I started school in 1977, but the horror of the Holocaust 30 years earlier was still very much in the public consciousness. I remember as a child watching movies and documentaries, shocked and traumatised that the Nazis could unleash such terror and cruelty across Europe. The images of concentration camps,and mass murder were deeply etched into my mind, and remain there to this day, As a secular Catholic I had this vague notion that The Church didn’t do its bit, and left it that, but when I was called back into faith, the notion of The Church not being guided by one of its founding principles of loving thy neighbour, so beautifully explained in the parable of the Good Samaritan, made me feel very uncomfortable. I’m no historian, and this post is purely for myself, I pose the question to myself is it likely that Pope Pius XII did everything a reasonable pope could do to save lives during the Holocaust. If you search the web, you’ll find some who claim he saved up to 800,000 Jewish lives, and my aim isn’t to join the argument, but by using Jewish sources and cold hard logic, make call.
First, what was the Church’s position on the persecution of the Jewish People by the Nazis? For this I’m guided by this article (quoted below) from Time Magazine of December 1940:
More than 80% of the prisoners in the concentration camps are not Jews but Christians, and the best tribute to the spirit of Germany’s Christians comes from a Jew and agnostic (TIME, Sept. 23) — the world’s most famous scientist, Albert Einstein. Says he:
"Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany, I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the cause of truth; but, no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom; but they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks. . . .
"Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly."
Based on the quote from Albert Einstein, it’s quite clear The Church was no friend of the Nazis
- Second, Did the Church do anything to save Jewish lives? For this I’ll rely on a Jewish source that is critical of Pope Pius (written by Shira Schoenberg for The Jewish Virtual Library).
After attacking Pope Pius XII Schoenberg, concedes
Privately, Pius did instruct Catholic institutions to take in Jews. The Vatican itself hid 477 Jews and another 4,238 Jews were protected in Roman monasteries and convents
For myself I’ve established that The Church was fiercely against the persecution of the Jewish people, according to Albert Einstein.
I’ve also established that Pope Pius did take action, and given that there were 477 Jewish people living at the Vatican, he would have been reminded daily of what was going across Europe.
Third, I’ll use logic to answer the third question – did he do enough?
Given that he did take some action, and assuming that he was sound of mind, you can justifiably extrapolate, that he would have taken every reasonable action to save Jewish lives. by reasonable I mean that, the action would likely lead to benefit rather than harm. An unreasonable action, for example, would be one that would likely provoke Nazis into retribution. An entire Czech village Llidice unfortunately found that out the hard way, through no fault of their own. Another way of asking the same question,is if Pope Pius XII was saving Jewish lives,why wouldn’t he save more if more benefit than harm would arise from his action?
Pope Pius XII was a man in a very difficult position, There was uncertainty with every move, and people’s lives were at stake. Personally I’m satisfied that he did take every action he believed reasonable to save Jewish lives.
I just did a Google New search on Pope Pius XII – it was interesting what it turned up: