Jews and Catholics are at odds over a new book charging Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII with being pro-Hitler and an anti-Semite.
Vatican supporters are slamming as “scurrilous” the forthcoming book, “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII,” by British author John Cornwell, whose evidence reportedly includes “secret” documents from the Vatican archives.
Cornwell claims Pius XII, Pope from 1939 to 1958, was a visceral anti-Semite who condoned Hitler’s policy towards the Jews and did nothing to stop the Holocaust.
But Jewish and U.S. leaders say the book renews pressure on the Vatican to open its wartime archives to resolve the truth of the Church’s relationship with Nazi Germany and allegations that Pius remained silent while millions of Jews died.
It “reinforces our position that the Vatican needs to open its Holocaust-era archives to independent historians and journalists so the controversy over Pius XII’s wartime actions can be dealt with fully,” said Richard Heideman, president of B’nai B’rith International.
Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said the controversy “graphically illustrates the urgent need to bring closure and a final accounting” of the Church’s wartime activities.
“But full closure cannot take place until all the relevant Church documents of that tragic period are made available to the appropriate Catholic and Jewish historians,” he said. “Sadly that has not been done.”
The issue of Vatican archives is taking center stage because Cornwell claims he was given access to “secret” Church records to reach his conclusions that Pius XII — known as Eugenio Pacelli before the war when he was Vatican ambassador to Germany — was anti-Jewish.
Cornwell cites a letter Pacelli wrote in 1919 describing the leader of a group of revolutionary Jews in Germany as “a young man, about 30 or 35, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.”
Cornwell also found that in 1942, U.S. and British diplomats gave the Pope details about Nazi atrocities and asked him to condemn them. But the strongest public denunciation the Pope made during the war — a Christmas Eve radio message in 1942 — simply mourned the plight of “hundreds of thousands who without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction.”
Additionally, Cornwell writes that Pius XII knew 1,000 Jews from Rome were to be deported to the death camps in October 1943 but did nothing to warn or save them, and only 15 survived the war.
Vatican supporters are criticizing Cornwell, who previously wrote a book dispelling rumors that Pope John Paul I had been murdered in 1978 by his aides.
The New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said his research is “laced with conjecture and innuendo of the most scurrilous kind.”
Catholic interfaith expert Eugene Fisher said “there appears to be very little significant documentation,” in a magazine excerpt in the October Vanity Fair.
Vatican historian Father Pierre Blet said Cornwell’s book is “not a true historical analysis” and that he had not provided sufficient documentation to back claims that Pius “nourished a striking antipathy toward the Jews.”
Regarding Pius XII signing a Concordant (treaty) with Hitler, Father Blet told the Catholic news agency Zenit: “What else could have been done to protect the Church in Germany? Refusing to sign the Concordant with the Nazis would have meant abandoning Catholics into the hands of the new [political] power and there would have been no possible line of defense.”
Father Blet also accused Cornwell of selective scholarship regarding charges of anti-Semitism.
“He only quotes the negative documents against Pius XII while systematically avoiding mentioning the numerous messages of thanks from many Jews saved by the Church.”
Cornwell’s publisher Viking Press, said Tuesday they had no comment about the criticism and refused to make the author available for this article.
But one Jewish group official noted that the Catholic critics do not say the evidence is inaccurate or false.
In the book, Cornwell, a Catholic, said he began his research to defend Pius from increasing criticism.
But after analyzing arcane Vatican documents, Cornwell said he was left in a state of “moral shock. The material I had gathered amounted not to an exoneration but to an indictment.”
Cornwell said evidence “showed for the first time that Pacelli was patently, and by the proof of his own words, anti-Jewish. Worse, he was a hypocrite, for after the war he had retrospectively taken undue credit for speaking out boldly against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.”
Pius is a being pushed for sainthood by Pope John Paul II, a move garnering increasing criticism from national Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress.