In a defiant statement, the Vatican has rejected U.S. government appeals to open its secret World War II archives, The Jewish Week has learned. The development is expected to heighten tensions between the Holy See and world Jewish community leaders, experts said.
“It’s disgraceful,” declared Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress of the Vatican’s position, contained in a bold three-page declaration selectively distributed at a Holocaust conference in Washington last week.
Steinberg said the Vatican statement marks the first official response by the Catholic Church to requests by top U.S. officials to open its wartime documents to scholarly scrutiny.
In a document titled “Statement by the Holy See About the Accessibility of its Archives,” the Vatican declares that “the Holy See alone must be the judge of the pace, timing and scope of the process of making its Archives accessible for research.”
The statement insisted that all relevant Holocaust-era archival materials have been published, and there is nothing hidden.
The Vatican also warned about questioning its credibility, and raised questions about whether its critics are being “deceitful” or “following some hidden agenda.”
“If the Holy See is not trusted about what it has said or published so far, why should it expect to be trusted afterwards?” said the statement.
Steinberg said the sharp statement is contrary to the spirit of a meeting held last March in Rome between Vatican officials and Jewish interfaith leaders where parties agreed to form a joint Catholic-Jewish commission of scholars to study archival material. (The commission has never been appointed.)
“At a time when even Russia can announce to the world its archives are open, only the Vatican is still saying nyet,” Steinberg said.
The WJC is one of the leading critics of the Vatican’s continued refusal to open its archives covering the Holocaust and post-war period to determine the nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and Nazi Germany.
U.S. officials and Jewish leaders say access is necessary in trying to help recover looted Jewish property and set the historical record straight.
Fueling the debate are charges by critics that wartime Pope Pius XII did not act forcefully enough to save Jewish lives, and that Vatican officials aided the escape of Nazis after the war. Pope John Paul II is seeking to canonize Pius XII, much to the distress of some Jewish leaders.
It was not clear this week what role, if any, the pope played in approving the statement.
Steinberg said the Vatican statement was distributed by Father Remi Hoeckman, secretary of the Vatican’s Commission on Relations With the Jews, during a session of an international conference on Holocaust-era looted assets.
At the conference, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for all relevant governments and institutions to open their archives. Many are complying, including Poland, Germany and Russia. The Vatican, a tiny but powerful and mysterious religious state, has been strongly criticized for its lack of cooperation.
One British Holocaust investigator accused the Vatican of hiding evidence that the Church aided Nazis and funneled contraband.
“If the Vatican has nothing to hide, they should open [the archives] up,” declared Lord Janner, chairman of the Holocaust Education Trust.
“We are certain that into the Vatican came not only human beings — SS [Nazi police] people on their way out — but property, art, assets. We have no idea what. And we’re saying to them, as we do to every other country and authority, please tell us what happened. Please tell us the truth.”
But the Vatican statement declared that “The Holy See rejects all accusations that it did not do its best to save as many lives as it could given the circumstances.”
The statement also argues that the archives of the Holy See cannot be compared with archives of secular governments and institutions because they contain religious and spiritual documents about church members that must be kept confidential.
The Church “has a sacrosanct duty towards the persons who entrusted her with their secrets and cannot and should not betray them, for any reason whatsoever,” the statement said.
This point seems to directly respond to the contention by access advocates that the Holocaust is a unique event and traditional archival policies should be set aside.
The Vatican argued that it released 11 volumes of Holocaust-era archival material 20 years ago, and that no unsavory links with Nazi Germany was discovered.
“Notwithstanding insinuations, the curators of this publication have in no way tried to hide documents that would incriminate the Holy See,” the statement declared.
But 88-year-old WJC official Gerhart Riegner, credited with being first to warn Jews of the Final Solution in 1942, told The Jewish Week in an interview in Geneva last month that he can prove the 11 volumes is missing some key documents — particularly his own secret cable to the pope about the existence of Nazi gas chambers.
“The omission of this memorandum is regrettable because it shows the Vatican had detailed information about the extent of anti-Jewish persecution relatively early,” said Riegner, who just published his memoirs in French titled “Ne Jamais Deseperer” (“Never Lose Hope.”)
New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor, who has called for opening the Vatican archives, declined to discuss the new statement.
Albright could not be reached for comment.
Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, who has specifically called on the Vatican for access several times, said he has asked the Vatican to accelerate the process of sorting its diplomatic documents from its pastoral documents.
“I’m looking for reasons to be optimistic about the archives, but I haven’t found them yet.”
Thomas J. Reese, a Vatican expert, told The Jewish Week,” It’s a question of credibility — do you believe them or not.”
But Reese, who supports opening the archives, hoped a compromise could be worked out.
“They should get together with legitimate representatives of the Jewish community and compile a list of 10 competent, trustworthy objective scholars who can be allowed access to the archives.”
He said guidelines could be set to secure confidential personal information. He also said the parties must also negotiate how to fund such a project.