21, 2005 (Zenit.org).-
Testimonies and documents reflect that Pius XII gave ecclesial institutions
instructions to shelter and help Jews in Rome when Nazi persecution broke out
during World War II.
No one knows exactly how many Jews were hidden and saved by the Church, but
according to "Three Popes and the Jews" by Jewish historian Emilio Pinchas
Lapide, then consul general in Milan, "the Holy See, the nuncios, and the
Catholic Church saved between 740,000 and 850,000 Jews from certain death."
It is estimated that more than 80% of the Jews in Italy escaped the Nazi
genocide. In Rome alone, the Jewish community has certified that the Church
saved 4,447 Jews from the Holocaust.
Coordinamento Storici Religiosi, an Italian cultural association that
coordinates the documentation of religious history, is carrying out research on
Jews sheltered in the religious houses of Rome between the fall of 1943 and June
In this interview with ZENIT, Salesian Sister Grazia Loparco, professor of
Church history at the Faculty of Educational Sciences Auxilium in Rome and vice
president of the association, explained that such research "constitutes a
starting point with a view toward a more ample reconstruction that embraces the
same phenomenon in north-central Italy, where the emergency took on its own and
more prolonged connotations, and at the same time referred to local numbers that
were small compared to the great Roman community."
Q: How many Jews were saved by the Catholic Church in Rome? Who, in particular,
Sister Loparco: In 1943 the Jewish community was made up of 10,000-12,000 Jews.
According to scholars, it is difficult to specify the number, as other Jews
arrived in the capital from other European states during the conflict hoping to
find greater security.
The research begun in 2002-2003 approximates a minimum number of 4,300 Jews
lodged in religious houses. It is certainly a figure by default, based on the
first study published by De Felice in 1961, and taken up again Civiltą Cattolica
of the same year in an article signed by Father Robert Leiber.
Given the uncertainty, I have considered the lower number. It will not be
possible to arrive at precise figures, both because not all the witnesses knew
how to distinguish who was or was not Jewish -- there were many there who were
opposed to being recruited or who were politically persecuted -- and because,
with rare exceptions, lists of names didn't exist.
One can conclude that sometimes the Jews did not reveal their identity, or that
only the superiors of the religious communities knew it.
Another reason for imprecision is due to the fact that our research concerns
religious houses and parishes entrusted to religious, not parishes entrusted to
There are grounds to suppose that at least half of Roman Jews found shelter in
ecclesial institutions. Just over 1,000 were arrested the morning of October 16,
1943, and several hundred more were arrested later as a result of denunciations.
For every Jew singled out, one could receive 5,000 lire if they were men, and
3,000 lire if they were women and children.
Beginning October 16, 1943, Jews who were in extreme danger found immediate
shelter with acquaintances, friends, and sometimes with Catholic domestic staff
or businessmen, men's and women's religious houses, including cloistered
monasteries -- which could not have taken them in without a papal dispensation
-- parishes and seminaries.
They did not always stay in the same place. It was difficult to remain hidden in
private family homes, so in many cases they sought shelter in religious houses.
After immediate concealment in the more central places of the city, several
tried to go to more peripheral areas, potentially more peaceful. Often, men and
women religious hid Jews a few meters from the Nazis' eyes.
Q: How was the network of help to the persecuted organized and to what degree
did Pope Pius XII intervene to support it?
Sister Loparco: Several witnesses recall the instructions coming orally from
Vatican ecclesiastics on the opportunity to open convents and institutes because
it was "the hour of charity." And the majority did so realizing that they were
doing no more than their duty, as the lives of unjustly persecuted people were
The Delasem existed, an organization that gave financial help to Jews in
difficulty; and then there was the famous Father Benoit, a Capuchin who together
with others worked near Termini, Rome's main train station, to provide false
identity documents and other papers, with the collaboration of men and women
religious, in addition to municipal personnel and young people of Catholic
Action. Another "knot" of the false documents net was near the catacombs of
Some religious houses recall having received provisions form the Vatican to feed
the Jews, who often increased by dozens the number of the communities' members.
But many other times, the testimonies of nuns especially speak of great
sacrifices to share the little they had, rationed by cards, and recourse to
collections and the black market to acquire the necessary.
In some cases Jews could pay for their pension or provide for their maintenance,
but many other times they could not. All these thousands of people were almost
never refused because they were unable to pay for their maintenance.
Moreover, hospitality was offered in different ways, according to the case:
Sometimes whole families could be lodged, at other times only women and
children, or men and boys, or only children without adults. It was important to
camouflage these people among the usual guests of the houses.
In several cases, however, Jews were hidden in wine cellars, underground
shelters, hidden rooms, attics, storage rooms, hatchways, being able to come out
to stretch their legs and breathe fresh air only after school hours. In the case
of hospitals and clinics, they were camouflaged among the patients.
In some cities such as Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa provided a list of
religious houses where the Jews could go. In Rome, however, the impression is
that the character of emergency, creating a network of collaboration, marked the
speed of the operations. For example, the Salesians' Basilica of the Sacred
Heart near Termini became a placement center, and it wasn't the only one.
From the documentation and testimonies emerges evidence of the full support and
instruction of Pius XII that, although only oral, at the time was interpreted as
an authoritative order.
Many concrete events, such as the opening of cloistered monasteries and
convents, prove the fact that many Jews were lodged because of the direct
concern of the Vatican, which also provided food and assistance.
I can say no more, given that access is not allowed both to the historical
archive of the Vicariate of Rome for this period as well as the Vatican Secret
Archives, where there certainly must be archives of the religious Institutes.
Q: In recent weeks there have been controversies on the question of Jewish
children snatched by the Catholic Church from the Nazi rage and then, in some
cases, baptized. Can you explain what the Vatican directives were in this
respect and what was the incidence of this phenomenon in Rome?
Sister Loparco: In the city of Rome cases occurred of requests for baptism by
adults and sometimes by youths. Very few cases -- only one institute among
hundreds -- speak of baptizing children.
An example might give an idea of the mentality of that time: A nun recounts how
she carried a bottle of water on her person; when sirens rang and they had to
hide in shelters, and, if it had been a case of extreme danger, she would have
baptized the little orphans entrusted to her. It was the mentality of "extra
Ecclesia nulla salus."
There was no need. Instead, there are testimonies of Jews, who were youths or
youngsters then, who felt completely respected in their faith, and who were
helped and encouraged to pray according to their own Jewish customs. Sometimes
they shared the prayer of a Psalm with the nuns, in cases of danger and fear.
At other times, it has been alleged, there was a certain insistence that guests
be interested in the Catholic faith, under pain of not being able to attain
salvation, in the hope of a future conversion. However, those who defended their
own convictions were respected and, not rarely, admired for their consistency.
There were cases of those who asked for baptism more out of the hope of easing
their situation than out of real conviction. And there were guests who remained
in religious houses, obviously without being baptized, until they completed
their professional formation, including some boys, who did not know where to go
when the war ended.
It is true that, in many cases, direct contact eliminated residual, reciprocal
prejudices. Men and women religious were willing to acknowledge the human and
moral qualities of the Jews they lodged. Long friendships kept over the years
prove that esteem and real sharing in the meaning of life were not conditioned
by religious membership.