A leading Israeli official has praised Pope Pius XII for saving Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome, a surprise twist in a long-standing controversy over the pontiff’s wartime role. The comments by Mordechay Lewy, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, were some of the warmest ever made by a Jewish official about Pius. Most have been very critical of his record.
Lewy, speaking at a ceremony on Thursday night to honor an Italian priest who helped Jews, said that Catholic convents and monasteries had opened their doors to save Jews in the days following a Nazi sweep of Rome’s Ghetto on October 16, 1943.
“There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on,” he said in a speech. “So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true,” he said.
In an indication of just how sensitive the subject of Pius is among Jews, Lewy was quickly assailed by a group of Holocaust survivors. Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, called Lewy’s comments unsustainable. “For any ambassador to make such specious comments is morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius’s silence,” Steinberg said in a statement. He said Lewy had “disgracefully conflated the praiseworthy actions of elements in the Catholic Church to rescue Jews with the glaring failure of Pope Pius to do so.”
The question of what Pius did or did not do to help Jews has tormented Catholic-Jewish relations for decades and it is very rare for a leading Jewish or Israeli leader to praise Pius. Many Jews accuse Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes because speaking out would have led to Nazi reprisals against Catholics and Jews in Europe.