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The Vatican & the Holocaust: Pope Pius XII & the Holocaust

by Mitchell Bard

Pope Pius XII’s (1876-1958) actions during the Holocaust remain controversial. For much of the war, he maintained a public front of indifference and remained silent while German atrocities were committed. He refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality while making statements condemning injustices in general. Privately, he sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials, encouraging them to help the Jews.

Pacelli in Germany
Elected pope
Cries for Help
Papal Reasons & Responses
The pope Protests-
Politics Behind the Policy
Contemporary Developments
Opening the Archives
Revelations From The Archive

Pacelli in Germany

The pope was born in 1876 in Rome as Eugenio Pacelli. He studied philosophy at the Gregorian University, learned theology at Sant Apollinare, and was ordained in 1899. He entered the Secretariat of State for the Vatican in 1901, became a cardinal in 1929, and was appointed Secretary of State in 1930.

Pacelli lived in Germany from 1917, when he was appointed Papal Nuncio in Bavaria, until 1929. He knew what the Nazi party stood for and was elected pope in 1939, having said very little about Adolf Hitler’s ideology beyond a 1935 speech describing the Nazis as “miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel.” Pacelli told 250,000 pilgrims at Lourdes on April 28, “It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of the social revolution, whether they are guided by a false conception of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.” He believed National Socialism was “profoundly anti-Christian and a danger to Catholicism.”(1)

Even as Cardinal, Pacelli’s actions regarding Hitler were controversial. Hitler took power on January 30, 1933. On July 20 of that same year, Pacelli and German diplomat Franz Von Papen signed a concordat that granted freedom of practice to the Roman Catholic Church. In return, the Church agreed to separate religion from politics. This diminished the influence of the Catholic Center Party and the Catholic Labor unions. The concordat was generally viewed as a diplomatic victory for Hitler.(1a)

Meanwhile, in Rome, Pope Pius XI was angered by Hitler’s treatment of the Church, “replacing Catholic parochial schools with state schools, closing many religious institutions, and supplanting Christian teachings with Nazi doctrine.” In 1937, the pope condemned Nazi persecution of the Church in an encyclical. To further show his disdain for Hitler, he absented himself from the city when Hitler came to visit Rome in 1938.(1b)

Elected pope

Pius XI died on February 10, 1939. Pacelli was elected pope on March 2, 1939, and took the name Pius XII. As pope, he had three official positions. He was head of his church and directly communicated with bishops everywhere. He was chief of state of the Vatican, with his diplomatic corps. He was also the Bishop of Rome. In theory, at least, his views could influence 400 million Catholics, including those in all the occupied eastern territories – the Poles, Baltics, Croatians, Slovaks, and others.(2)

As soon as he was appointed, Pacelli did speak out against the 1938 Italian racial laws that dealt with mixed marriages and children of mixed marriages.(3) His concern was not about the mistreatment of Jews but the unfairness of applying the laws to Jews who had converted to Catholicism. As the security of the Jewish population became more precarious, Pius XII did intervene in March 1939 to obtain 3,000 visas for European Jews who had been baptized and converted to Catholicism to enter Brazil. Two-thirds of these were later revoked, however, because of “improper conduct,” probably meaning that the Jews started practicing Judaism once in Brazil. At that time, the pope did nothing to save practicing Jews.(4)

Hitler hoped to establish a better relationship with the new pope and appointed Prince Philipp von Hessen to open a back channel to Pius XII. In their first meeting on May 11, 1939, the pope reiterated his predecessor’s concerns about the mistreatment of the Church and said,  “I am certain that if peace between Church and state is restored, everyone will be pleased. The German people are united in their love for the Fatherland. Once we have peace, the Catholics will be loyal, more than anyone else.” He added, “We love Germany. We are pleased if Germany is great and powerful.”

The pope also expressed concern with an issue that would haunt the Church later, morality trials held for hundreds of German priests accused of sexual crimes, including the abuse of children. “Such errors happen everywhere,” the pope told von Hessen. “Some remain secret; others are exploited. Whenever we are told of such cases, we intervene immediately.”

For his part, Hitler wanted a commitment from the pope to stay out of politics, but von Hessen didn’t get a commitment from Pius; nevertheless, when von Hessen returned to Rome, he brought news that the treatment of the Church would change for the better. The German press, for example, “the German press was ordered to end its attacks on the Catholic religion and Catholic priests in Germany.”(4a)

The pope wasn’t satisfied, but the channel stayed open even after he issued his first encyclical on October 20, 1939, just weeks after the outbreak of World War IISummi Pontificatus (Darkness over the Earth) was, according to Prof. Matteo Luigi Napolitano, “the first true condemnation of the Nazi Movement against an innocent country (Poland).” Pius warned of “the ever-increasing host of Christ’s enemies” and noted that these enemies of Christ “deny or in practice neglect the vivifying truths and the values inherent in belief in God and in Christ” and want to “break the Tables of God’s Commandments to substitute other tables and other standards stripped of the ethical content of [Christianity].” He also said Christians who joined the enemies of Christ “suffered from cowardice, weakness, or uncertainty.”

The encyclical continued: “The spirit, the teaching and the work of the Church can never be other than that which the Apostle of the Gentiles preached: ‘putting on the new (man) him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him that created him. Where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free. But Christ is all and in all’” (Colossians 3:10, 11).

In a tortured interpretation of this statement, Napolitano argues that equating Jews and Gentiles was important and offended the Nazis.(4b) This, however, was hardly the condemnation of the persecution of the Jews that was hoped from him.

While the pope remained silent about the treatment of the Jews, he continued to seek an end to the persecution of the Church. He met German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on March 11, 1940, and repeated his concerns while the German reassured him the situation was improving while reiterating Hitler’s insistence that the clergy refrain from criticizing the government. 

“What the meeting did,” David Kertzer, professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, concludes, “was string the pope along and help keep him silent. Hitler never intended to restore the prerogatives of the Church in Germany, but he knew how to dangle various enticements.”(4c)

Cries for Help

Throughout the Holocaust, Pius XII was consistently besieged with pleas for help on behalf of the Jews.

In the spring of 1940, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, asked the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, to intercede to keep Jews in Spain from being deported to Germany. He later made a similar request for Jews in Lithuania. The papacy did nothing.(5)

Within the pope’s church, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna told Pius XII about Jewish deportations in 1941. In 1942, the Slovakian charge d’affaires, a position under the supervision of the pope, reported to Rome that Slovakian Jews were being systematically deported and sent to death camps.(6)

In October 1941, the Assistant Chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican, Harold Tittman, asked the pope to condemn the atrocities. The response came that the Holy See wanted to remain “neutral” and that condemning the atrocities would negatively influence Catholics in German-held lands.(7)

In late August 1942, after more than 200,000 Ukrainian Jews had been killed, Ukrainian Metropolitan Andrej Septyckyj^ wrote a long letter to the pope, referring to the German government as a regime of terror and corruption, more diabolical than that of the Bolsheviks. The pope replied by quoting verses from Psalms and advising Septyckyj to “bear adversity with serene patience.”(8)

On September 18, 1942, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini,** the future pope Paul VI, wrote, “The massacres of the Jews reach frightening proportions and forms.”(9) Yet, that same month when Myron Taylor, U.S. representative to the Vatican, warned the pope* that his silence was endangering his moral prestige, the Secretary of State responded on the pope’s behalf that it was impossible to verify rumors about crimes committed against the Jews.(10)

Wladislaw Raczkiewicz, president of the Polish government-in-exile, appealed to the pope in January 1943 to publicly denounce Nazi violence. Bishop Preysing of Berlin did the same, at least twice. Pius XII refused.(11)

Papal Reasons & Responses

By 1942, the Vatican was undoubtedly aware of the Final Solution. U.S. Bishops released a statement in October 1942 which, unlike the pope’s public remarks, explicitly mentions the treatment of Jews:

Since the murderous assault on Poland, utterly devoid of every semblance of humanity, there has been a premeditated and systematic extermination of the people of this nation. The same satanic technique is being applied to many other peoples. We feel a deep sense of revulsion against the cruel indignities heaped upon Jews in conquered countries and upon defenseless peoples not of our faith…. Deeply moved by the arrest and maltreatment of the Jews, we cannot stifle the cry of conscience. In the name of humanity and Christian principles, our voice is raised.(11a)

The pope finally gave a reason for his consistent refusals to make a public statement in December 1942. The Allied governments issued a declaration, “German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race,” which stated that there would be retribution for the perpetrators of Jewish murders. When Tittman asked Secretary of State Maglione if the pope could issue a similar proclamation, Maglione said the papacy was “unable to denounce publicly particular atrocities.”(12) One reason for this position was that the staunchly anti-communist pope felt he could not denounce the Nazis without including the Communists; therefore, Pius XII would only condemn general atrocities.(13)

Tittmann informed the State Department in 1942: “The Holy See is still apparently convinced that a forthright denunciation by the pope of Nazi atrocities, at least insofar as Poland is concerned, would only result in the violent deaths of many more people.”(13a)

The pope did speak generally against the extermination campaign. On January 18, 1940, after the death toll of Polish civilians was estimated at 15,000, the pope said in a broadcast, “The horror and inexcusable excesses committed on a helpless and a homeless people have been established by the unimpeachable testimony of eye-witnesses.”(14) 

Some cite the pope’s Christmas Eve radio broadcast in 1942 as evidence of his concern for Jews though he never mentions them:

Mankind owes that vow [the renewal of society] to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle: The sacrifice of their lives in the fulfillment of their duty is a holocaust offered for a new and better social order. Mankind owes that vow to the innumerable sorrowing host of mothers, widows and orphans who have seen the light, the solace and the support of their lives wrenched from them. Mankind owes that vow to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: “Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.” Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline” [emphasis added].(15)

In a September 1940 broadcast, the Vatican called its policy “neutrality” but stated in the same broadcast that where morality was involved, no neutrality was possible.(18) This could only imply that mass murder was not a moral issue.

The pope’s indifference to the mistreatment of Jews was often apparent. In 1941, for example, after being asked by French Marshal Henri Philippe Petain if the Vatican would object to anti-Jewish laws, Pius XII answered that the church condemned racism but did not repudiate every rule against the Jews.(16) When Petain’s French puppet government introduced “Jewish statutes,” the Vichy ambassador to the Holy See informed Petain that the Vatican did not consider the legislation in conflict with Catholic teachings as long as they were carried out with “charity” and “justice.”(17)

According to Kertzer, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano was ordered not to write about German atrocities.

Robert Wistrich notes that “by the end of 1942, the Vatican was among the best-informed institutions in Europe concerning the Holocaust. Except for the Germans or perhaps British intelligence, few people were more aware of the local details as well as the larger picture.”(17a)

On September 8, 1943, the Nazis invaded Italy, and, suddenly, the Vatican was the local authority. The Nazis gave the Jews 36 hours to come up with 50 kilograms of gold, or else the Nazis would take 300 hostages. The Vatican was willing to loan 15 kilos, an offer that eventually proved unnecessary when the Jews obtained an extension for the delivery.(19)

Pius XII knew that Jewish deportations from Italy were impending. The Vatican even found out from SS First Lieutenant Kurt Gerstein the fate of those who were to be deported.(20) Publicly, the pope stayed silent. Privately, Pius did instruct Catholic institutions to take in Jews.

In the 1970s, Karl Wolff, the commander of the police in Rome, claimed that on September 13, 1943, Hitler gave the order to “occupy Vatican City, secure its files and art treasures, and take the pope and Curia to the north” to prevent the pope from being taken by the Allies.” Kertzer argues the story is dubious given that the Germans could have kidnapped the pope anytime during their occupation of Rome. Moreover, Kertzer notes, the pope wanted good relations with the Germans to protect Vatican City, and the Germans believed remaining respectful toward the pope had propaganda value.

Meanwhile, in Greece, Archbishop Damaskinos ordered all monasteries on October 7, 1943, to shelter any Jews who approached them. This was in response to SS General Jurgen Stroop’s order for all Jews to register or face the death penalty.

On October 16, 1943, the Nazis arrested 1,259 Roman Jews, most of whom were women and children. German Ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsäcker wrote to Berlin that “the pope, although pressed...has not allowed himself...any expression of disapproval against the deportations” even though it occurred “under his very windows.” A week earlier, Von Weizsacker forwarded to the Security Police Commander Herbert Kappler a protest against the deportations by Bishop Alois Hudal, rector of the German church in Rome.(21)

The Jews were held for two days in a military complex close to the Vatican. Kertzer discovered the Germans gave the Vatican permission to send an envoy to the barracks, who found the group “included people who had already been baptized, confirmed and celebrated a church wedding.” The Vatican asked the German ambassador to intervene, and 250 people the church determined were Catholic were not deported. By doing this, Kertzer argues in his book The Pope at War, the Vatican participated in the “selection of Jews,” determining “who is going to live and who is going to die.”(42)

The pope could have publicly demanded the release of the Jews or sent a private message to Hitler, Kertzer noted. Instead, he remained silent, and the Jews were taken to Auschwitz, where 811 were gassed immediately. Of those sent to the concentration camp, just 16 survived.(22)

On October 25, 1943, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano ran an article saying “the Holy Father’s charity was universal, extending to all races.” According to Martin Gilbert, following Cardinal Secretary of State Luigi Maglione’s appeal to protect Rome’s remaining Jews, Pius instructed the Vatican to be opened to the city’s Jews and the convents and monasteries to provide hiding places or false papers. Gilbert credits this papal initiative with resulting in a more significant percentage of the Jews of Rome being saved than were saved in any other city then under German occupation. The Vatican itself hid 477 Jews, and another 4,238 Jews were protected in Roman monasteries and convents.(21a)

In December 1943, Vatican officials discussed whether the pope should say or do anything after the deportation of Rome’s Jews. 

The pope’s Jesuit emissary to the Italian Fascist regime, Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, believed the Vatican should privately call on the Germans to end the persecution of Jews in Italy. It was not until two months after the deportation of Rome’s Jews, however, that he drafted a statement that said there was no need for the measures taken against the Jews because they were already kept in their proper place by Italy’s racial laws. He also argued Italians did not have the same hostility toward Jews as gentiles elsewhere because many had intermarried. There was no need to offend the “good sense of the Italian people” by putting Jews in concentration camps when “the racial Law sanctioned by the Fascist Government against the Jews five years ago is sufficient to contain the tiny Jewish minority within its proper limits.” Hence, he said, “the German Government will want to desist from the deportation of the Jews, whether that done en masse, as happened this past October, or those done by single individuals.”

In proposing that the pope make a statement, Tacchi Venturi asked, “If one renews the harsh measures against the minimal Jewish minority, which includes a notable number of members of the Catholic religion (Jews who intermarried), how will the Church be able to remain silent and not loudly lament before the whole world the fate of men and women not guilty of any crime toward whom it cannot, without failing to carry out its divine mission, deny its compassion and all its maternal care?”

The pope asked the Secretariat of State’s expert on all Jewish questions, Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, whether he should follow the recommendation of Tacchi Venturi. Dell’Acqua responded with a letter disputing the points Tacchi Venturi had made for issuing a statement. “The persecution of the Jews that the Holy See justly deplores is one thing, especially when it is carried out with certain methods,” Dell’Acqua wrote, “and quite another thing is to be wary of the Jews’ influence: this can be quite opportune.”

Kertzer noted that “the Vatican-overseen Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, had repeatedly warned of the need for government laws to restrict the rights of the Jews to protect Christian society from their alleged depredations. Dell’Acqua also feared angering the Germans by openly highlighting “the mistreatment to which the Jews are allegedly being subject (emphasis added).” Dismissing Tacchi Venturi’s advice, Dell’Acqua recommended that the Vatican make a general statement to the German ambassador to the Holy See, urging him not to aggravate “the already grave situation of the Jews.” Furthermore, he suggested the Jews should be told to stop complaining about their treatment. “One should also let the Jewish Signori know,” he wrote, “that they should speak a little less and act with great prudence.”(37)

In his 1944 Christmas message, Pope Pius XII said nothing about the extermination of the Jewish people or the cost of human lives. He merely called the war “dreadful” and argued it is the duty of all “to do everything to ban once and for all wars of aggression as legitimate solution of international disputes and as a means towards realizing national aspirations.” He added that “the idea of war as an apt and proportionate means of solving international conflicts is now out of date” and that “the Christian and religious mentality reject modern war with its monstrous means of conducting hostilities.” The pope defended the punishment of war criminals but objected to the collective punishment of nations.

The Pope Protests

The pope did act behind the scenes on occasion. During the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, he, along with the papal nuncio in Budapest, Angelo Rotta, advised the Hungarian government to be moderate in its plans concerning the treatment of the Jews. Pius XII protested against the deportation of Jews, and when his protests were not heeded, he cabled again and again.(23) The pope’s demands, combined with similar protests from the King of Sweden, the International Red Cross, Britain, and the United States, contributed to the decision by the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, to cease deportations on July 8, 1944.(24)

In the war's latter stages, Pius XII appealed to several Latin American governments to accept “emergency passports” that several thousand Jews had obtained in the Vittel internment camp. Due to the efforts of the pope and the U.S. State Department, 13 Latin American countries decided to honor these documents, despite threats from the Germans to deport the passport holders.(25)

The Church also answered a request to save 6,000 Jewish children in Bulgaria by helping to transfer them to Palestine. At the same time, however, Cardinal Maglione wrote to the apostolic delegate in Washington, A.G. Cicognani, saying this did not mean the pope supported Zionism.(26) The church did often help baptized Jews but was less enthusiastic about assisting Jews who did not abandon their faith.

More than 20 years after the war, Father Robert Leiber, the pope’s private secretary, claimed Pius “helped the Jews as much as he could” and “spent his whole private fortune for that purpose.” Leiber said that Pius raised funds for Jews and helped thousands to escape to North and South America. Leiber also maintained that Pus suspended the Clausura rule to allow nuns, brothers, and fathers to hide Jews. Leiber also said the pope considered speaking out but decided it was better to keep silent.(26a) Except for his reference to keeping quiet, there seems to be no evidence to support Leiber’s other assertions.

Politics Behind the Policy

Historians point out that any support the pope did give the Jews came after 1942, once U.S. officials told him that the allies wanted total victory, and it became likely that they would get it. Furthering the notion that any intervention by Pius XII was based on practical advantage rather than moral inclination is the fact that in late 1942, Pius XII began to advise the German and Hungarian bishops that it would be to their ultimate political advantage to go on record as speaking out against the massacre of the Jews.(27)

One of the only cases in which the pope gave early support to the allies was in May 1940. He received information about a German plan, Operation Yellow, to lay mines to deter British naval support of Holland. Pius XII permitted him to send coded radio messages warning papal nuncios in Brussels and The Hague of the plot. The German radio monitoring services decoded the broadcast and went ahead with the plan.(28) This papal intervention is surprising due to the pope’s persistent claim of neutrality and his silence regarding almost all German atrocities.

In Hitler’s pope, John Cromwell argues that the pope’s behavior can be partly explained because Pacelli was an anti-Semite, however, Robert Wistrich argues he was anti-Jewish only in the traditional sense of believing that Jews killed Jesus. Meanwhile, defenders of the pope have pointed to statements by Israel’s consul in Italy in the 1960s, Pinhas Lapide, and by Golda Meir praising the pope as evidence of his efforts to save Jews during the war, but Wistrich says their remarks were not backed by verifiable evidence of papal action. What is clear is that the pope could have done more. Catholic Poles were the most outspoken critics of his silence. Pius did not speak out effectively after Germany overran Poland, and the restrained remarks that did come from the Vatican about the oppression of the Catholic Poles ceased after Germany protested.(28a)

Even after the war, the Vatican prioritized Christians' treatment. Thus, for example, the Vatican provided evidence to the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg in 1946 that documented the Nazi persecution of the Catholic Church before and during the war.(28b)

Wistrich also notes that while there is some controversy about the pope’s assistance to the Jews, the Church’s role in helping Nazi murderers escape, and seeking clemency for convicted Nazi criminals, is well-documented. It is less clear, however, how much the pope knew about this. We know much of the assistance was given knowingly, but church officials also claimed the conditions after the war made it nearly impossible to investigate everyone seeking help after the war. Monsignor Karl Bayer, who was liaison chaplain responsible for the 250,000 prisoners of war in the north of Italy, explained:

If there really was a screening, he said, “an attempt at detailed research by examining each of the people concerned, it would have required at least a dozen German-speaking priests. I knew them all. There were, of course, quite a few, but they were incredibly busy — too busy, I think, for the kind of supervision of the many people [they dealt with]…. Well, of course we asked questions,” he said. “But at the same time, we hadn’t an earthly chance of checking on the answers. In Rome, at that time, every kind of paper and information could be bought. If a man wanted to tell us he was born in Viareggio — no matter if he was really born in Berlin and couldn’t speak a word of Italian, he only had to go down into the street and he’d find dozens of Italians willing to swear on a stack of Bibles that they knew he was born in Viareggio….”(28c)

Contemporary Developments

The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission (ICJHC), a group of three Jewish and three Catholic scholars, was appointed in 1999 by the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In October 2000, the group of scholars finished their review of the Vatican’s archives and submitted their preliminary findings to the Commission’s then-President, Cardinal Edward I Cassidy. Their report, entitled “The Vatican and the Holocaust,” laid to rest several of the conventional defenses of Pope Pius XII.

The often-espoused view that the Pontiff was unaware of the seriousness of the situation of European Jewry during the war was definitively found to be inaccurate. Numerous documents demonstrated that the pope was well-informed about the full extent of the Nazi’s anti-Semitic practices. A letter from Konrad von Preysing, Bishop of Berlin, that proved that the pope was aware of the situation as early as January of 1941 caught the commission's attention. In that letter, Preysing confirms that “Your Holiness is certainly informed about the situation of the Jews in Germany and the neighboring countries. I wish to mention that I have been asked both from the Catholic and Protestant side if the Holy See could not do something on this favor of these unfortunates.” The letter, which was a direct appeal to the pope himself, without intermediaries, provoked no response. In 1942, an even more compelling eyewitness account of the mass murder of Jews in Lvov was sent to the pope by an archbishop; this too garnered no response.

The commission also revealed several documents that cast a negative light on the claim that the Vatican did all it could to facilitate the emigration of the Jews out of Europe. Internal notes meant only for Vatican representatives revealed the opposition of Vatican officials to Jewish emigration from Europe to Palestine. “The Holy See has never approved of the project of making Palestine a Jewish home...[because] Palestine is by now holier for Catholics than for Jews.” Some Catholic higher-ups violated this position of the Vatican by helping Jews to immigrate when they could; most did not.

Similarly, the attempts of Jews to escape from Europe to South America were sometimes thwarted by the Vatican. Vatican representatives in Bolivia and Chile wrote to the pontiff regarding the “invasive” and “cynically exploitative” character of the Jewish immigrants, who were already engaged in “dishonest dealings, violence, immorality, and even disrespect for religion.” The commission concluded that these accounts probably biased Pius against aiding more Jews in immigrating away from Nazi Europe.

The claim that the Vatican needed to remain neutral in the war has also been refuted. In January 2001, the World Jewish Congress discovered a document declassified by the U.S. National Archives. The paper was a report in which Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, Pope Pius XII’s secretary of state, detailed and denounced several cases of abuse committed by the Soviet Army against German inhabitants of the Soviet Union. The report was widely viewed as demonstrating that the Vatican had no compunctions about speaking out against atrocities, even when doing so would violate neutrality.

The preliminary report released by the IJCHC also asked the Vatican for access to non-published archival documents to fully investigate the pope’s role in the HolocaustHolocaust more fully. This request was refused by the Vatican, which allowed them access only to records from before 1923. As a result, the Commission suspended its study in July 2001 without issuing a final report. Dr. Michael Marrus, one of the three Jewish panelists and a professor of history at the University of Toronto, explained that the commission “ran up against a brick wall.... It would have been really helpful to have had support from the Holy See on this issue.”(29)

In 2004, news was disclosed of a diary kept by James McDonald, the League of Nations high commissioner for refugees from Germany. In 1933, McDonald raised the treatment of the Jews with then Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state. McDonald was interested in helping a group of Jewish refugees in the Saar region, a territory claimed by France and Germany that was turned over to the Germans in 1935. The pope’s defenders cite his intercession on these Jews’ behalf as evidence of his sympathy for Jews persecuted by the Nazis. According to McDonald, however, when he discussed the matter with Pacelli, “The response was noncommittal, but left me with the definite impression that no vigorous cooperation could be expected.”(30) Pacelli did intercede in January 1935 to help the Jews, but only after McDonald agreed that American Jews would use their influence in Washington to protect church properties that the Mexican government was threatening.(31)

In 2006, an Israeli scholar, Dina Porat, discovered correspondence between Haim Barlas, an emissary of the Jewish Agency sent to Europe to save Jews in the 1940s, and Giuseppe Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII. Roncalli expressed criticism of the Vatican’s silence during the war. In June 1944, Barlas sent Roncalli a copy of a report compiled by two Jews who escaped from Auschwitz documenting the mass murder at the camp. Roncalli forwarded the information to the Vatican, which had claimed it did not know about the report until October. Earlier, Roncalli had written to the president of Slovakia at the behest of Barlas asking him to stop the Nazi deportations of Jews.(33)


In June 1945, it was estimated that 1,200 Jewish children remained in non-Jewish families or institutions. Others were hidden in Poland, the Netherlands, and other countries. “To the Jews of Europe who had survived the war, and to the Jews in America who were looking on,” noted Kertzer, “the idea that thousands of those orphaned children might be lost to their families and to the Jewish people provoked fear and resentment.”(37)

Ketzer said the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, Léon Kubowitzki, met with the pope on September 21, 1945, to ask him to denounce anti-Semitism publicly and to ensure that Jewish orphans whose parents were killed in the Holocaust that were living in Catholic countries be returned to the Jewish community. The pope said he would consider the statement on anti-Semitism but never made one. He also gave an evasive answer regarding the orphans. “We will give it all our attention,” the pope said.

On March 10, 1946, the chief rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog, had an audience with the pope and asked him to publicly call on priests across Europe to disclose the location of the Jewish orphans. The pope asked for additional information but was again evasive. It took two more years before Herzog returned and was directed to meet with Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, the Secretariat of State’s expert on all Jewish questions. Herzog again wanted the pope to ask publicly that all the orphans be released.

Dell’Acqua advised the pope not to make a public statement or put anything in writing. The pope instead took his suggestion that the papal delegate in Jerusalem offer to look into each case individually.

In 2005, the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, discovered a letter dated November 20, 1946, showing that Pope Pius XII ordered Jewish babies baptized by Catholics during the Holocaust not to be returned to their parents. The more important story, according to Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was that one of the recipients of the letter, Angelo Roncalli, the papal representative in Paris, ignored the papal directive.(32)

The issue of Jewish orphans persisted long after the war. According to Ketzer, “the prerogatives of the Roman Catholic Church mattered above all else: that, according to Church doctrine, baptism, even against a family’s wishes, gave the Church the right to claim the children.”

Opening the Archives

After decades of Jewish groups and historians asking the Vatican to open its archives to allow them to see all the documents related to the pope and the Holocaust, Pope Francis announced on March 3, 2019, that they would be made accessible in March 2020.

In announcing the decision, Francis said Pius’s legacy had been treated with “some prejudice and exaggeration.” He also seemed to rationalize his actions, adding that the period included “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”

The BBC’s James Reynolds suggested, “the pontiff’s decision to open up the Vatican’s secret archives on Pope Pius XII may be his attempt to end decades of debate about his predecessor’s role in World War Two – and to prove that today’s Church is not suppressing argument.”(34)

Archivists spent 14 years taking inventory of the archive's contents, including records of all Papal decrees, encyclicals, and Vatican diplomatic correspondence. In October 2019, Pope Francis announced the archives would open on March 2, 2020.

Efraim Zuroff said that opening the archives would allow researchers to seek answers to several questions that have concerned Jews and historians of the period. The first is “what details reached Pius regarding the persecution and murder of the Jews throughout Europe, and whether the information arrived in the Vatican from sources considered reliable by Pius and his close circle.” A second question is one of timing. “When did this information reach Rome? Was there still time to influence the fate of the Jewish communities, or had they already been either murdered or deported to death camps?” Another question is, what did the pope do if he was informed? “Did he do something positive that was unknown?” The last question relates to what assistance he provided to Jews.(35)

Revelations From The Archive

Just a week after opening, the archives were closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak; nevertheless, seven German researchers from the University of Münster who did gain access to the vast archives had already found material supporting critics of the pope’s wartime behavior. Documents indicated the pope had information early in the war about the murder of Jews. “But he kept this from the U.S. government after an aide argued that Jews and Ukrainians — his main sources — could not be trusted because they lied and exaggerated,” the researchers said. They also said the Vatican hid sensitive documents presumably to protect Pius’s image.

The pope knew about the Nazi extermination campaign as early as 1942 after he received a letter with a detailed account of atrocities in Nazi-occupied Poland on September 27, 1942, which had been routed from the Geneva office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine to its New York office. Roosevelt’s envoy to the pope, Myron Charles Taylor, then sent it to the Vatican.

The report revealed that Jews were being rounded up, taken out of the Warsaw Ghetto, and executed. Other Jews were being murdered in camps designed for their extermination, and 50,000 Jews had already been killed in Lvov and 100,000 in Warsaw. Some Polish Catholics also turned against the Jews. No Jews, it said, remained alive in eastern Poland. It also reported that Jews from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Slovakia had been transported to Eastern Europe and murdered.

Taylor asked if the Vatican could corroborate the information in the report and, if it could, use its authority to arouse public opinion and call for an end to the killing. The pope did not reply and was asked again on October 1, 1942.

An internal memorandum from papal adviser, Angelo Dell’Acqua, said the information in the Jewish Agency reported needed “to be verified…because the Jews also tend to easily exaggerate.” He also expressed concern that the Holy See might be pressured to agree with the United States on “the Jewish question,” which he argued might somehow endanger Jews and the Vatican. He counseled against taking any additional measures, leaving it to some priests to protest the expulsion of the Jews.

As noted above, Cardinal Montini subsequently advised that the Americans should be informed the Holy See “had heard about the harsh treatment of the Jews” but could not confirm the reports’ veracity. This was conveyed to the United States in a letter on October 10, 1942.

The Vatican was aware of at least some of the report's substance. As noted above, In August 1942, Ukrainian Archbishop Andrzej Septyckyj informed the Vatican about atrocities he had witnessed in the Lvov ghetto. However, Dell’Acqua questioned that because eastern Catholics were not “an example of reliability.”

Further information was received on September 18, when an Italian businessman reported to Montini, who was later to become pope Paul VI, about the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos in Poland.

In December 1942, the United States received a report on the mass murder of Jews from the Polish government-in-exile. On December 17, the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain, but not the Vatican, issued a joint statement condemning the Germans’ extermination of the Jews. The pope issued a Christmas message referring to the hundreds of thousands of people who were murdered but never mentioned Jews.

Just as the first reports about documents in the archives were released, Germany's council of Catholic bishops issued a report likely to raise new questions about the pope. The 23-page report states, “Inasmuch as the bishops did not oppose the war with a clear ‘no,’ and most of them bolstered the [German nation’s] will to endure, they made themselves complicit in the war.” It added: “The bishops may not have shared the Nazis’ justification for the war on the grounds of racial ideology, but their words and their images gave succor both to soldiers and the regime prosecuting the war, as they lent the war an additional sense of purpose.”

After the Nazis seized power in 1933, they signed a “Reich concordat” with the bishops. The Vatican condemned Hitler’s race laws in a 1937 encyclical, but many German bishops supported his foreign policy. The document said most German bishops were motivated to support the regime by nationalism, anti-communist sentiment, and a belief that the church would be protected if they did not challenge the Nazis. One example was that churches flew Nazi flags and prayed for the protection of the “Fuhrer and the Reich” on Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939. Another way the church was complicit was by providing priests to provide spiritual guidance to German soldiers and converting church properties into military hospitals where nuns worked as nurses.

Even after the war, the Church appeared more sympathetic to the perpetrators than the victims by condemning the Nuremberg Trials as an un-Christian act of revenge.

One Catholic Church official cited by The Times called the report a “confession of guilt” by the church.

Pave the Way Foundation has sought to whitewash the pope’s record, claiming to have found evidence that exonerates Pius XII. The work has been dismissed, however, by others. For example, John Pawlikowski, Professor of Ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said experts had already studied the group’s evidence. “We know that Pius did some things that were good,” he said, “but they tended to come rather late; they were mostly behind the scenes and were relatively minor gestures.”(41)

Another study by a non-historian, Deacon Dominiek Oversteyns, also attempted to show that Pius XII did more to help Jews than he is given credit for doing. According to Oversteyns, before the Nazi raid on the Jewish ghetto in Rome on October 16, 1943, 18 Jews went to the Vatican extraterritorial properties, 393 to villages in the mountains around Rome, 368 to the private homes of friends, 500 to 49 different Roman convents, and 44 to parishes and pontifical colleges in Rome.

Oversteyns said the day of the raid, Pius XII contacted German ambassador Ernst von Weizsäcker asking him to call Berlin and stop the roundup. He also had another German priest contact the head of the German army in Rome who, Oversteyns says, called Heinrich Himmler and convinced him to stop the raid at noon. Separately, SS commander Theodor Dannecker received instructions from Berlin to free all Jews in mixed marriages and in service of “Aryans.” Oversteyns said Pius XII and his collaborators were responsible for the release of 249 Roman Jews on that day, about one-fifth of those apprehended.

Oversteyns said he found testimonies that Pius XII asked at least 49 convents to hide and house Jews and declared those convents to be extraterritorial areas under the authority of the Vatican. In addition, Pius XII hid 336 Jews in parishes and diocesan hospitals. Another 152 Jews were hidden in private homes under the protection of DELASEM, the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants.

Oversteyns concluded that Pius XII helped 714 Jews.

Andrea Gagliarducci reported Oversteyns’ findings that only 160 Jews were hidden in the Vatican and its 26 extraterritorial locations. “This is because Pius XII’s strategy was to hide Roman Jews in small groups in convents in Rome,” he said.

Researchers from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Yad Vashem, and Rome’s Jewish community found documentation that Catholic convents and monasteries in Rome sheltered thousands of Jews during the war. A total of 4,300 people were sheltered in the properties of 100 women’s and 55 men’s religious orders. Of those, 3,600 are identified by name, and at least 3,200 were Jews. The findings did not provide any new information on the role of the pope.(43)

Oversteyns acknowledges that more Jews were arrested and killed after the pope’s interventions. As noted above, Pius XII still did not speak out.

Even the Vatican has admitted that its documentation of the era has been inadequate. Monsignor Sergio Pagano, the prefect of the archives, acknowledged that the Jesuits who prepared an 11-volume collection meant to rebut criticism of the pope “sometimes looked at half of one document, and the other half no,” and that he had learned of some “strange omissions” that are now becoming evident.”

In June 2022, Pope Francis ordered the online publication of 170 volumes from its archives, including 2,700 files of requests for Vatican help from Jewish groups and families, many of them baptized Catholic.

New evidence that Pope Pius XII knew as early as 1942 that Poles and Jews were being murdered was found in the pope’s private papers and made public in 2023. A letter dated December 14, 1942, from Rev. Lothar Koenig, a German Jesuit priest and member of a German resistance movement, to Pius’s secretary, Rev. Robert Leiber, talked about Germany’s persecution of the church and the number of priests imprisoned in Dachau. It also referred to Auschwitz and thousands of Poles and Jews being murdered by the Nazis at Belzec.

Michele Sarfatti, of the Contemporary Jewish Documentation Center in Milan, told the New York Times the fact that the letter was found in Pius’s personal papers strongly suggested “that the pope was aware of what was going on.” Sarfatti added that “Many people were writing to the Holy See describing what was happening.”(44)


The pope’s reaction to the Holocaust was complex and inconsistent. At times, he tried to help the Jews and was successful. But these successes only highlight the amount of influence he might have had if he had not chosen to remain silent on so many other occasions. Historians offer many reasons why Pope Pius XII was not a more vigorous public advocate for the Jews: A fear of Nazi reprisals, a feeling that public speech would have no effect and might harm the Jews, the idea that private intervention could accomplish more, the anxiety that acting against the German government could provoke a schism among German Catholics, the church’s traditional role of being politically neutral and the fear of the growth of communism were the Nazis to be defeated.(36) Whatever his motivation, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the pope, like so many others in positions of power and influence, could have done more to save the Jews. 

Until 2020, knowledge of Pius XII’s motives and actions, or lack thereof, was limited by what the Vatican made available to researchers. Now that the entire archive is supposed to be open, much more should be learned and, as noted above, has already revealed new information.

The controversy over his behavior has also affected the canonization of Pius XII. He was declared “venerable” in 2009, part of the process toward sainthood. This, and subsequent discussion of his being declared a saint, has been vigorously opposed by Jews around the world and some non-Jews as well.(38)

In 2014, Pope Francis said he would not allow the beatification of Pope Pius XII, a step before sainthood that requires proof that he performed at least one miracle. “There’s still no miracle,” he said. “If there are no miracles, it can’t go forward. It’s blocked there.”(39)

In addition, the historical record, which is becoming more apparent as the Vatican archives are examined, may also play a role. Historical facts can dictate “whether it is appropriate or not to do a canonization,” according to Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the head of the Vatican office that scrutinizes the cases for possible sainthood.(40)

Sources: Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, (MA: Little, Brown and Co., 1993).
Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, (NY: Henry Holt And Co., 1987).
Martin Gilbert, The Second World War: A Complete History, (NY: Henry Holt And Co., 1992).
Israel Gutman, ed., Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vol. 3. (NY: Macmillan, 1995).
Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews. (NY: Holmes & Meier, 1985).
Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, (NY: Harper Perennial Library, 1993).
Israel Pocket Library, (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1974).
International Jewish Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission. The Vatican and the Holocaust: A Preliminary Report. Submitted to The Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. October 2000.
William R Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy: An International Policy of Genocide, (NY: Shapolsky Publishers, 1989).
Joan Gralla, WJC Says it Has New Evidence Against Pius XII, Reuters, (January 11, 2001).
“pope drops ‘secret’ from archive’s name,” Washington Post, (October 29, 2019).
Oliver Moody, “We were complicit in Nazi crimes, say German bishops,” The Times, (May 1, 2020).
“In ‘confession of guilt,’ German Catholic Church admits ‘complicity’ with Nazis,” Times of Israel, (May 2, 2020).
Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, “German Catholic bishops admit they were ‘complicit’ in Nazi crimes,” New York Post, (May 3, 2020).
Andrea Gagliarducci, “Expert’s latest investigation dispels myths about Pius XII and Rome’s Jews,” Catholic News Agency, (August 29, 2021).a
Nicole Winfield, “Pope orders online release of WWII-era Pius XII Jewish files,” AP, (June 23, 2022).

1. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII’s Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
1a.Michael Berenbaum, The World Must Know, p. 40.
1b. David I. Kertzer, “The Pope’s Secret Back Channel To Hitler,” The Atlantic, (May 31, 2022).
2. William Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 197.
3. Israel Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
4. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
4a. David I. Kertzer, “The Pope’s Secret Back Channel To Hitler,” The Atlantic, (May 31, 2022).
4b. “Pope Pius XII and the Vatican Archives,” Inside the Vatican, [undated] accessed September 22, 2020.
4c. David I. Kertzer, “The Pope’s Secret Back Channel To Hitler,” The Atlantic, (May 31, 2022).
5. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1136.
6. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
7. William Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 206.
8. Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, p. 267.
9. Gutman,  Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
10. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 133; Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
11. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 134.
11a. “Pope Pius XII and the Vatican Archives,” Inside the Vatican, [undated] accessed September 22, 2020.
12. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, p. 315.
13. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137; Hilberg, Raul, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, p. 264.
13a. “Pope Pius XII Reported to Have Spent Personal Fortune on Saving Jews,” JTA, (May 4, 1966).
14. Martin Gilbert, The Second World War, p. 40.
15. Gutman,  Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
16. Gutman,  Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1137.
17. Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 200.
17a. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII’s Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
18. Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 200.
19. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 133.
20. Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 202.
21. “Pope Pius XII and the Vatican Archives,” Inside the Vatican, [undated] accessed September 22, 2020; Beyond Time and Place, accessed October 1, 2020.
21a. Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust, p. 623.
22. Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 201.
23. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1138.
24. Gilbert, The Holocaust, p. 701.
25. Perl, The Holocaust Conspiracy, p. 176.
26. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1138.
26a. “Pope Pius XII Reported to Have Spent Personal Fortune on Saving Jews,” JTA, (May 4, 1966).
27. Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 136.
28. Gilbert, The Second World War, p. 59.
28a. “Reassessing Pope Pius XII’s Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, (October 2009).
28b. “Pope Pius XII and the Vatican Archives,” Inside the Vatican, [undated] accessed September 22, 2020.
28c. “Pope Pius XII and the Vatican Archives,” Inside the Vatican, [undated] accessed September 22, 2020.
29. The Jerusalem Post. "Vatican Blocks Panel's Access to Holocaust Archives." By Melissa Radler. 7/24/01
30. Peter Carlson, “A Diplomat's Diary,” Washington Post, (April 22, 2004).
31. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (April 23, 2004).
32. Jerusalem Report, (February 7, 2005).
33. Jerusalem Post, (December 4, 2006).
34. “Pius XII: Vatican to open secret Holocaust-era archives,” BBC, (March 4, 2019).
35. Efraim Zuroff, “Questions Remain Regarding The Opening Of Vatican WWII-Era Archives,” Jerusalem Post, (March 4, 2019).
36. Gutman, Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, p. 1139.
37. David I. Kertzer, “The Pope, the Jews, and the Secrets in the Archives,” The Atlantic, (August 27, 2020).
38. “Scholars ask pope to put Pius XII’s sainthood cause on hold,” Catholic Review, (January 19, 2012).
39. Nicole Winfield, “Pope Francis says Pius XII’s beatification won’t go ahead,” Times of Israel, (May 27, 2014).
40. Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli, “Pope Francis to open World War II-era Vatican archives to scrutiny,” Washington Post, (March 4, 2019).
41. “Pave the Way Foundation,” Wikipedia.
42. Nicole Winfield, “Vatican’s Pius XII archives begin to shed light on WWII pope,” AP, (June 7, 2022).
43. “Catholic-Jewish Research Shows That Catholic Convents Sheltered Thousands of Jews During WWII,” AP, (September 7, 2023).
44. Elisabetta Povoledo, “Letter Found in Vatican Archives Confirms Church Was Told About Death Camps,” New York Times, (September 16, 2023).