By Sr. Margherita Marchione, M.P.F.
author of Yours is a Precious Witness: Memoirs of Jews and Catholics in Wartime Italy, (1997) and Pope Pius XII: Architect for Peace, (Paulist Press, 2000).
In the last 30 years, above all with the pontificate of John Paul II, giant steps have been made toward progress in dialogue between Jews and Catholics. To prepare a serious scholarly analysis on Pius XII, several scholars were called to participate in a Commission in order to examine the Vatican documents of the Holy See during the Second World War. This group’s assignment as scholars was to analyze documents already published. The group consisted of three Catholics: Eva Fleischner, Gerald Fogarty, and John Morley; and three Jews: Michael Marrus, Bernard Suchecky, and Robert Wistrich.
Marrus was interviewed by Paolo Mastrolilli, an Italian journalist. “We must not fall into the error of evaluating facts that occurred more than 50 years ago with today’s sensitivity,” Marrus stated. …”Vatican Council II has enormously changed relations between Jews and Catholics, and therefore now certain attitudes may seem strange. During the period of Pius XII, the reality of the times was different.”
According to Fogarty, “Pius XII believed more in diplomacy than in public declarations and he behaved himself accordingly. His priority was to stop Nazism and for this reason he also accepted in silence the alliance with Russia, reserving for himself the fight against Communism at a latter date. The American Secret Services have documents that judge in a very positive way the actions of the Vatican during the war, but until now they have remained secret. The Holy See was careful to preserve its neutrality, but there exists proofs of the help offered to several German generals, who in the Spring of 1940 had planned a plot to free themselves of Hitler: therefore, what counts more, the public words of the Pope, or the acts accomplished to stop Nazism?”
Fogarty also said that “the panel has still not succeeded in overcoming the widespread myth in Anglo-Saxon culture which believes that there are important unpublished documents in the Vatican Archives. If such files existed, other proofs of those documents would have been found in the studies I have carried out in archives all over Europe.” In order to help his colleagues understand that the opening of the Vatican Archives does not answer these questions definitively, he gave this example: “In the spring of 1940 there was an attempt to oust Hitler by a group of generals who later tried to surrender to the English. The negotiations took place with the Vatican’s mediation and the knowledge of Pius XII. However, there are no documents on this case in the Vatican.”
There was no guarantee that the Nazis would have respected the Vatican. One can readily understand that, when the Nazis occupied Rome and the SS and the Gestapo were searching for Jews throughout the Rome area, it was necessary to destroy whatever documentation might have affected Vatican neutrality.
Apparently, the Commission members did not research the existing material that would have answered, at least in part, some of the 47 questions. Some of this information may be found in other archives. A typical example is Number 44. It reads: “The Poles were major victims of the Nazis. Members of the Polish Government in Exile in London and some Polish bishops were often very vocal in their criticism of Pius XII’s role. It has been reported that the Vatican commissioned the Jesuits to prepare a defense of its Polish policy. Is this correct and, if so, may we see the report? More generally, the subject of Vatican-Polish relations is an essential element for understanding the role of the Holy See during the Holocaust period and deserves further investigation in the Vatican archives. Is there other pertinent information on this subject in the archives that is not in the volumes, and may we see it?”
Obviously the members of the Commission did not complete their homework. The documentation they requested may be found in the New York Public Library. Indeed, millions of Jews and non-Jews were brutally victimized and exterminated by the Nazis. The document, “Pope Pius and Poland,” published by The American Press should have enlightened the Commission members. Copies have been available. With the imprimatur of Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, Archbishop of New York, this documentary outline of papal pronouncements and relief efforts in behalf of Poland since 1939, was published in 1942, and made available at 10 cents per copy.
In the Foreword, Francis X. Talbot, S.J., editor-in-chief, states: “To those who love and seek the truth, here is the truth. History will record the truth that Pope Pius XII stands united with Poland, as Poland and the Polish people everywhere are united with the Pope.” This pamphlet is a schematic outline of the evidence available that shows the fatherly affection and deep understanding which His Holiness revealed toward the Polish people. It is based on what has been published in newspapers and other periodicals or announced on the radio. (See The New York Times, Vatican Radio and L’Osservatore Romano.)
The day after his election, March 3, 1939, Pius XII pleaded for peace and diplomatic efforts to prevent the outbreak of hostilities. (See Acta Apostolicae Sedis, XXXI (1939), pp. 86, 87.) Other statements followed on Easter Sunday (Ibid., p. 145ff.) and June 2, 1939, to the Sacred College of Cardinals