Pope Pius XII, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church during World War II, learned about the mass murder of Jews early in the war but kept the information a secret in the Vatican. That was the charge made by a German historian Hubert Wolf, who is also a priest, and a team of scholars he assembled to study the recently opened archives of the church leader.
Wolf confirmed May 16 that scholars found new evidence the Pope misled the United States government about the systematic murder of Jews in Poland and the Ukraine.
The historian cited a previously unknown internal Vatican memo, or Appunto, written in late September 1942 by Angelo Dell’Acqua, a close associate of the Vatican Secretary of State. He derided secret eyewitness reports of widespread atrocities against Jews in Poland and the Ukraine.
In an email from Wolf published in The Jerusalem Post May 16, he charged that Dell’Acqua’s memo might have helped to convince the Pope to withhold the information from the American government about the mass murder of Jews.
“In the newly discovered Appunto, Dell’Acqua questioned the credibility of Jews and Oriental (East European) Catholics alike by resorting to well-known anti-Semitic stereotypes. He attested to Jews a penchant for exaggeration and Eastern Catholics a lack of sincerity.”
The memo was written as top church officials were discussing how to respond to a secret report that had been received in Switzerland by The Jewish Agency for Palestine and passed along to American government officials. The report sent to the Vatican Sept. 27, 1942, detailed the mass murder of 100,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto and an additional 50,000 who were killed in Lviv in the Ukraine.
According to the German scholars, a month before the Vatican received the report from the Americans, the Ukrainian archbishop of Lviv described how the Germans had massacred 200,000 Jews in his country.
In mid-September of 1942, the German researchers reported how an Italian businessman, Count Malvezzi, had told a high church official about the “incredible butchery” of Jews in Warsaw. Church officials withheld both reports from the American government.
The lack of concern by Catholic clerics at the time does not surprise Jelena Subotic, a professor of political science at Georgia State University and a scholar of the Holocaust. The Vatican’s records underline the fact that the murder of large numbers of Jews wasn’t a priority during the war, Subotic maintained.
“For many protagonists during World War II the murder of European Jews was not that important. There was large-scale indifference to the suffering of the Jews because of a variety of factors. Obviously, anti-Semitism is a huge factor, but also an understanding of Jews as somehow being different, not really being citizens, being part of the nation in Europe.
“So the atrocities committed against the Jews did not constitute a central core of what the war was about or a central core of what were thought then to be crimes against humanity.”
Nonetheless, President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal representative to the Vatican, Myron Taylor, pressed the Pope to speak out against Hitler and Nazi atrocities. Throughout the war, the Pope remained silent.
Taylor’s mission and the Pope’s unwillingness to speak out were described in a documentary entitled “Holy Silence,” shown earlier this year at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. While the director of the film, Steven Pressman, called the work of the German researchers a “significant” and “very revealing” find, he told the AJT that he believes the record against the Pope is already clear.
“What we are dealing with is a pope who did not denounce the Nazis. He was skeptical of taking a strong stance against what the Nazis were doing to the Jews in Europe. He refused to support the allies, and I think that message, in terms of how Pope Pius XII responded to World War II and to the Holocaust, is not going to change significantly, if at all.”
Access to the millions of documents in the Vatican archive of Pope Pius XII was the culmination of a long and bitter struggle to make public the record of the church during the war years. Formal discussions between Catholics and Jews about opening the archive, which was supposed to remain sealed until 2028, were largely fruitless until Pope Francis stepped in to make the records public.
The archives opened March 2 but closed after only a week because of the spread of the coronavirus in Italy. Still, the dramatic disclosures after only a brief glimpse leads experts such as Wolf in Germany to tell The Jerusalem Post that the archives ultimately will provide an extraordinary window into the secrets of the Vatican.
“Finally we can try to answer all the open questions about Pope Pius XII toward the Holocaust based on the sources. The time for apologetics and polemics should at last be over.”