The changes at Yad Vashem show that the black legend against the wartime pontiff is on the way out

There was an interesting little item on Rome Reports for 2 July. It seems that Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem in Israel has slightly modified its caption in a panel about Pope Pius XII, which was included in 2005 when the new museum was inaugurated.

Flanked by two photos of Pius XII, the caption then stated, “In 1933, when he was secretary of the Vatican state, he was active in obtaining a concordat with the German regime to preserve the Church’s rights in Germany, even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime. When he was elected Pope in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared. Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. The Pope maintained his neutral position throughout the War, with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia towards the end…”

Read as they stand, these are damning charges. But as of July 1, there is now a slight but significant modification to the caption. The revised text, although still including the point of view of his critics, now adds that according to his supporters the Holy Father’s neutrality “prevented harsher measures against the Vatican and the Church’s institutions throughout Europe, thus enabling a considerable number of secret rescue activities to take place at different levels in the Church.” The Holy See’s apostolic nuncio to Israel, Mgr Antonio Franco, described the change as a “positive evolution”; the text had moved from condemnation to “an evaluation.” The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, added that the new caption also states, “Until all relevant material is available to scholars, this topic will remain open to further inquiry.”

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Significantly, the negative phrase “did not intervene” has also been changed to “did not publicly protest”. The Church has always maintained there was a good reason for this: if the Pope had been more outspoken and critical of the Nazis it would have led to more savage reprisals against the Jews – as happened when the Dutch bishops made their own protest. According to his defenders (who have always included a number of Jewish scholars and historians, as well as influential public figures such as the late Israeli prime minister, Golda Meir) Pius XII had to endure a “martyrdom of silence” while doing everything in his power behind the scenes to save thousands of Jewish lives in Europe through the work of papal nuncios and religious orders.

Although the Vatican archives of the Pius XII era are not due to be opened to outside historians until 2014, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, the director of the Vatican press office, has made it clear that everything there is to know is already known. In other words, when further documentation comes to light it will simply provide more evidence of the Pope’s rescue work, rather than discover any lurking skeletons. According to a spokeswoman for Yad Vashem, the revisions to the caption followed new research, in part based on opening up the archive of Pope Pius XI.

What is noteworthy is Israel’s willingness to re-examine old positions in the light of new findings and then to make tentative steps to setting the record straight towards a Pope who has been unjustly maligned. I have blogged on this subject before and believe that history will eventually vindicate Pius XII.

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