Was Pope Pius good for the Jews?

Was Pope Pius good for the Jews?

Abe Foxman and David Kertzer discuss damning information newly revealed in Vatican archives

Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII

What exactly did Pope Pius XII do during World War II?

Was he a good man who did his best to rescue Jews from the Nazis and their collaborators, but constrained by political realities he could not overcome?

Or was he not even aspirationally heroic? Was he, in fact, at best indifferent to the fate of the Jews, and at worst not displeased to have them deported to their deaths?

Historians have always known that the answers to these questions were available in the Vatican archives, that vast, jumbled storehouse packed with idiosyncratically indexed troves of information. But for years the Vatican — in the person of the reigning pope — refused those historians access to the archives.

That changed in 2020.

Two men with vital interests in the contents of the archives and even more in the actions and intentions of Pius XII will talk about it on Sunday, April 28, at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. (See below.)

Dr. David Kertzer has a list of academic credentials too long to list here; to skim them, he’s the Dupee University Professor of Social Science Emeritus at Brown University, where he’s now a research professor. He’s also written histories of Italy and the Jews that are both academic and readable; his next-to-most recent, “The Pope and Mussolini,” won the Pulitzer for biography in 2015.

His most recent book, “The Pope at War,” is about Pius and his relationship with Hitler and other Axis leaders; it’s based on information he unearthed in archives across Europe.

He’ll talk to Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, who retired after a 50-year career with the Anti-Defamation League, most of them as its head.

“The controversy over the pope’s silence has been around for a long time,” Dr. Kertzer said. “It began in 1963 with ‘The Deputy,’ by a German playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, who portrayed people in the church as begging Pius to get involved, and Pius refusing to do so.

In a Look magazine photograph published on July 25, 1944, Rabbi Kertzer leads a minyan of Jewish soldiers at Anzio.

“The play was banned in Italy, but it played in the United States and throughout Europe, including in Berlin. In response, the pope at the time, Paul VI, who had been Number 2 to Pius, said he wouldn’t open the archives so historians could examine documents from the war years to learn who was right, the pope’s critics or those who were portraying him in heroic terms, as the savior of the Jews.

“He had a group of four Jesuit historians who produced 12 thick volumes of documents from the war years, and they said that they’d made everything relevant public.”

As it turned out, they had not. But the controversy did quiet down for decades. But in 1999, a British writer, John Cornwell, published “Hitler’s Pope,” accusing Pius of working with the Germans to grow the church’s power, even though that meant betraying the Jews. “It was a best seller, it stirred up controversy again, and Jewish groups and scholars begged the Vatican to open its archives so the question could be settled,” Dr. Kertzer said.

“The pope resisted.”

But in 2019, yet another pope, Francis, said he would authorize opening the archives. “I was there on the morning of March 2, 2022, when they were opened” Dr. Kertzer said. “I was basically the first person — certainly the first American — at that event.”

He used the information he found in the Vatican archives, along with documents he found in other archives across Europe, to put together the story of a pope who did not care what happened to the Jews who were being murdered all around him.

Dr. Kertzer studied the reports coming from the European ambassadors, envoys, and other officials who met constantly with papal representatives, frequently met with the pope, and routinely sent daily reports of those meetings back to their own governments. He triangulated that information, as he put it, with the pope’s actions to learn what he knew, and from that to understand why the pope did what he did.

For example, Dr. Kertzer said that Pius XII “had a prelate in the secretary of state’s office, whom he regarded as an expert on Jews. His role was unknown until my book came out, but clearly, he was a fierce antisemite, and you can see the kind of advice he was giving the pope.

“In the fall of 1942, Roosevelt sent word to the pope that he had been getting horrifying reporting about the mass murder of the Jews of Europe. But he knew that if he released that information people would think it was just propaganda, so he asked the pope if he had any evidence of what was going on. It would be very helpful, Roosevelt said to Pius. And the pope had a lot of that evidence.

“But the pope sent the request to this prelate, who told him not to admit to anything” — to knowing anything, that is, not to doing anything — “because the Allies will cite it, and it will make the Germans angry.

Dr. David Kertzer

“So keep quiet, he told the pope.”

All the details are upsetting, and they can be hard to take, Dr. Kreutzer said. He recalled being upset by “the stories of individual Jews.” He talked about a group arrest “of Jews, mainly women and children, who were rounded up on October 16, 1943, which was a very important day in Italian Jewish history.

“On that day, 250 SS officers went door to door with lists, and the people on those lists were sent to holding cells just outside the Vatican. They arrested 1,269 people, but they weren’t put on trains to Auschwitz for two days. For some reason, 250 of them were released. The question is why? It turns out that the Vatican was very busy getting lists to the German embassy showing who was baptized, and which Jews had married Catholics and agreed to raise their children as Catholic.

“Those Jews were released.” The rest of the Jews — to repeat, mostly women and children — were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.

Dr. Kertzer had a personal reason to do this often heart-wrenching scholarly work. “My father, Morris Kertzer, was a rabbi and a chaplain in the army,” he said. “He was with the forces that landed on the Anzio beachhead in early June 1944, and he was there when Rome was liberated. That was on a Sunday. A few days later, they reopened the Great Synagogue of Rome. The Jews who had been hiding in Rome crowded into the synagogue, thousands of them, to see which of their friends and relatives had survived the war.

“My father co-conducted services there with the chief rabbi of Rome.

“I grew up hearing these stories.”

Rabbi Kertzer went on to become the founding director of the American Jewish Committee’s interreligious affairs department.

Mr. Foxman also has a very personal reason to care about the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews.

He was born in 1940, in a town that was in Poland then and is Belarus now. His parents, Helen and Joseph, took their own child and fled to Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania. There, as the dark shadow of the Shoah began to spread, they left baby Abe with his nanny, Bronisława Kurpi, who had him baptized and brought him up as a beloved, obviously Catholic — albeit for some reason, certainly not because he was Jewish and circumcised — boy.

Abe Foxman with his parents, Helen and Joseph, at a DP camp in Austria in 1947.

It was hellishly difficult for his parents to leave him with Ms. Kurpi, but Mr. Foxman is certain that had they not done so, none of them would have survived. His parents would have been encumbered by a baby, and all three of them would have been caught and killed. Somehow, however, all three of them survived. After the war, the Foxmans found and reclaimed their son, causing Ms. Kurpi great pain but opening the world to young Abe.

Mr. Foxman remembers how gentle his parents were with him as they moved him back from Catholicism to Judaism. “When we were reunited, I wore a cross,” he said. “My father replaced it with a tallit kattan. I was 6, so it wasn’t a question of theology for me. I understood that I no longer wear a cross; instead, I wear this thing that’s close to my body, so I can be close to God. I used to say my prayers in Latin and now I say them in Hebrew. I didn’t understand the Latin and now, at 6, I don’t understand the Hebrew. Before I was 6, I would kneel to pray. Now I don’t kneel anymore.

“Everything was transitional for me then, not theological. When I walked by a church, I crossed myself. When I saw a priest, I kissed his hand. And then I went to the synagogue with my father.”

Mr. Foxman knows that had it not been for Ms. Kurpi — whose relationship with the Foxmans ended with pain, who chose to remain in Poland rather than going to the United States with them, and whose life faded away as the Foxmans lost touch with her and the Iron Curtain dropped between them — he would not have survived. He also feels gratitude to the priest who baptized him. Without the documents that showed that he was Catholic, little Abe’s life would have been entirely unofficial, and he would have been in great danger. “He was acting against what the church might have instructed him to do. He risked his life. And I never have been able to find his name.” He’s been trying, Mr. Foxman added. He’d like to find his baptism records, which so far have eluded him.

Mr. Foxman feels strongly that the truth about Pius XII and the Jews should be more widely known than it is, and that Dr. Kertzer’s book should be more widely read.

“To me, why this book never made news is a great enigma,” Mr. Foxman said. “For 60 years, survivors and Jewish organizations have hammered, we have pushed, we have negotiated, we have demanded that the Vatican open up its files. For the last 60 years, we have demanded, badgered, requested, cajoled the church to open up its files on Pope Pius XII. I don’t remember a meeting with top Catholic clergy, either here or in Rome, when Jewish representatives didn’t elevate this issue to the top of our agenda. This was the top, and recognizing Israel was the second.

“And then Pope Francis finally opens the archives, Dr. Kertzer, a great scholar, writes the book — and it’s a horrendous exposé. We see how horrific Pope Pius was — and nobody seems to care.

“Thanks to Francis and to David, for the first time we have a close-up look about whether the pope was a saint or not. I think that if you had asked me before the book came out, I think most of us would have said — I know I would have said — that Pope Pius could have done more, but at least he did something.

“That was the guesstimate, although people did start wondering why the Vatican resisted attempts to have it look good. But now, here comes David. His book paints a horrible picture of Pius as the pope. I don’t think that David Kertzer calls him an antisemite, but I do. The only Jews he lifted a finger to help were those who were baptized. I wouldn’t say that he was Hitler’s pope — but he certainly did nothing to save Jews.

“So here is the problem.

“Finally, after 50, 60 years of advocating to get the truth, we finally get it — and the truth is horrible. It is the worst possible. You had a person in power who had the ability to speak, to intervene, to save Jews, but he didn’t do a thing.

“He turned a deaf ear and a blind eye.

“So now, after all these years, the truth is out — and the Jewish community is like ho-hum. The book should be a best seller. The author should be carried from one synagogue to another. So why isn’t it? Why isn’t he?”

What does he want? Although church policy and theology toward the Jews has changed immensely since World War II, “the church has yet to acknowledge the role of their leader during the darkest moment of Jewish history,” Mr. Foxman said. “Christians could have helped — but they didn’t. The sad hard fact is that many of those who slaughtered Jews on Monday through Friday went to church on Sunday.”

He also wants reassurances that Pope Pius XII will not be beatified, because, as the archival findings make clear, he was no saint.

Who: David Kertzer and Abe Foxman

What: Will talk about Dr. Kertzer’s book, “The Pope at War”

Where: At Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, for the synagogue’s Bloom Family Lecture series

When: On Sunday, April 28, at 4 p.m.

For more information: Go to tbanj.shulcloud.com or call (973) 994-2290

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