For the first time in history, Jewish and Catholic scholars — with the backing of the Vatican — will work together to try and determine what the Catholic Church did and did not do to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Calling the project both “bizarre” and unprecedented, six historians from around the world, three Jewish and three Catholic, pledged to search for the truth, notwithstanding any political or religious pressures.
The new “International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission” also asserted in a press conference at New York’s Catholic Center on Tuesday that it will seek full and open access to a variety of official and unofficial Vatican documents from World War II, and archival records from other countries — all to help shed light on an emotional issue that has dogged Catholic-Jewish relations for a half century.
“It seems to us that the search for truth, wherever it may lead can best be promoted in an environment in which there is a full access to archival documentation and other historical evidence,” the team said in a statement. “Ultimately, openness is the best policy for a mature and balanced historical assessment.”
The Vatican has steadfastly refused to open its archives of wartime records, despite calls to do so by prominent figures ranging from New York’s Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor to U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat.
Instead, the Vatican’s top liaison to Jews, Edward Cardinal Cassidy, last year proposed that scholars study an obscure 11-volume set of Vatican material about Jews published more than 20 years ago. A host of other countries have already opened their war records and are conducting historical examinations.
Technically, the team has been assembled to analyze those volumes and search for any related or missing documentation that may reveal more information. One team member, Father John Morley, a Seton Hall University professor, published a book, “Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust 1939-1943,” based on the 11 volumes.
The three Jewish scholars — Robert S. Wistrich of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Michael R. Marrus of the University of Toronto and Bernard Suchecky of Free University of Brussels — were chosen by the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, a coalition of Jewish religious and secular groups.
The three Catholic scholars — the Rev. Gerald Fogarty of the University of Virginia, Eva Fleischner of Montclair State University in New Jersey, and Morley — were appointed by Cardinal Cassidy’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
They met for the first time last Monday and divided up the 11 volumes for study.
No timetable has been established for work to be completed or how far ranging it will be.
Wistrich said the effort was strange because the 11 volumes have been publicly available for so long and nothing new has emerged from them.
“This is bizarre — we’re going to look for what is not there — gaps, omissions, and potential further documentation,” Wistrich said.
But he called the project “a small window” of opportunity to seek answers to such controversies about the so-called “silence” of wartime Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. “I see it as a first step.”
“We’re seeking to reach the truth, although we may not agree with different interpretations of documents,” said Fogarty. “We should look back and at least acknowledge what we have done wrong. One of the greatest obstacles to Christianity in our time is, unfortunately, Christians.”
But the scholars, who will work from their home bases, noted that with new wartime documents becoming available around the world, and with the turn of the century, now is the time for an unvarnished examination of the historical record.
IJCIC chairman Seymour Reich said the Vatican and private sources are funding the project, but he said he would seek to raise more money from foundations.
Asked about a possible conflict of interest between the project and their loyalty to their respective religions (two of the scholars are priests), the historians said it would be a matter of individual conscience, but that the scholarly pursuit should take precedence.
Reich, quoting Cassidy said, “We’re not afraid of the truth.”But Wistrich cautioned that the project could quickly “hit a brick wall” if the team is not granted access by the Vatican and other sources.
“I certainly hope that would not happen.”