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The Vatican & the Holocaust: Pope Pius XII Underestimated His Influence

(November 1, 1943)

In July 1999, the World Jewish Congress discovered a document in a U.S. archive written by the British Ambassador to the Vatican, Francis D’Arcy Osborne, recounting a one-hour conversation he had with Pope Pius XII months before the Allies liberated Italy. The text of the letter follows

I had an hour's audience with the Pope today. He seemed well and in good spirits. He was calm in the face of the present situation but fully alive to future dangers. Of these he particularly and repeatedly emphasised the food situation of Rome; there might be just sufficient for the population so long as the Germans were here but when they left they would probably take all the remaining stocks and famine conditions would supervene. He earnestly hoped therefore that the allies would be able to provide essential supplies I said that I expected we should do what we could but it must be remembered that there might be objection on the part of those United Nations which were equally suffering from severe food shortage if we sent to Italy food which we denied them. The Pope insisted that unless we could continue to supply essential minimum there would be famine and disorder in the city. This is probably true. I said that I had already telegraphed this request but would do so again, as from himself directly. He was also anxious about conditions in the city in the interlude between the departure of the Germans and the arrival of allied troops.

In reply to my enquiry, he declared emphatically that he would never leave Rome "for his protection" or otherwise unless he were forcibly removed. He said that he had no complaints against General Von Stahel and the German police who had hitherto respected the neutrality of the Vatican.

I said that I realised when the Vatican talked of preserving the open city of Rome they were thinking of the actual military operations. Apart from this the open city was a farce: it was wide open to the Germans who were systematically stripping it of all supplies, transport and labour, were arresting Italian officers, Carabinieri and youth and were applying their usual merciless methods of persecution of the Jews. Rome was suffering the fate of all cities occupied by the Germans and the Italians were learning the nature of the New Order for which they had been fighting. The question whether Rome would become a battlefield must depend entirely on German strategy. We had every intention of saving Rome from the damages of war, but we were in no way committed in regard to occupation. While I doubted whether we should want to occupy the city it was evident that we could not meet the Vatican's appeals for preservation of order and for the supply of food without imposing some degree of control. I told him it was important that he should do everything in his power to safeguard and assort the neutral rights of the Vatican City State. He replied that so far at any rate the Germans had behaved correctly in this respect. I said it was the opinion of a number of people that he underestimated his own moral authority and the high respect in which it was held by the Nazis because of the Catholic population in Germany; I added that I was inclined to share this opinion and I urged him to bear it in mind in case in the course of coming events an occasion might arise for taking a strong line.

I thanked him for the hospitality now being extended to our prisoners in the Vatican City, and told him they had asked me to convey to him their thanks. In reply to his enquiries I assured him that they were well lodged and fed and their conditions were as comfortable as circumstances permitted. He asked me to convey to them his affectionate benediction and he did not suppose, even though they were not Catholics, they would be offended by his good wishes and his blessing. I took this opportunity to express to him the extremely painful impression that had been made upon me by the forcible ejection from St. Peter's of two prisoners at a time when their case was under submission to the Cardinal Secretary of State.

I told him of the satisfaction expressed by the Russion [sic] press over the forthcoming meeting at Moscow of the three Ministers for Foreign Affairs as symbol of the increasingly close collaboration of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. and Britain in both war and peace and I referred to recent official recognition of Orthodox religion in Russia. In regard to this last, he not unnaturally expressed some degree of scepticism and added that at any rate the Catholic religion had not yet benefited by any change of heart or policy at Moscow. I insisted however on the great importance of the recognition of freedom of religion. He then reiterated the usual anxieties in respect of Communism to which I replied that Communism was derived from economic conditions that were the responsibility of the Governments of individual countries and was not a political infection disseminated from Moscow. I also told him that I had heard from a prelate who was in a position to obtain much information regarding the Russian population that the level of morals and education of Russian youth was higher than in many other European countries.

Source: Courtesy World Jewish Congress