Nineteen months after it was first proposed, an “unusual” agreement was reached this week between the Vatican and Jewish leaders to assemble a team of scholars to study World War II-era Vatican records that have been publicly available for more than 30 years.
Jewish leaders cautioned it is only a first step in answering questions about the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust. A key area of inquiry will be the actions of Pope Pius XII, whom critics say kept silent during the Holocaust.
The deal was reached Monday between Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, (IJCIC) a coalition group, and the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews.
Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican commission, first proposed the joint venture in March 1998, but publicly denounced IJCIC a year later for failing to take up his offer. IJCIC officials had countered that Cassidy’s office failed to follow through.
The agreement calls for the appointment of six scholars — three Jewish and three Catholic — to study 11 volumes, published between 1965 and 1981. The proposed Jewish scholars are Robert Wistritch of Hebrew University, Dean Michael Marrus of Toronto, and Bernard Suchecky of Belgium, sources told The Jewish Week. Catholic scholars were not yet identified.
Reich hoped work would begin in December. No time frame was given for completion, when a report would be issued. Reich said funding for the Jewish scholars would come from a private source.
In a prepared statement, Cassidy and Reich hoped that the 11 volumes would answer any questions about the Vatican’s actions. If questions remain, the scholars “should seek further clarification.” But it’s not clear if that means scholars would be given access to secret Vatican wartime archives, which Rome refuses to open. Reich said he believes it would be appropriate to access the Vatican archives.
Reaction from Jewish interfaith leaders was mixed.
“I don’t think it’s a major breakthrough because that offer of pre-selected volumes has been out there,” said Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman.
“We welcome this development as leading ultimately to the desired objective, which is the free and unhindered access to all relevant documents of that period,” said the World Jewish Congress director Elan Steinberg.
“Ultimately, the goal is to get at the truth,” said IJCIC member George Specter of the B’nai B’rith. “The world has the right to know the truth.”
American Jewish Committee’s Rabbi James Rudin said, “It sets a very good precedent of Catholic and Jewish scholars working together, and I hope it’s the first step of moving a joint team into material not yet released.”
The agreement comes amid published reports that the Vatican has reconsidered speeding up the process of making Pius XII a saint, following publication of a new book “Hitler’s Pope” that accuses him anti-Semitism.