A politically aware teenager in Queens in the 1960s, Gary Krupp shared the prevailing opinion of Pope Pius XII, the controversial leader of the Roman Catholic Church during World War II. “I grew up hating him,” Krupp says. Today, he is one of the pope’s most vocal defenders in the Jewish community.
A seminary student in England in his 20s, John Cornwell is at 68 a prominent journalist and historian in his homeland, known for his criticism of Catholicism. His 1999 book, “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII,” depicted Pius as sympathetic to Nazi Germany and indifferent to the persecution of European Jewry. Today, he says he may have overstated his original criticism of the pope.
A rumor that has circulated since World War II, but earned little credence among historians, is that the Third Reich regarded Pius as sympathetic to the Jews and targeted him for a kidnapping, planning to take him hostage during the Nazis’ occupation of the Vatican. Pius, according to this rumor, feared for his life and declined to openly oppose the Final Solution.
Today, says author Dan Kurzman, his research has substantiated the kidnapping rumor, but he says the pope was neither an anti-Semite nor a coward. Fifty years after Pius’ death and 45 years after the publication of the play that left a permanent black mark on his legacy, the record of the man who is both proposed for sainthood and dismissed as a Nazi accomplice is the subject of an ongoing debate among
Jewish and Catholic scholars. The last few years have seen the appearance of several books examining his wartime actions or inaction, and Pius is emerging as a battleground in wider cultural and political wars.
The pope’s reputation is undergoing a re-examination in some circles, if not rehabilitation. In November, the Vatican will host a conference that will emphasize the religious teachings of Pius, whose path to being declared a saint is apparently on the slow track because of the controversy over his behavior during World War II. The commemorations are designed to “clarify the complexity” of the pope’s career, says Msgr. Salvatore Fisichella, rector of the Lateran University, cosponsor of the event.
And Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based independent, interfaith organization that fosters closer relations between Judaism and Catholicism, will convene an international symposium in Rome next week to study the pope’s actions in the Holocaust. “Examining the Papacy of Pius XII,” Sept. 15-18, will bring together some 130 scholars, including defenders and detractors of the pope, for the first such major reappraisal of Vatican behavior from 1939 to 1945.
“No matter how contentious this subject may be,” frequently dividing Jews who consider Pius XII a villain and Catholics who describe him as a hero, “we feel that we can help repair the rift by researching the truth and presenting our results to those on both sides of the issue,” Krupp says.
The symposium is the latest sign of an attitude shift in Pius’ favor in recent years in parts of the Jewish community, mostly among scholars, as well as neoconservatives and those working to improve ecumenical ties. Pius’ defenders point to the claim last year by Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former Romanian intelligence officer who defected to the United States, that “The Deputy” was part of a KGB-orchestrated plot to weaken the Catholic Church by discrediting its wartime head.
Other prominent Jewish defenders of the pope include Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of the interfaith Toward Tradition organization; Rabbi David Dalin, author of “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis” (Regnery Publishing, 2005); and columnists David Klinghoffer and Don Feder.
“When I started college in 1966, ‘The Deputy’ was required reading for incoming freshmen,” Feder wrote in 2005. “The liberal establishment — which had long loathed the Catholic Church for its positions on sexual morality — embraced this toxic fiction as revealed truth.”
The charges against Pius XII are part of a “black legend,” according to Andrea Tornielli, author of a recent Italian biography of the pope.
Many defenders of Pius, both Jews and Catholics, claim that his name has been slandered, sometimes by critics who use him as a backhanded means to attack the contemporary Church.
This Kulturkampf is being fought mainly at the leadership level, by scholars and theologians in the Jewish and Catholic communities. “For most Catholics, Pius is not an issue,” says Australian writer Paul O’Shea, whose “A Cross Too Heavy: Politics and the Jews of Europe, 1917-1943” (Rosenberg Publishing), is being issued next month in this country.
Pius’ reputation has remained black “on the ‘Jewish street,’” says Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee.
For those who care, Pius’ record during the Holocaust offers fodder for emotional, subjective, often ahistorical arguments, since the Vatican has not fully released its wartime archive records that could more fully reveal the extent of the pope’s behavior and feelings.
The debates “sometimes have less to do with history and more to do with [advocates’] political agenda,” says Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum.
“There’s no question that Pius’ legacy has been exploited and tossed around as a way to further both liberal and conservative views of Catholicism,” says author and social commentator Thane Rosenbaum.
The overlap of Pius and contemporary politics is reflected by the identity of some of the principal voices — among his defenders are Rabbi Lapin, whose Toward Tradition organization fosters conservative, interfaith activities, and Regnery Publishing, which calls itself “the nation’s leading conservative publisher”; among his most prominent critics are Cornwell, a former seminary student in Great Britain who is frequently at odds with the contemporary Church. Without firm documentation, Pius’ legacy during the war remains open to speculation, the subject of books that appear in recent years with regularity. “I don’t think the record is going to be that exonerating,” even if scholars gain full access to the archives, says Berenbaum.
For decades, the legacy of the pope has been one of the major issues separating the Jewish and Catholic communities. Pius, who had earned the praise of Jewish leaders after his death in 1958 but fell into posthumous disfavor when Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, “The Deputy,” depicted the former Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli as an unfeeling diplomat-turned-pontiff, came to be seen as an anti-Semite, as a supporter of Nazi Germany, as a powerful religious leader who impotently remained silent while the Jews of Europe were being was murdered, as a pragmatic politician who put Vatican neutrality and Catholic interests before the lives of threatened Jews.
Cornwell’s book claims that “from an early stage in his career Pacelli betrayed an undeniable antipathy toward the Jews.” Pius’ name “will always be linked with Hitler’s persecution of the Jews,” Noel writes.
While thousands of Jewish lives were unquestionably saved in the Holocaust by ordinary Catholics, and by low-ranking clergy members, the current debate in Jewish circles centers on the pope’s role: did Catholics act because of or despite Pius’ example, or with his tacit approval?
Enter the new books.
“Much historical work since [the publication of ‘The Deputy’ has shown positive aspects of Pius’ work,” British historian Martin Gilbert tells The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview. He adds that he reserves judgment on the pope’s wartime actions pending “the full opening of the Vatican wartime archives.”
Cornwell says he has “reconsidered in a minor way the terms in which I phrased the culpability of Pius XII during the war.” He has not, however, recanted his largely critical opinion of the pope, he says. “He had an obligation to explain his silence and diplomatic language with regard to the Holocaust after the war, when the pressures were lifted.”
“There is no evidence that the pope was an anti-Semite,” says Kurzman, author of “A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII” (Da Capo Press, 2007). “It’s not fair to say that he was pro-Hitler. The facts are against it. He was a bitter enemy of Hitler.”
Kurzman’s book, based on decades of interviews and archival work, documents that Hitler, infuriated by what he saw as Pius’ unremitting sympathy for the victims of the Final Solution, ordered a Nazi officer, stationed in occupied Italy late in the war, to storm the Vatican and take Pius hostage. The pope would probably have been killed as part of the operation, the book suggests.
Hitler eventually dropped the plan, to avoid the inevitable storm of negative publicity, Kurzman says.
“Hitler hated the pope,” he says.
“Contrary to the charges of critics, he was consistently anti-Nazi in words and actions, both before and after he became pope” writes Sister Margherita Marchione, a zealous defender of Pius XII and professor emerita at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “Pius XII spoke out many times against Nazi atrocities, without mentioning names. But the whole world knew to whom he was referring.”
The pope orchestrated rescues of Jews in Slovakia, Poland and Turkey; helped a childhood friend escape to neutral Switzerland and served as an intermediary between England and perpetrators of a German plot to assassinate Hitler, his defenders say. They say Pius did not turn his back on European Jewry, but publicly spoke against the Third Reich in often-coded terms, and clandestinely encouraged Catholic institutions throughout the continent to help endangered Jews, while sheltering thousands of Italian Jews in Rome’s Catholic institutions.
In the hierarchal Catholic Church, none of the institutions would open their doors to outsiders without the pope’s explicit instructions, Pius’ defenders say.
“In a remarkable interview given to ‘Inside the Vatican’ … [Msgr. John Patrick] Carroll-Abbing,” the founder of Boys’ Town and Girls’ Town of Italy who served in the Papal Household during WWII and participated in rescue work, “recounted how the pope directly ordered him to save the Jews,” Rabbi Dalin writes.
Tibor Baranski, a seminary student in Budapest during the war who was honored by Yad Vashem for his role, under the auspices of the Vatican ambassador to Hungary, in saving at least 3,000 Jewish lives, says he saw at least two handwritten letters from the pope with directions to protect Jews. “This is not a myth,” he says, adding that Papal Nuncio [Ambassador] Angelo Rotta reported Baranski’s activities to the pope “at least twice a week.”
“Pius sent a letter by hand to the bishops instructing them to open all convents and monasteries throughout Italy so that they could become safe refuges for Jewish people,” lawyer and author Ronald Rychlak writes in “Hitler, the War and the Pope” (Genesis Press, 2000). “All available church buildings — including those in Vatican City — were put to use. Catholic hospitals were ordered to admit as many Jewish patients as possible, even if their ailments were fictitious.”
Pius alluded to Jewish persecution in his speeches and publications, but did not identify the Nazis’ victims’ as Jews, in order to prevent an increase in reprisals, Rychlak and other scholars say. Many Jews agreed with the pope’s approach, some scholars say. “All evidence shows that he believed his approach would best serve Jewish victims of the Nazis,” Rychlak writes. Daniel Goldhagen, author of “A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair” (Vintage Books, 2002), disagrees. “It is hard to defend the Church of this era as a moral institution, at least with regard to Nazism and the Holocaust,” he writes. “The Church, the pope, the national churches, bishops and priests generally failed during the Holocaust.”
Pius “did not show courage,” says Fred Rosenbaum, a San Francisco-based Jewish educator who spent a sabbatical year conducting archival research in Rome about the pope.
“The terrible tragedy of Pius was his inability to speak clearly in defence of the Jews as the principal victims of the Nazis and his sincere belief that he had said all that he could,” O’Shea writes. “While many Catholics believed there was a directive from Pius to rescue and hide Jews, there is not one shred of written or oral evidence that points to any instructions. To search for such evidence is akin to seeking a written command of Hitler to murder all the Jews of Europe. It would be odd if such a document existed.”
Among the most vocal critics of Pius are members of the Italian Jewish community, who remain convinced that the pope failed to speak out when a roundup of Rome’s Jews took place a few hundred yards from Pius’ Vatican window in October, 1943.
“Pio XII [the pope’s Italian name] is a huge issue for the Jews of Italy,” says Maurizio Molinari, a Rome native and New York correspondent for Turin’s La Stampa newspaper. “Pio XII did very little, if nothing at all. Anyone who lived in Rome at that time knows that, including my mother, my grandmother and many, many others.”
Wartime discussions in Church circles about dangerous life-saving operations were usually verbal, defenders of Pius say; written communications were usually veiled in code, and incriminating documents were burned. Until the record is clear, the canonization of Pius should be shelved, say such voices as the Israeli government and the Anti-Defamation League.
“I have been of the opinion for a long time that the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes of complicity and virtue,” says Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs of The American Jewish Committee.
The desire of some Jewish defenders of Pius to advance Jewish-Catholic relations skewers their objectivity, Rosenbaum says. “I want to have better relations between Jews and Catholics,” he says, adding, “I think it has to be based on truth and an honest examination of the facts.”
Gary Krupp, coordinator of next week’s Pius symposium in Rome, says Jewish critics of the pope risk damaging the reputation of a man who saved “more Jewish lives” than any religious or political leader during World War II.
“This is something we should be ashamed of,” he says. Krupp, who was knighted by Pope John Paul II in 2000, says he speaks in Pius’ defense for the sake of the Jewish community — to build Catholic support for an increasingly isolated and vulnerable Israel.
“This is for the Jewish people,” he says. “This is for the State of Israel.”
Vatican representatives may participate in the symposium, Krupp says, but the Church is not involved in planning or supporting the event.
“This is my responsibility,” he says. “As a Jew, this is my obligation.”