The twentieth century was marked by genocides on an monstrous scale. One of the
most terrible was the Holocaust wrought by Nazi Germany, which killed an
estimated six million European Jews and almost as many other victims.
During this dark time, the Catholic Church was shepherded by Pope Pius XII, who
proved himself an untiring foe of the Nazis, determined to save as many Jewish
lives as he could. Yet today Pius XII gets almost no credit for his actions
before or during the war.
Anti-Catholic author Dave Hunt writes, "The Vatican had no excuse for its Nazi
partnership or for its continued commendation of Hitler on the one hand and its
thunderous silence regarding the Jewish question on the other hand. . . . [The
popes] continued in the alliance with Hitler until the end of the war, reaping
hundreds of millions of dollars in payments from the Nazi government to the
Jack Chick, infamous for his anti-Catholic comic books, tells us in
Smokescreens, "When World War II ended, the Vatican had egg all over its face.
Pope Pius XII, after building the Nazi war machine, saw Hitler losing his battle
against Russia, and he immediately jumped to the other side when he saw the
handwriting on the wall. . . . Pope Pius XII should have stood before the judges
in Nuremberg. His war crimes were worthy of death."
One is tempted simply to dismiss these accusations, so wildly out of touch with
reality, as the deluded ravings of persons with no sense of historical truth.
This would underestimate the power of such erroneous charges to influence
people: Many take these writers at their word.
Stepping out of the nightmare fantasyland of Hunt and Chick and back into
sunlight of the real world, we discover that, not only was Pius XII no friend of
the Nazis, but that his opposition to them began years before the War, before he
was elected to the papacy, when he was still Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the
Vatican Secretary of State.
On April 28, 1935, four years before the War even started, Pacelli gave a speech
that aroused the attention of the world press. Speaking to an audience of
250,000 pilgrims in Lourdes, France, the future Pius XII stated that the Nazis
"are in reality only miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new
tinsel. It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of
social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and
of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood
It was talks like this, in addition to private remarks and numerous notes of
protest that Pacelli sent to Berlin in his capacity as Vatican Secretary of
State, that earned him a reputation as an enemy of the Nazi party.
The Germans were likewise displeased with the reigning pontiff, Pius XI, who
showed himself to be a unrelenting opponent of the new German "ideals"—even
writing an entire encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), to condemn them. When
Pius XI died in 1939, the Nazis abhorred the prospect that Pacelli might be
elected his successor.
Dr. Joseph Lichten, a Polish Jew who served as a diplomat and later an official
of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, writes: "Pacelli had
obviously established his position clearly, for the Fascist governments of both
Italy and Germany spoke out vigorously against the possibility of his election
to succeed Pius XI in March of 1939, though the cardinal secretary of state had
served as papal nuncio in Germany from 1917 to 1929. . . . The day after his
election, the Berlin Morgenpost said: ‘The election of cardinal Pacelli is not
accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and
practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor.’ "
Former Israeli diplomat and now Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Pinchas Lapide states that
Pius XI "had good reason to make Pacelli the architect of his anti-Nazi policy.
Of the forty-four speeches which the Nuncio Pacelli had made on German soil
between 1917 and 1929, at least forty contained attacks on Nazism or
condemnations of Hitler’s doctrines. . . . Pacelli, who never met the Führer,
called it ‘neo-Paganism.’ "
A few weeks after Pacelli was elected pope, the German Reich’s Chief Security
Service issued a then-secret report on the new Pope. Rabbi Lapide provides an
"Pacelli has already made himself prominent by his attacks on National Socialism
during his tenure as Cardinal Secretary of State, a fact which earned him the
hearty approval of the Democratic States during the papal elections. . . . How
much Pacelli is celebrated as an ally of the Democracies is especially
emphasized in the French Press."
Unfortunately, joy in the election of a strong pope who would continue Pius XI’s
defiance of the Nazis was darkened by the ominous political developments in
Europe. War finally came on September 1, 1939, when German troops overran
Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany.
Early in 1940, Hitler made an attempt to prevent the new Pope from maintaining
the anti-Nazi stance he had taken before his election. He sent his underling,
Joachim von Ribbentrop, to try to dissuade Pius XII from following his
predecessor’s policies. "Von Ribbentrop, granted a formal audience on March 11,
1940, went into a lengthy harangue on the invincibility of the Third Reich, the
inevitability of a Nazi victory, and the futility of papal alignment with the
enemies of the Führer. Pius XII heard von Ribbentrop out politely and
impassively. Then he opened an enormous ledger on his desk and, in his perfect
German, began to recite a catalogue of the persecutions inflicted by the Third
Reich in Poland, listing the date, place, and precise details of each crime. The
audience was terminated; the Pope’s position was clearly unshakable."
The Pope secretly worked to save as many Jewish lives as possible from the
Nazis, whose extermination campaign began its most intense phase only after the
War had started. It is here that the anti-Catholics try to make their hay: Pius
XII is charged either with cowardly silence or with outright support of the Nazi
extermination of millions of Jews.
Much of the impetus to smear the Vatican regarding World War II came,
appropriately enough, from a work of fiction—a stage play called The Deputy,
written after the War by a little-known German Protestant playwright named Rolf
The play appeared in 1963, and it painted a portrait of a pope too timid to
speak out publicly against the Nazis. Ironically, even Hochhuth admitted that
Pius XII was materially very active in support of the Jews. Historian Robert
Graham explains: "Playwright Rolf Hochhuth criticized the Pontiff for his
(alleged) silence, but even he admitted that, on the level of action, Pius XII
generously aided the Jews to the best of his ability. Today, after a
quarter-century of the arbitrary and one-sided presentation offered the public,
the word ‘silence’ has taken on a much wider connotation. It stands also for
‘indifference,’ ‘apathy,’ ‘inaction,’ and, implicitly, for anti-Semitism."
Hochhuth’s fictional image of a silent (though active) pope has been transformed
by the anti-Catholic rumor mill into the image of a silent and inactive pope—and
by some even into an actively pro-Nazi monster. If there were any truth to the
charge that Pius XII was silent, the silence would not have been out of moral
cowardice in the face of the Nazis, but because the Pope was waging a
subversive, clandestine war against them in an attempt to save Jews.
"The need to refrain from provocative public statements at such delicate moments
was fully recognized in Jewish circles. It was in fact the basic rule of all
those agencies in wartime Europe who keenly felt the duty to do all that was
possible for the victims of Nazi atrocities and in particular for the Jews in
proximate danger of deportation to ‘an unknown destination.’ "
The negative consequences of speaking out strongly were only too well known.
"In one tragic instance, the Archbishop of Utrecht was warned by the Nazis not
to protest the deportation of Dutch Jews. He spoke out anyway and in retaliation
the Catholic Jews of Holland were sent to their death. One of them was the
Carmelite philosopher, Edith Stein."
While the armchair quarterbacks of anti-Catholic circles may have wished the
Pope to issue, in Axis territory and during wartime, ringing, propagandistic
statements against the Nazis, the Pope realized that such was not an option if
he were actually to save Jewish lives rather than simply mug for the cameras.
The desire to keep a low profile was expressed by the people Pius XII helped. A
Jewish couple from Berlin who had been held in concentration camps but escaped
to Spain with the help of Pius XII, stated: "None of us wanted the Pope to take
an open stand. We were all fugitives, and fugitives do not wish to be pointed
at. The Gestapo would have become more excited and would have intensified its
inquisitions. If the Pope had protested, Rome would have become the center of
attention. It was better that the Pope said nothing. We all shared this opinion
at the time, and this is still our conviction today."
While the U.S., Great Britain, and other countries often refused to allow Jewish
refugees to immigrate during the war, the Vatican was issuing tens of thousands
of false documents to allow Jews to pass secretly as Christians so they could
escape the Nazis. What is more, the financial aid Pius XII helped provide the
Jews was very real. Lichten, Lapide, and other Jewish chroniclers record those
funds as being in the millions of dollars—dollars even more valuable then than
they are now.
In late 1943, Mussolini, who had been at odds with the papacy all through his
tenure, was removed from power by the Italians, but Hitler, fearing Italy would
negotiate a separate peace with the Allies, invaded, took control, and set up
Mussolini again as a puppet ruler. It was in this hour, when the Jews of Rome
themselves were threatened—those whom the Pope had the most direct ability to
help—that Pius XII really showed his mettle.
Joseph Lichten records that on September 27, 1943, one of the Nazi commanders
demanded of the Jewish community in Rome payment of one hundred pounds of gold
within thirty-six hours or three hundred Jews would be taken prisoner. When the
Jewish Community Council was only able to gather only seventy pounds of gold,
they turned to the Vatican.
"In his memoirs, the then Chief Rabbi Zolli of Rome writes that he was sent to
the Vatican, where arrangements had already been made to receive him as an
‘engineer’ called to survey a construction problem so that the Gestapo on watch
at the Vatican would not bar his entry. He was met by the Vatican treasurer and
secretary of state, who told him that the Holy Father himself had given orders
for the deficit to be filled with gold vessels taken from the Treasury."
Pius XII also took a public stance concerning the Jews of Italy: "The Pope spoke
out strongly in their defense with the first mass arrests of Jews in 1943, and
L’Osservatore Romano carried an article protesting the internment of Jews and
the confiscation of their property. The Fascist press came to call the Vatican
paper ‘a mouthpiece of the Jews.’ "
Prior to the Nazi invasion, the Pope had been working hard to get Jews out of
Italy by emigration; he now was forced to turn his attention to finding them
hiding places. "The Pope sent out the order that religious buildings were to
give refuge to Jews, even at the price of great personal sacrifice on the part
of their occupants; he released monasteries and convents from the cloister rule
forbidding entry into these religious houses to all but a few specified
outsiders, so that they could be used as hiding places. Thousands of Jews—the
figures run from 4,000 to 7,000—were hidden, fed, clothed, and bedded in the 180
known places of refuge in Vatican City, churches and basilicas, Church
administrative buildings, and parish houses. Unknown numbers of Jews were
sheltered in Castel Gandolfo, the site of the Pope’s summer residence, private
homes, hospitals, and nursing institutions; and the Pope took personal
responsibility for the care of the children of Jews deported from Italy."
Rabbi Lapide records that "in Rome we saw a list of 155 convents and
monasteries—Italian, French, Spanish, English, American, and also German—mostly
extraterritorial property of the Vatican . . . which sheltered throughout the
German occupation some 5,000 Jews in Rome. No less than 3,000 Jews found refuge
at one time at the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo; sixty lived for
nine months at the Jesuit Gregorian University, and half a dozen slept in the
cellar of the Pontifical Bible Institute."
Notice in particular that the Pope was not merely allowing Jews to be hidden in
different church buildings around Rome. He was hiding them in the Vatican itself
and in his own summer home, Castel Gandolfo. His success in protecting Italian
Jews against the Nazis was remarkable. Lichten records that after the War was
over it was determined that only 8,000 Jews were taken from Italy by the Nazis
—far less than in other European countries. In June,1944, Pius XII sent a
telegram to Admiral Miklos Horthy, the ruler of Hungary, and was able to halt
the planned deportation of 800,000 Jews from that country.
The Pope’s efforts did not go unrecognized by Jewish authorities, even during
the War. The Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Isaac Herzog, sent the Pope a personal
message of thanks on February 28, 1944, in which he said: "The people of Israel
will never forget what His Holiness and his illustrious delegates, inspired by
the eternal principles of religion which form the very foundations of true
civilization, are doing for us unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most
tragic hour of our history, which is living proof of divine Providence in this
Other Jewish leaders chimed in also. Rabbi Safran of Bucharest, Romania, sent a
note of thanks to the papal nuncio on April 7, 1944: "It is not easy for us to
find the right words to express the warmth and consolation we experienced
because of the concern of the supreme pontiff, who offered a large sum to
relieve the sufferings of deported Jews. . . . The Jews of Romania will never
forget these facts of historic importance."
The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, also made a statement of thanks: "What
the Vatican did will be indelibly and eternally engraved in our hearts. . . .
Priests and even high prelates did things that will forever be an honor to
After the war, Zolli became a Catholic and, to honor the Pope for what he had
done for the Jews and the role he had played in Zolli’s conversion, took the
name "Eugenio"—the Pope’s given name—as his own baptismal name. Zolli stressed
that his conversion was for theological reasons, which was certainly true, but
the fact that the Pope had worked so hard on behalf of the Jews no doubt played
a role in inspiring him to look at the truths of Christianity.
Lapide writes: "When Zolli accepted baptism in 1945 and adopted Pius’s Christian
name of Eugene, most Roman Jews were convinced that his conversion was an act of
gratitude for wartime succor to Jewish refugees and, repeated denials not
withstanding, many are still of his opinion. Thus, Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz
wrote in the summer issue, 1964, of Conservative Judaism: ‘Many Jews were
persuaded to convert after the war, as a sign of gratitude, to that institution
which had saved their lives.’ "
In Three Popes and the Jews Lapide estimated the total number of Jews that had
been spared as a result of Pius XII’s throwing the Church’s weight into the
clandestine struggle to save them. After totaling the numbers of Jews saved in
different areas and deducting the numbers saved by other causes, such as the
praiseworthy efforts of some European Protestants, "The final number of Jewish
lives in whose rescue the Catholic Church had been the instrument is thus at
least 700,000 souls, but in all probability it is much closer to . . . 860,000."
This is a total larger than all other Jewish relief organizations in Europe,
combined, were able to save. Lapide calculated that Pius XII and the Church he
headed constituted the most successful Jewish aid organization in all of Europe
during the war, dwarfing the Red Cross and all other aid societies.
This fact continued to be recognized when Pius XII died in 1958. Lapide’s book
records the eulogies of a number of Jewish leaders concerning the Pope, and far
from agreeing with Jack Chick that he deserved death because of his "war
crimes," Jewish leaders praised the man highly:
"We share the grief of the world over the death of His Holiness Pius XII. . . .
During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people passed through the horrors
of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to
commiserate with their victims" (Golda Meir, Israeli representative to the U.N.
and future prime minister of Israel).
"With special gratitude we remember all he has done for the persecuted Jews
during one of the darkest periods in their entire history” (Nahum Goldmann,
president of the World Jewish Congress).
"More than anyone else, we have had the opportunity to appreciate the great
kindness, filled with compassion and magnanimity, that the Pope displayed during
the terrible years of persecution and terror" (Elio Toaff, Chief Rabbi of Rome,
following Rabbi Zolli’s conversion).
Finally, let us conclude with a quotation from Lapide’s record that was not
given at the death of Pius XII, but was given after the War by the most
well-known Jewish figure of this century, Albert Einstein: "Only the Catholic
Church protested against the Hitlerian onslaught on liberty. Up till then I had
not been interested in the Church, but today I feel a great admiration for the
Church, which alone has had the courage to struggle for spiritual truth and
Dave Hunt, A Woman Rides the Beast (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1994),
Jack Chick, Smokescreens (China, California: Chick Publications, 1983),
Robert Graham, S.J., ed., Pius XII and the Holocaust (New Rochelle, New
York: Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, 1988), 106.
Joseph Lichten, "A Question of Moral Judgement: Pius XII and the Jews," in
Pinchas E. Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews (New York: Hawthorn, 1967),
American Jewish Yearbook 1944-1945, 233.