Throughout the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe, many Catholics risked their lives to protect the Jews. Pope Pius XII, on the other hand, did little, if anything, says Holocaust expert Susan Zuccotti.
"Pope Pius XII did not speak up for the Jews," Zuccotti said at a recent lecture on The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy.
She noted the pope and most Vatican officials were Italian and they had the connections and the clout to help if they had so desired. However, their "anti-Jewish sentiment" prevented them from speaking up, she said.
Zuccotti also mentioned the Vatican's fear of Nazi reprisals against Catholics throughout occupied Europe, a reluctance to do anything that might favour a Soviet victory, a desire to remain neutral in the conflict and possibly a concern not to further endanger Jews in hiding, many of them in institutions of the Church.
Zuccotti, who has taught Holocaust and general European history at Columbia and Barnard colleges in New York City and at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., gave the annual Toby and Saul Reichert Holocaust Lecture at the University of Alberta Oct. 3.
In the spring of 2013 she published a biography of Father Marie-Benoit, a French Capuchin priest who, working closely with Jewish friends and associates, rescued thousands of Jews in Marseille and Rome during the Holocaust. She is also the author of The Italians and the Holocaust and The Holocaust, the French and the Jews.
Zuccotti began her lecture at Tory Lecture Theatre touching on Pope Pius XI, who died in 1939.
"Pope Pius XI did not speak out against the extremely punitive anti-Jewish laws (enacted by Mussolini) in September 1938," she pointed out. "I contend that this was the moment when leaders of the Church should have spoken out against persecution of the Jews."
One reason for the Church's silence was the fact its hierarchy was generally uncomfortable with Jews, who were blamed for all the evils of contemporary society, she said.
Pius XII, who headed the Church from 1939 until his death in 1958, was the pope throughout the war years. "He is criticized for not having spoken out against what he knew and he knew almost everything about the ongoing destruction of the European Jewry," Zuccotti said. "(But) I wouldn't say that he was totally silent."
In two papal encyclicals during the war, Pius XII made a number of references to the unity of the human race. "It was an attack on racism (but) did not mention Jews."
Moreover, in a Christmas 1942 speech, he called in a single sentence for compassion for those who were suffering because of "nationality and race."
"He didn't use the word 'Jews,' he did not condemn anti-Semitism and he did not even say, 'people suffer because of their religious (affiliation),'" Zuccotti said. "So it was extremely vague and many people were disappointed."
Pius XII made two more speeches of a similar nature, one in 1943 and another in June 1944, just before the liberation of Rome. "Again, the same idea; he never said, 'We condemn the destruction of European Jewry and we non-Jews must help the Jews to survive.'"
However, in the pages of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper, the pope's spokesmen appealed several times for compassion for victims of war.
"I often say, and I think it's true, that priests and nuns and monks who did help Jews did believe that they were acting with the approval and assent of Pius XII," Zuccotti said. "But there was no directive, there were no instructions, there was no effort to heighten the sensibility of non-Jews to this horror that was going on."
During her lecture, Zuccotti presented a list of things the pope could have done to help the Jews. Among other things, Pius XII could have organized public protests against the Holocaust and helped the Jews who were in internment camps within Italy itself.
"The pope offered very minimal help," she lamented. However, non-Jews in the camps received help from the Church.
But the efforts and sacrifices of priests, monks, nuns and Catholic laypersons throughout occupied Europe are well-known, she said.
Father Marie-Benoit, for instance, set up rescue networks in Rome, where Jewish refugees would come for help. He and his colleagues took the refugees to safe houses and monasteries and gave them false identities and money. The secretary of the bishop of Genoa also established networks to help the Jews.
The cardinal of Florence also assigned his secretary and two other priests to help the Jews. Together they helped save about 1,000 Jews from extermination. The bishops of Assisi, Turin, Milan and Rome acted similarly.
Was there a connection between these priests who were risking their lives to save Jews and the Vatican itself?
"This is a thorny issue that is still under debate," Zuccotti said. "However, I found absolutely no connection."
Archival documents show that bishops and cardinals that helped Jews did so because Jewish committees approached them for help, not because of Vatican directives, she said. "There is no evidence of any Vatican appeal or request."
The Vatican did not speak about the destruction of the Gypsies either or about the Poles, or the homosexuals or the Jehovah's Witnesses murdered by the Nazis, lamented Zuccotti.
"The (pope) spoke out for no one."