed the Holocaust. What is certain is that such protest would have risked the lives of countless Jews hidden in Church institutions. Could things possibly have been made any worse? Of course. In this fickle world, Pope Pius XII could have been blamed for it. Two months before the anti-Semitic horrors of Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass), Pius XII stated: "Anti-Semitism is inadmissible; spiritually we are all Semites" (Pius XII: Greatness Dishonoured, 1980, p. 45)

The day after Cardinal Pacelli’s election to the Papacy, the Nazi newspaper, Berliner Morgenpost (March 3, 1939), stated its position clearly. It stated, "The election of Cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor."

With the start of the war in September 1939, Pius XII pleaded that "in occupied territory the lives, the property, the honor, the religious convictions of the inhabitants will be respected." The following month he issued "Summi Pontificatus," the encyclical condemning racialism. On January 27, 1940, Vatican Radio proclaimed to the world the dreadful cruelties marked with uncivilized tyranny that the Nazis were inflicting on the Jewish and Catholic Poles. The German ambassador protested while the Nazis jammed the broadcasts. Everywhere those protecting Jews and other refugees were not immune from suspicion and arrest, were sent to prison, and were treated with brutality and contempt. Many were murdered in reprisal killings. Priests and nuns were also arrested, imprisoned, and subjected to brutal interrogation. Many were sent to concentration camps and gas chambers.

In his book The Last Three Popes and the Jews (Souvenir Press, London, 1967), Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide concludes that during the Nazi period "Pius XII, the Holy See, the Vatican’s Nuncios, and the whole Catholic Church saved between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews from certain death." Pope Pius XII was not anti-Semitic. He recognized the evil doctrines of Nazism and strongly opposed them.

Marc Saperstein, a professor of Jewish history and director of the program in Judaic studies at the George Washington University wrote: "The suggestion that Christian doctrines or practice led directly to the Nazi death camps is misleading and inappropriate. ... The fundamental responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the Nazi perpetrators, not with Pope Pius XII, not with the Church, and not with the teachings of the Christian faith" (Washington Post, April 1, 1998).

Only by becoming more sensitive to each other can Jews and Catholics improve their relationship and achieve reconciliation and peace. This requires authentic dialogue, profound understanding, and mutual respect.

Sister Margherita Marchione, Ph.D., professor emerita of Fairleigh Dickinson University, is the author of Yours Is a Precious Witness: Memoirs of Jews and Catholics in Wartime Italy, Paulist Press, 1997.