Jews remind Vatican of darker side of Pius XII anniversary

October 6, 2008

Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen in Rome, 6 Oct 2008/Alessandro BianchiJust 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 Cover of Hitler’s Pope, a critical study of Pius XII by John Cornwellspoken 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 A History of the Holocaust, by Yehuda Bauerhave 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.


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Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen’s main problem with the Catholic Church is that he believes that the church did not do enough for the victims of the holocaust. He admits that the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII were instrumental in helping many Jews. But he wishes that they did more. I say to Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen that Pope Pius XII did more than any other religious leader of his day and I challenge anyone to show me a religious leader who did more (including Jewish leaders). That is why the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem Isaac Herzog chose to honor the Pontiff.

Posted by Daniel Bishop | Report as abusive

The political situation was not so simple at that time. Righ-wing parties are against all Religions. This means that Hitler used Christianity as an excuse.

Everyone can say, I could have done better than him in that situation but I am sure the Pope reflected well before acting.

Anyway I do not see the Jews condemning Christian killings around the world which is a real genocide happening now.

The Christians can never be anti-Jews since Jesus and the majority of the early Apostles where all Jews. The Roman Catholic religion can be considered an evolution of Judiasm.

Posted by Infonote | Report as abusive

To Infonote :

You are so wrong, its laughable.

Right-wing parties are not against religion. They are fundamentalists and rooted in a particular religion. Indeed, they employ religion as justification for totalitarianism. Just look at the right-wing population in the United States.

The Nazis were a mix: far left-wing in many respects (socialization of industry, for example) and far-right in others (xenophobic, racist, homophobic, rejection of civil liberties and the right of privacy, etc).

Two wrongs wouldnt make a right: there may be Christians being killed for their religious beliefs but that does not negate or wipe clean the past actions, inactions or moral failings of other individuals, religious institutions or organizations. That argument is the weakest argument possible. By this logic, I could say that because I dont see anyone praising the good deeds of my father, then Mother Teresa never accomplished a single good deed in her life.

To say the Christians can never by “anti-Jews” {sic} is just irrational. Heaps of historical evidence proves beyond any doubt the error in your claim.

To Daniel Bishop, I say, take a deep breath. The Rabbi’s statements were reasoned and measured. Even if, as you say, Pope Pius XII “did more than any other religious leader” for the Jews, that does not mean that perhaps he could have done more. Perhaps not. But to go on the defensive as you have simply because someone raised the question is a bit reactionary. It is only in examining the past can we better equip ourselves to respond to moral challenges today. If the conclusion is that Pope Pius XII would have accomplished more good had he publicly spoken out, then arent we, armed with this understanding, better prepared to speak out ourselves should we be presented with such a crisis.

I, for one, feel that had the Pope publicly spoken out, perhaps the United States would have been far more motivated to bomb the rail lines leading to the concentration camps. In addition, the average American would have been shaken from his/her ignorance about the genocide being committed across the ocean. That would have been no small accomplishment.

Posted by Andy | Report as abusive

Andy, you sure have a strange definition of a “measured response”, this must be one I’m unfamiliar with. When someone walks into your house and proclaims for the world to hear, “we cannot forgive you and we cannot forget”. This person is not expressing a measured response they are actually giving you a verbal slap in the face.

You mentioned that we should learn from history and you are certainly correct. Currently there are genocides and religious persecutions going on all over this planet and yet the world turns once again on its quiet access. This of course showing we have learned nothing at all.

Finally, you mentioned that you believed; if the Pontiff had spoke out, it would have made a difference. Well…that is your opinion and I respect that. I don’t agree with it but I respect it. I disagree because before the U.S. entered the war in 1942 over 3,000 priests and religious brothers (monks) and sisters (nuns) were already in death camps and the U.S. turned a deaf ear to them. The Pontiff knew the very lives of these people were in jeopardy if he had said anything. The U.S. deputy chief of counsel at the Nuremberg war trials, Dr. Robert M.W. Kempner, wrote, “Every propaganda move of the Catholic Church against Hitler’s Reich would have been not only ‘provoking suicide’. . . but would have hastened the execution of still more Jews and priests.”

Posted by Daniel Bishop | Report as abusive

Did not Pope Pius XII once publicly declare of Christians and Jews: “Spiritually, we are all Semites”? Was it not Pius XII who threw all the skill of the Vatican in organizing an underground network which saved more Jews, Protestants, and RCs from Nazi madness
than were rescued by all other relief agencies, combined? Is it not a fact that the Chief Rabbi of Rome converted to RC-ism after World War II, taking the baptismal name of Pius in gratitude for his mentor’s pivotal role in saving the lives of Jews?
Was it not a legitimate concern for Pius XII that Mitt Brennender Sorge caused such unbridled fury among Nazi elite that Holland became a hell-hole of persecution of Jews and RCs, thereafter? I may say, in passing, that an uncle of mine died during the breakout of St. Lo, after volunteering for service in the US Army; his stated reason for that heroic decision to enter WW-II, to help stop Nazi persecution of Christians and Jews. With all due respect, Rabbis of Rome and Jerusalem need to remember the facts.

Posted by Reginald T. A. de Vore | Report as abusive

Permit me to say, although I am a Christian layman, that it is both nonsensical and dangerous to ascribe to St. Paul the Apostle a derogatory role of innovator regarding testimony for the physical resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Aside from the Pauline witness of I Cor. 15:1-9, the NT gives ample evidence [Matt. 28: 1-10, Luke 24: 36-40, and John 20: 24-29] that Paul of Tarsus was hardly suffering from delusions of grandeur.
Rather, he reported what had been commonly experienced among many disciples of Jesus.
Is it not regrettable that certain persons show scant awareness of that vicious hatred of St. Paul’s soteriology which filled the minds of Nazi ideologues? For it is common knowledge that Nazi propagandists referred to this Apostle as “the dirty little Rabbi.”
Outrageous, yes, but why the abject hatred?
Despite caustic exchanges that marred the dialogue between Paul and certain notables of Jewry, initially, the mature Apostle to Gentiles does make clear [Romans 11] that God infallibly will save all Israel, at last. Truly devout Roman Catholics, such as Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta, O.C.D.), and devout members of the Confessing Church
never did forgot this pivotal doctrine. And I pray God we shall never forget their brave
witness to the splendour of truth.

Posted by Reginald T. A. de Vore | Report as abusive

Harvey Miller and I believe that the Ten Commandments are the universal answer to all mankind’s problems; therefore we should all live by the Golden Rule. We live in Haifa and view the Pope’s upcoming visit as a brave and spiritual act. The Jewish people are the simple custodians of the land of Israel and we ask all rightous people to live by the teachings that came from this glorious nation. Bless the Pope and all our true Christian
brothers and sisters and welcome to Israel.

Posted by Earl Shugerman | Report as abusive