Jews remind Vatican of darker side of Pius XII anniversary
Just as the Vatican is gearing up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII, two Jews have spoken out to recall the darker side of his papacy. Their tone is neither shrill nor polemical, unlike many articles and books that have appeared over the years accusing Pius of being “Hitler’s Pope” and not doing enough to save Jews from the Holocaust. They do not seem keen to pick an argument with the Vatican just as it is preparing to hold what may be its most open defence of the controversial pontiff. But they raise difficult questions that remain even after Pope Benedict insisted his predecessor “spared no effort” to save Jews during World War Two.
Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen (photo above), the first Jew to address a Vatican synod, told the Roman Catholic bishops there that Jews “cannot forget the sad and painful fact of how many, including great religious leaders, didn’t raise their voice in the effort to save our brethren but chose to keep silent and helped secretly. We cannot forgive and forget it and we hope that you understand.”
The chief rabbi of Haifa in Israel, 80, was less diplomatic a few hours earlier in an interview with our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella: “We feel that the late pope (Pius) should have spoken up much more strongly than he did … He may have helped in secrecy many of the victims and many of the refugees but the question is ‘could he have raised his voice and would it have helped or not?’ …
“We, as the victims, feel yes. I am not empowered by the families of the millions of deceased to say ‘we forget, we forgive … I have to make it very clear that we, the rabbis, the leadership of the Jewish people, cannot as long as the survivors still feel painful agree that this leader of the Church in a time of crisis should be honored now. It is not our decision. It pains us. We are sorry it is being done.”
Cohen said only God knows if Pius spoke out enough against the Holocaust: “God is the judge … he knows the truth.”
Yehuda Bauer, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Hebrew University, prefaced his remarks in The Tablet by saying he was a non-religious Jew just trying to reflect historical reality as best he could. He lamented the fact that Vatican archives for the wartime period are still not open and said Benedict offered no new documentary evidence to back up his claim that Pius had spared no effort to save Jews. “Until the archives are opened, no objective view can emerge,” he said.
“Could he have ‘saved the Jews’? I do not think so. The Vatican was isolated,” Bauer continued. “But it is not a matter of practical politics – the Pope was, in his own eyes, as God’s vicar on earth, responsible not only for Catholics, but for all humans. The Pope’s failure was moral and theological, not practical. A public statement would not have changed the fate of the Jews, who were being totally annihilated everywhere the Nazis could find them. Had he spoken out in public, he would probably not have saved a single Jew, but he might conceivably have saved his soul – according to the belief system he genuinely believed in.”
Pope Benedict will celebrate mass in honour of Pius on Thursday and the Vatican will open a photo exhibition about him on October 21. Since he has suspended the synod for the mass and invited all bishops to attend it, Benedict might make a major announcement, for example that he would soon beatify Pius. I wonder if Benedict or other Vatican officials will produce any new documentary evidence or any new moral arguments to answer the criticisms these two men have made.