The Jewish community, which has been lobbying the Catholic Church for more than a half-century to open the Vatican Secret Archives from the era of the Church’s leader during World War II, has seen that effort finally pay off — the archives opened to scholars this week.
But the community should not expect the archives to resolve the debate over the record of Pope Pius XII immediately. If ever.
That is the opinion of representatives of Jewish organizations that have dealt for decades with Vatican officials.
While the archives’ opening on Monday is “very significant,” the increased access to them “is not likely to resolve the debate regarding Pius XII’s record … especially concerning the role of the Church [in the 1943] deportations from Italy,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s Jerusalem-based international director of interreligious affairs.
Pius XII, who served as pope from 1939 until his death in 1958, has long been a controversial figure in interreligious dialogue, with many claiming that he was indifferent to the fate of Europe’s endangered Jews (earning him the title “Hitler’s Pope”), and many defenders claiming that he quietly stirred the Church to assist Jews.
“Apologists claim he had good reason to fear severe repercussions if he directly confronted the Nazis, and there would have been no benefits,” Rabbi Rosen said in an email interview. “Critics say that this was moral failure on his part.”
“It will take years for serious scholars to evaluate the information that will be revealed by the archives,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the AJC’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations.
Rabbi Marans, who works in New York City, is chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which coordinates the Jewish community’s dealings with the Vatican. The AJC, the Anti-Defamation League and nine other Jewish organizations work together under the IJCIC umbrella.
“It will require patience for an accurate picture to emerge among Holocaust historians,” Rabbi Marans said. “Without the opening of the archives and the proper academic study of the millions of relevant pages, it would be impossible to fully assess Pope Pius XII’s wartime records. The Holocaust has been deeply studied and documented by historians, but this very significant part of Holocaust history has not been able to receive thorough investigation until now.”
The AJC said in a statement on Monday that 85 researchers from more than a dozen countries, including the U.S. and Israel, have already been granted access to the materials. A Vatican official told NPR on Monday that 1.5 million documents have been digitized, and that the Vatican “had nothing to hide” when it comes to Pope Pius’ wartime actions. According to the AJC statement, Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archives, indicated that it took more than 12 years to sort through and catalogue the large quantity of information from Pius XII’s long pontificate.
The opening of the Pius XII archives, 15 years before the normal 75-year-period delay after a pontiff’s death had ended, was largely at the initiative of Pope Francis. During his seven-year papacy, and during his previous service as a cardinal in Argentina, he had frequently lobbied for the archives’ opening, as a way to clear the historical record and to improve relations with the Jewish community.
Questions about the wartime actions of Pius XII were first widely raised in a controversial 1963 play by Rolf Hochhuth, “The Deputy.” The play suggests that Pius failed to speak out or take action against the Holocaust. Hochhuth’s portrayal of Pius as being indifferent to the plight of the Jews was roundly attacked.
The archives’ opening coincides with the Vatican’s recent announcement that it will put some wartime documents from its archives on the internet, and with the recent premiere of “Holy Silence,” a documentary by Steven Pressman about Pius XII.
Rabbi David Sandmel, director of interreligious engagement at the ADL, said, “I don’t know what they [scholars granted access to the Vatican archives] are going to find.” The opening, in accordance with the wishes of Pope Francis, “has symbolic value … a very positive step” — it removes one source of dispute between Jews and the Church, and eliminates the claim that the Vatican is covering up Pius XII’s actions.
Representatives from the Jewish community, Rabbi Sandmel said, are “going to comb through everything” pertaining to Pius XII and the Holocaust.
The Vatican will grant full access to the archives to qualified scholars, Rabbi Rosen said. “The limitations are only technical — the limit of how many people can access the material at the same time.”
“I don’t think the argument [about Pius XII’s complicity or heroism] will be resolved” by the documents in the archives, Rabbi Rosen said. “But I do think interesting information about other departments and figures in the Church will be revealed.”