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‘Why were you Catholics so awful to the Jews during the War?’

Some controversies just won’t lie down and die. Pius XII and the Holocaust is one of them.

By on Thursday, 1 July 2010

‘Why were you Catholics so awful to the Jews during the War?’

Some controversies just won’t lie down and die. Pius XII and the Holocaust is one of them. I know this because I was at a dinner party recently and was introduced to an elderly German of Jewish origin. An architect by profession, he was the soul of culture and courtesy, as one would expect. He had been to a recent performance of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne and enjoyed singing madrigals with his wife.

He reminisced about his boyhood during the War, lying low in Berlin. Then there was a pause in the conversation and he leaned forward. With a slightly apologetic air, he said, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but why were you Catholics so awful to the Jews during the War?”

How to respond? I guessed he might be referring to the alleged ‘silence’ of Pius XII so I mentioned the slanderous play by Rolf Hochhuth, ‘The Representative’. I also told him of the work of certain Jewish writers on the subject that I managed to retrieve from my memory. These were Pinchas Lapide’s Three Popes and the Jews, former rabbi Israel Zolli’s memoir, Before the Dawn and David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope. The old gentleman was interested and also surprised; this was news to him, obviously. It hadn’t occurred to him that there was another side to the argument.

Later at home I checked these authors on Wikipedia (as one does). More controversy: apparently Lapide’s estimate that Pius XII indirectly saved about 860,000 Jews was plucked out of his head (and at the time he wanted papal approval of the new state of Israel). Dalin’s book quotes Lapide’s figures with uncritical approval. Zolli, former chief rabbi of Rome, was out of favour with his co-religionists long before his conversion to Catholicism. Etc Etc. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

If anyone can bring more enlightenment to the topic I would be grateful, if only so that I can be less defensive at dinner parties in future. I need more weapons in my armoury here. Actually, that’s not quite the appropriate metaphor but I’ll leave it for want of a better.

And I dedicate this, my first book blog, to the memory of Dan Frank, former books editor of the Catholic Herald who died suddenly and too young and who used to describe himself humorously as “Jew-ish”. He it was who wisely cautioned me on this subject some years ago, telling me that “A lot of people on both sides have axes to grind and what they say is therefore suspect.”

  • S.Bishop

    What the Herald needs is a series on a bunch of similar “gotchas” over dinner parties – with snappy answers that are sufficiently well-researched to not incite even more debate, but sufficiently terse that the dinner-party guest doesn't fall asleep with the lecture. The series could then be sold as a mini-book (you could review it your column). Such a thing would do much more for the Faith than “yet another holy book”. Other topics could be, off the top of my head:
    Why don't Catholics care about AIDS?
    Why are Catholics so intent on burdening the Earth with too many children?
    Why doesn't the Pope spend the Vatican fortune on doing some good in the world?
    Why doesn't the Pope open up the Vatican Secret Archives?
    Why do Catholics worship statues, saints, Mary instead of God?
    Why does the Church protect paedophile priests?
    blah, blah, etc. etc.

  • Anneg16

    The Pope cannot sell the vatican treasures because they belong to the people of Vacitan City and also to the people of the surrounding states that the Italian Government took over some years ago. He can no more sell them than the Queen of England can sell the treasures stored in England. I am sure she would love to be rid of the responsibility of storing them and providing security for them, as would also the Pope. Incidentially, who would bury them? Also, if people are wealthy enough to buy them, then why don't they spend their wealth on feeding the hungry? Probably because they made it in the first place by fleecing them of their rights to fair wages, etc.As for the 'compassionate' people who care for the poor, what are they doing about it? Do they have cars, live in nice homes, have nice holidays, loads of clothes? Then they should get rid of them first or be rightfully called 'hypocrites', The 'do as I say, not as I do' emptyheads.
    Re so-called worship of statues, see Learn the Faith and put the devil back in his cage! Jesus is Lord and the Catholic Church is His foundation. Our Faith comes to us from the Jews. They have been persecuted for centuries, and so have we, as was our Redeemer. I am sooooo proud to be a Catholic!

  • Anneg16

    There are six billion people in the world now. Only one billion are catholics? At the time of the Nazi atrocoties, why didn't the Archbishop of Canterbury speak out or the King of England? Why didn't the Moderator of the Methodist Church do so or the leaders of other churches/sects. The Prime Minister of England and the American President knew what Hitler was planning but they did nothing! The Pope is not a Political figure and does not have an army at his disposal all armed to the teeth. We catholics did not start the war. As for the ignorant bigots, do they belong to any church and if so, what did their church leaders do? Documents have been found in the Russian archives and German archives which the Pope's innocence and enormous courage in saving the Jews. Thank our God that He alone is our judge and the one who decides who shall enter Heaven. I feel sorry for the Hate mongers. They won't like Hell.

  • Amanda

    As a 'convert' to Catholicism from Judaism this article touched me. It is one of the many still-painful issues between myself and my parents. For many years the Jewish people believed Pope Pius XII didn't do all he could have done to help the Jewish people during the Holocaust. I, admittedly, felt sad about this and would ponder upon it for a long while having visited Israel, and Yad Vashem, and know that there is a special place for righteous gentiles and that these heroes and heroines are definitely recognised. However recently the Jewish people do seem to have a turn around regarding Pope Pius XII, my Mother even admitted it to me that 'new research' (research that had probably just been regarded properly!) had been found to show he did help much more than was once believed. See here for an interesting article in the Jewish Chronicle;… The joy and relief it brought to myself, and I am sure many Jewish converts was huge!

    Regarding Rabbi Israel Zolli; I still think his conversion in 1945 was a remarkable event- surely if he truly believed the catholic Church was ignoring the Jewish suffering and remaining silent him and his wife would have at least held back from their conversion? His story 'Before the dawn' is worth reading.

  • JimtheCrim


    While you are busy correcting anti-Catholic myths (all power to your elbow) can I just correct a myth which is in your own submissions?
    In 1707 England (a sovereign state) and Scotland (a sovereign state) signed a Treaty of Union. This created a new state: the United Kingdom of Great Britain. (From 1603 to 1707 Scotland and England had a common monarch but were still separate sovereign states.) So you see, there hasn’t been a King of England since 1702 (William III) and there hasn’t been a Queen of England since 1707 (Queen Anne). Queen Elizabeth, the present Queen, is, of course, as everybody knows, the first Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, the other Queen Elizabeth being only a Queen of England.
    The first person to be regarded as a Prime Minister was Robert Walpole. He was appointed by King George I or George II, depending on which view you take, but both Georges were Kings of the UK and not of England. So there never has been a Prime Minister of England.

  • James

    Hard to imagine how anyone could abandon their Jewish religion and culture for the illogical doctrines (virgin births, bodily assumptions and the bizarre doctrine of transubstantiation) of the RC Church. Especially as the RC church persecuted Jews so brutally for the past 1700 years. As an ex-catholic I saw the light of knowledge and reason through my study of history and philosophy and couldn't imagine embracing the dogma and superstitions of the RC Church again. The direct role of clergy in carrying out the Holocaust in countries like Croatia and Slovakia deserves to be better known too.

  • John Fannon

    I would refer to the writings and the presentations given by Professor Sir Martin Gilbert, the Jewish History scholar and one of the UKs leading historians. He is in no doubt about the massive contribution made by Pius XII and priests and nuns in Italy during the war to hide Jews from the Nazis. See for example

  • Paschalboy

    Interesting discussion. I am one third through a 3 month sabbatical from my duties as director of music for a Lutheran church and one of my goals is to better acquaint myself on this issue. Since I am old enough to have lived under Pius XII ( as a then Catholic ) three books I am going through to better understand this are:

    1. Pius XII and the Second World War: Pierre Blet, SJ ( kinda dry reading but it helps )
    2. Hitler, The War and the Pope: Ronald Rychlak ( much easier read )
    3. Constantine's Sword, The Church and the Jews: James Carroll ( haven't started this one )

    Up to this point my opinion was basically formed by reading the play “The Deputy” back in the 1960's. My opinion is changing from what I have been able to read so far, a good thing. I think Pius XII was in an impossible situation in history, and did all that was possible as a Head of State, in a neutral country, albeit small, to save as many as possible.

  • Buckleyce

    while I drew the same conclusions about the Church from my studies of history, philosophy and law I also went on to become aware that while liberal arts studies are supposed to make us critical i.e. independent thinkers I feel the way these subjects are taught at university just made me skeptical and a doubter. There's no such thing as unbiased history or philosophy or unfettered knowlege and reason. Depending on where you study it is either realist, liberal, Marxist or whatever and just takes specific events or facts into account. I've also come to realize that ever since the Enlightenment and since the 60s knowlege and reason seems to give events an anticlerical and antichurch spin. There's no incentive for scholars to actually do research that would vilify the Church. I spent some time in Germany where I met Catholics whose families protected Jews and who told stories of priests who were outspoken against the Nazi regime. One never seems to hear these stories. I went on to do my own research on Catholic Church teaching trying at the time to be unbiased i.e. not to treat it as just hogwash. I found the books by Cardinal Ratzinger who is a world-renowned and first-class theologian and philosopher who embraces knowlege and reason to be a great help in understanding the Church's teachings. I think it would be more beneficial for us if more research were done into the area of how people actually helped their Jewish neighbors and others during an era of oppression and dictatorship. But this would probably be more akin to hearing some good news on the network news channels.

  • John Prangley

    There are two inescapable strands to follow concerning the Church and the treatment of the Jews which must be acknowledged in any defence of the good side. They are to be found in the unspeakable depth of Croatian Catholic priests' implication with the persecution of Jews and actual governing of concentration camps and the setting up of the ratrun for escaping nazis to South America and the story told in the book 'An Unholy War' of the persistent vicious anti-semitic articles in the last century and in the 19th in Civilta Cattolica a vatican newspaper run by the jesuits , which poisoned catholic attitudes.

  • Oldkasperl

    Before (or while) you read Constantine's Sword, familiarize yourself with the reviews in scholarly journals. In late antique and medieval scholarship that book gets a fairly bad rap.

  • Raymond Cohen

    And here's another problem: Why didn't Pius XII respond positively to Jacques Maritain's request after the war to condemn anti-Semitism? After all, by then Rome wasn't under German occupation so the Pope need have no fear for his life or of Nazi retaliation. And then in later years, why was he unable even to utter the word 'Jew'? Significantly, John XXIII, who as wartime nuncio in Istanbul helped to save many Jews, moved quickly towards Catholic-Jewish reconciliation when he became Pope. His compassion and willingness to stand up and be counted was in telling contrast to his predecessor's cool aloofness….

  • Paul O'Shea

    I sugest for a comprehensive and balanced history of Pius XII one needs to read about the man's life from the beginning. Most people seem to get stuck on the war years – Pacelli was 63 when he was elected Pope in March 1939. That means most of his life was pre-papal. His thoughts, patterns of thinking, his theologies etc were all established decades before the papacy. It is one of the remaining hurdles to overcome in the study of the man to get people to read about Pacelli's years as a papal diplomat. I recommend the work of Hubert Wolf “Pope and Devil” (2010), Gerhard Besier “The Holy See and Hitler's Germany” (2007) and my own offering “A Cross Too Heavy” (2008). All three books make use of the Vatican archival material that has been available since 2003 (which Cornwall never saw). There are two other sources that I highly recommend. Hubert Wolf's online archive of the Nunciature Reports of Eugenio Pacelli (nuncio in Germany 1917-1929) available at… and Thomas Brechenmacher's online archive of the Nunciature Reports of Pacelli's successor to Germany, Cesare Orsenigo (nuncio 1930-1946) available at These texts and sites are critical and based on sound and disciplined historical analysis.

  • Leo Chamberlain

    The best short account of Pope Pius XII in relation to the Holocaust is to be found in Michael Burleigh's book, Sacred Causes, which provides a record both of the context and of what was done, both by the Pope himself and by papal diplomats, who were, like Roncalli in Turkey and Rotta in Hungary, in close touch with Rome. Many thousands of lives were saved, in Italy, but also in countries like Hungary where governments were not under full Nazi control. Wikipedia is not a reliable source on this topic. Much publicity has been given to attacks on Pope Pius; not much to the extensive scholarly work which provides a different story. Pope Pius is not beyond criticism, but he has been vindicated on this issue.

    Leo Chamberlain

  • pjk52

    It is quite true that most world leaders did not speak out in defense of the Jews. However, to the best of my knowledge, none are held up as saints.

  • Ann Lackey

    Good to read your concerns, presently I am attempting to write my first screen play on Eugenio Pacelli/Pius XII.
    I have a review written on for Hitler's Pope by Cornwall which might give you some ideas.
    One correction Bismarck's Kulturkampf ended in 1878, not WWI.


  • Tom Zelaney

     Ann Lackey

    I am working on a set of three plays covering Pius in the war years.  Would be happy to share ideas and insights and see what you have found out as well.  If you are interested you can reacdh me at .  Tom Zelaney

  • Tom Zelaney


    I believe that if you read more on this issue you will see that many of the books on Pius look at only a selection of the data concerning his actions and leave out a vast amount that doesn’t fit in with their viewpoints.  I understand that historians wish to take a stand but they do so at the hazard of selecting evidence more like a district attorney than as  historians.  You have to take all the evidence, writen, documentary, reminisences, affadavits, sworn testimonies, eye witness accounts, etc and place it all chronologically to get a fuller picture.  I realize that it takes a lot of time and I’ve been at it since 1971 when I first began researching this project and while not finished I would say that Pius’ action are understandable and were orchestrated to a single purpose to save lives rather than make grand gesture that would get no results.