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Most Of Rome's Jews Were Saved From Hitler's 'Final Solution'
The following is a translation of an interview that Mr. Nikolaus Kunkel, a witness to Pius XII's actions to save Roman Jews during the Second World War, gave to the German Catholic News Agency (KNA) on 7 November 2000.
Now 80 years old, Mr. Kunkel was an officer at the headquarters of the military governor of Rome. He directly witnessed the SS roundup of the Jews and the fact that the majority of them were saved by taking refuge in the Vatican. After the war Kunkel worked as a bank manager. A lieutenant at the time, he remembers those dramatic days at the end of 1943 when the SS wanted to take advantage of the transition of power from Mussolini to Badoglio to carry out "the final solution to the Jewish question" in Rome too. The victims of Hitler's racist policies were able, for the most part, to take refuge in the Vatican thanks to Pius XII's orders and thus to escape the fate intended for them.
KNA: Mr. Kunkel, on 10 September 1943, after the Badoglio government broke with the Rome-Berlin Axis, the Wehrmacht occupied the Italian capital. The war diary of the supreme command of the armed forces says in this regard: "The Wehrmacht will take care of protecting Vatican City". The 28 June 1964 edition of L'Osservatore della Domenica quotes Albrecht von Kessel, collaborator of Ernst von Weizsacker, German ambassador to the Vatican, according to whom Hitler had always discussed the possibility of taking the Pope prisoner and deporting him to the German Reich. Verbatim: "If the Pope were to oppose this measure, there was even the possibility that he would be killed 'while trying to escape'". What is your recollection?
Kunkel: For the duration of my time in Rome, a good nine months, all of us officials were convinced that any day the order could arrive: "Occupy the Vatican". In this event — practically speaking, to save time — we had internally prepared a "mob plan", which of course is not found in the war diary. I am sure that the Vatican also considered this danger. Hitler's volatile nature made it realistic.
KNA: The fact that Pope Pius XII also saw this risk suggests that he had already prepared a resignation statement, if he were taken prisoner. It probably read like this: "They can only arrest Cardinal Pacelli, not the Pope".
Kunkel: Fortunately it did not happen, but the risk was there.
KNA: Were there contacts between the German military governor of Rome, Luftwaffe Major General Rainer Stahel, and the Vatican?
Kunkel: There were many. The Vatican's official contact with us was Fr Pankratius Pfeifer, the Superior General of the Salvatorians, who often dealt with the general, but also with the SS and the police. The so-called internal security of Rome was actually in the hands of the police, who were guided by the SS and by Kappler.
KNA: Who really held the power? Was Kappler under the military governor?
Kunkel: De iure yes, but de facto the SS was a state within the state. Therefore, yes, Kappler was in communication with the general, but in reality the SS led their own life and we did not know what went on within the SS hierarchy. In security questions, the SS more or less gave the orders in collaboration with the Italian Fascist police....
KNA: So the police forces who had not changed sides with Badoglio...
Kunkel: Yes, and that played a considerable role. While Badoglio had joined the Allies, Marshal Graziani, Mussolini's War Minister, still took his cue from the Germans.
KNA: A month and a half after the occupation of Rome, 16 October 1943, the SS ordered a roundup of Jews. Was General Stahel, as military governor, informed of the roundup? Could he have prevented it?
Kunkel: Around mid-October there was a rumour that a special SS unit would be sent to the city and lodged at a small hotel near Piazza Barberini. The unit's task would be to deport the Jews. Italy already had "racial laws" by the end of the 1930s; however, they were applied with great tolerance. It seems that in Rome there was already a sort of ghetto. When this rumour proved to be true, General Stahel summoned and informed the officers of divisions 1A, 1B and 1C, saying that he was totally opposed to the operation. A few weeks after the beginning of a new collaboration with the Italians under the direction of Graziani, a deportation of Roman Jews would have caused ill will and unrest among the Roman people. We sensed that this was not the general's whole opinion — which lay deeper! — but this statement stressing public order was a good explanation. The general continued saying that to stop this operation he would have to seek allies, above all in Berlin. To this end, Ernst von Weizsacker, the German ambassador to the Vatican, would have to help. In fact, von Weizsacker had a reputation as a cautious enemy of the Nazi regime. The general sent me to the ambassador with a sealed letter. I did not read it, but the general told me that in the letter he asked the ambassador to do all he could in Berlin to revoke the measure.
I recall that when I went to von Weizsacker I waited in an anteroom and became angry because no one offered me a chair. The ambassador left the room and shortly after returned with the letter, this time sealed by him. He asked me to give the letter back to the general and tell him that this time he "unfortunately could not be helpful". I remember this phrase perfectly. When I gave him back the letter, the general spoke — cautiously — in a very detached way about the ambassador. After this he telephoned Himmler, but I cannot say anything for sure about that.
KNA: Roman Jews were rounded up on 16 October. That same day the rector of Santa Maria dell'Anima, Bishop Alois Hudal, and Fr Pankratius Pfeifer called on the general and gave him the "clear impression" that the Pope would turn to world public opinion if these roundups were not immediately stopped. The next day, 17 October, the order came from Himmler to stop.
Kunkel: We had the impression that the SS had planned an action, but it reached a dead end and became public. Today we know that about 1,000 Jews were arrested. In our opinion, most Roman Jews had got wind of the imminent SS action because of delays in the preparations and so many of them were saved.
KNA: Of about 8,000 Roman Jews, then, 7,000 were saved?
Kunkel: We were certain that a large number of them were able to take refuge in Vatican buildings, which are numerous in Rome. In fact, the persecuted were able to take refuge in a relatively simple way.
KNA: 7,486 hid in the Vatican itself ...
Kunkel: I don't know the number.
KNA: In practice, how did it work? How were these Jews saved?
Kunkel: Probably by entering primarily from St Peter's Square. The other parts of the Vatican, with their high walls, are not accessible, while in St Peter's Square there were only two German guards on the border between Italy and Vatican City, to prevent German soldiers from entering Vatican territory in uniform. Civilians could freely cross this line.
KNA: Was this border between St Peter's Square and the city of Rome marked in any way?
Kunkel: No. As it is today, there was just a curved line marked between the colonnades. Our guards patrolled along this line.
KNA: Certainly, what Bishop Hudal and Fr Pfeifer said to General Stahel is worth noting: if the roundups of the Jews had been carried out, Pope Pius XII would have vigorously protested and would have pressured Himmler to stop the action!
Kunkel: That was how it seemed to us at the time. We had the impression that the SS action had been delayed until most Jews had reached safety. We considered it a success that only 1,000 of the 8,000 or 9,000 or so Jews were arrested by the SS. Today, of course, one looks above all at the 1,000 victims; at the time we saw the 7,000 who did not become victims and were saved. But many people, institutions and events probably contributed to this rescue. By the way, a few days after the roundup and despite his poor health, General Stahel — an Old Catholic — was transferred to the eastern front.
KNA: And now the decisive question: do you think that a more vigorous protest from Pope Pius XII would have saved more Jews in Rome, Italy and occupied Europe?
Kunkel: At the time I spoke about this with my immediate superior, Major Bohm, a Protestant from Hamburg. We were both of the opinion that, faced with Hitler's unpredictability, any action directed to world public opinion by the Pope would have been harmful.
KNA: In his play The Deputy, Rolf Hochhuth expressed the opinion that Pius XII should have made a blistering protest. Since the Pope did not do this, he is guilty of a grave omission.
Kunkel: It is easy to speak after the fact. In any case, we who were on the staff of the German military governor of Rome were of the opinion that taking a vigorous stand would have had negative consequences.
KNA: Would the Supreme Southern Commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, with whom Pope Pius XII was in contact, have had the power to stop the roundup of the Jews?
Kunkel: No. The power of the SS was so great that the Wehrmacht — to which Kesselring belonged — could not have opposed it. That would have taken a successful 20 July!
KNA: In your opinion, can Pius XII be reproached for any of his actions?
Kunkel: Pius XII was in the most difficult political situation in which a man can find himself. I recall a conversation with a Jesuit, Fr Otto Faller, concerning Germany's war on two fronts. He said to me: think that the Pope also fought a war on two fronts — against communism on one side and against Nazism on the other. This refers to the general situation at the time. As for your question: considering the circumstances, no one can reproach Pius XII (or his actions. If he had spoken out more strongly, it would certainly have provoked unpleasant reactions.
KNA: Might he eventually have been arrested?
Kunkel: Yes, there was also that possibility.
"Most Of Rome's Jews Were Saved From Hitler's 'Final Solution'" L'Osservatore Romano (Vatican, January 24, 2001).
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Copyright © 2001 L'Osservatore Romano