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The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum has qualified its hostile representation of Pius XII’s policy towards the Jews; but this, though welcome, is not enough

Interestingly, its hostility has been encouraged by the ongoing liberal Catholic anti-Vatican campaign

By on Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Photo: PA)

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Photo: PA)

The museum attached to Israel’s national Holocaust memorial has, it seems, modified its account of Pope Pius XII’s conduct toward the massacre of Jews during World War Two. A wall panel at the museum still lists occasions when he did not protest against the slaughter of Europe’s Jews. But it also mentions the views of those who say the Church’s “neutrality” helped to save lives. “This is an update to reflect research that has been done in the recent years and presents a more complex picture than previously presented,” said the museum in a statement.

Well, that’s something, and the the papal envoy in Israel, archbishop Antonio Franco, welcomed what he called “the positive evolution”. But the evolution is hardly positive enough. The following utterly distorted account, as I understand it, remains unaltered:

“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 either 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 its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged Churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react.”

To this has now been added a brief statement, to the effect that there are those who believe that Pope Pius’s silence in condemning the murder of Jews was not a moral failure but a tactic that prevented harsher measures against Church institutions, enabling Church officials to carry out secret rescue missions.

It goes no further than that: Yad Vashem’s view is that until the Vatican opens its archive, no more can be said. But that is, of course, nonsense: the documentation already available is comprehensive, and from it a very different picture emerges, as many Jews have acknowledged for years. As Rabbi David Dalin has said, it cannot be claimed that “Pius was ultimately successful as a defender of Jews. Despite his desperate efforts to maintain peace, the war came, and, despite his protests against German atrocities, the slaughter of the Holocaust occurred.” Nevertheless, he insists (and get ready for his fascinating conclusion about the source of recent anti-Pacelli distortions) “to make Pius XII a target of our moral outrage against the Nazis, and to count Catholicism among the institutions delegitimised by the horror of the Holocaust, reveals a failure of historical understanding.” And here’s his sting in the tail: “Almost none of the recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust is actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Their real topic proves to be an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists.”

Well, well, well, how very interesting: and how can we entirely blame Jews for getting it wrong, when they are encouraged by our fellow Catholics with a quite different, anti-Vatican, axe to grind. Thus, for instance, Rabbi Dalin homes in on John Cornwell as his first example of a general tendency among these critics: “The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII,” he says, “is simple. It requires only that favorable evidence be read in the worst light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavorable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test. So, for instance, when Cornwell sets out in Hitler’s Pope to prove Pius an anti-Semite (an accusation even the pontiff’s bitterest opponents have rarely levelled), he makes much of Pacelli’s reference in a 1917 letter to the “Jewish cult” — as though for an Italian Catholic prelate born in 1876 the word “cult” had the same resonances it has in English today, and as though Cornwell himself does not casually refer to the Catholic cult of the Assumption and the cult of the Virgin Mary.”

Catholics who have read any of Cornwell’s books are accustomed to his gross distortions (they are, for instance, particularly gross in his polemic The Pope in Winter, a nasty book about Pope John Paul). Rabbi Dalin deals with more of the same sort from other writers; but he prefers to remember more substantial Jewish writers who have strongly defended Pope Pius:

In response to the new attacks on Pius, several Jewish scholars have spoken out …. Sir Martin Gilbert told an interviewer that Pius deserves not blame but thanks. Michael Tagliacozzo, the leading authority on Roman Jews during the Holocaust, added, “I have a folder on my table in Israel entitled ‘Calumnies Against Pius XII.’ … Without him, many of our own would not be alive.” Richard Breitman (the only historian authorised to study US espionage files from World War Two) noted that secret documents prove the extent to which “Hitler distrusted the Holy See because it hid Jews.”

Still, [Pinchas] Lapide’s 1967 book remains the most influential work by a Jew on the topic, and in the 34 years since he wrote, much material has become available in the Vatican’s archives and elsewhere. New oral-history centres have gathered an impressive body of interviews with Holocaust survivors, military chaplains, and Catholic civilians. Given the recent attacks, the time has come for a new defence of Pius — because, despite allegations to the contrary, the best historical evidence now confirms both that Pius XII was not silent and that almost no one at the time thought him so.

Rabbi Dalin goes on to talk about much of this evidence at length. I do not have space for it here, but anyone still in doubt should go to the above link: this material really is conclusive. “Any fair and thorough reading of the evidence,” as Rabbi Dalin insists, “demonstrates that Pius XII was a persistent critic of Nazism.” He points out, for instance, that throughout the 1930s, the then Cardinal Pacelli was widely lampooned in the Nazi press as Pius XI’s “Jew-loving” cardinal, because of the more than 55 protests he sent the Germans as Secretary of State.

The news that some small modification has been grudgingly conceded to the utterly distorted caption accompanying his photograph at the Yad Vashem museum is, I suppose, welcome. That it hardly goes far enough is no surprise. But we need to remember that Yad Vashem has its own very understandable agenda, as you will find if you go there (as you certainly should, as a priority, on any first visit to Jerusalem).

You will visit it because it is Israel’s official memorial to those who died in the Holocaust, and you will go, therefore, first and foremost to pay your respects to the victims of that unimaginable horror. In the event, it is not, of course, as simple as that, and I have to admit to mixed feelings on my own visit.

But the remembering of the dead is what stays most powerfully with me. The Hall of Remembrance itself is a deeply moving space, whether you are Jewish or not. It is a numinous place, where voices are hushed and the awesome nature of what actually took place in the concentration camps whose names are commemorated here — it is staggering simply to contemplate the sheer number of them — enters deep into the consciousness of anyone who enters it. In the words of John Paul II on his own visit: “Here at Yad Vashem the memory lives on, and burns itself into our souls.” Indeed it does, and so it should. This is my own enduring memory of Yad Vashem; this and nothing else is what I try to remember.

The museum is a different matter. It is built at a distance from the memorial itself. You enter at one end, and are fed through to the other. At first, the museum’s exhibits serve to inform and deepen the mood which the memorial has induced. It is heavily dependent, as any museum of this kind must be, on photographic evidence, and many of the photographs are familiar. They are well displayed; but I found, as I moved through the museum, that I was beginning to become uneasy.

Memorial was little by little, or so it seemed to me, becoming transformed, from the simple recounting of the terrible story of what had happened, into something quite different: memorial was becoming indoctrination, with a particular underlying ideology, at first indistinct, then absolutely clear beyond peradventure. Curiously, I for some reason missed the exhibit to do with Pius XII (I wonder if it was there at that time, about 10 years ago; I was there with a group of other editors of Christian papers, and nobody mentioned it); but the feeling that the focus was moving away from the reverent remembering of the victims of the Holocaust towards something else hardened into certainty when we progressed into a quite new section of the museum, to do with the foundation of the State of Israel. The message here was simple: you have seen what happened to six million Jews during the war: the declaration of the state of Israel was not only the only possible outcome of this genocidal crime, but (it can’t have actually said this, but this was somehow implied) this declaration took place for no other reason — as though Zionism as a movement had its roots not in the 19th century but in the death camps. I left the Hall of Remembrance deeply moved by the experience: I left the Yad Vashem museum with the sense that my feelings had been politically used and manipulated.

Yad Vashem — that is, the museum and those who control it — has become the centre of an anti-Catholic sentiment which was not entertained by Jews at the time of the Holocaust, and which has no roots in historical truth or in justice. We should welcome the “evolution” of its anti-Pacelli display. But I am sure that the Vatican remains unhappy about its evident remaining intention; and so should we be. This cannot be the end of the story.

  • W Oddie

    I was unaware when I wrote this that subsequent to my visit, a new museum had been opened. I offer this, therefore, as a historic reminiscence, and would like to know from anyone who had seen the new museum how different it is, and whether or not it operates the same Zionist ideological strategy. It does seem, however, to be more anti-Catholic than  it was. Perhaps because my time was pre-Cornwell? Who knows?

  • JonathanBurdon

    It really doesn’t get much lower than people using the deaths of 6 million people for their own ideological purposes. People like Cornwell should be ashamed of themselves.

  • paulpriest

    Rabbi Dalin’s  ‘The Myth of Hitler’s Pope’ is like discovering one is living in the Matrix – everything you thought you knew about Pius XII – the aloof ‘diplomacy’, the anti-communist equivocations, the collaboration of shadowy high-powered clerics, the conspiracy of silence, the saving of one’s own skin while one’s neighbour was murdered etc…is NOT TRUE!

    We all thought there was no smoke without fire and we believed the lies and began erring on the side of defending a weak, misguided Pontiff who somewhat embarrassed us by not ‘doing his bit’

    …failing to realise almost all of the accusations against him were invented a quarter of a century after the war

    I’d strongly advise everyone to read Michael Coren’s recent books:

    Heresy: Ten lies they spread about Christianity
    Why Catholics are right which the Jewish convert details the character-assassinating revisionism – especially in academia – where funding and support from Jewish organisations is directly tied into the promulgation of the lie that Pius XII was as ostensibly as guilty of the Shoah as Heydrich! Why are they doing this? What possible motivations have they for this rewriting of History?

    ..yet it’s not that the rest of the world accepts the lie: It’s that most of us Catholics do too!

    Because we’ve been lied to – and why?

    Turn Pius XII into a monster and all the moral & doctrinal emphases and legacies of His Papacy
    become somewhat monstrous too!

    Suddenly gaps develop in the voluminous obfuscating vapours…Yes!
    That’s what they’re up to!

  • Jim K

    Pius XII name will eventually be cleared. The lies and black propaganda have no basis in reality. Interestingly it is a Jew by the name of Gary Knapp who is at the forefront of those leading the battle to exonerate Pope Pius XII and reveal the truth.
    An good summary of some of his teams research can be found here. 

  • Jim K

    Gary Krupp.

  • Honeybadger

    By the time the whole truth comes out about Pius XII and his role in saving Jewish and Allied Soldiers lives, there would not be so much a tree at Yad Vashem but a giant Leylandii.

    We must not forget that many Roman Catholics – including priests and religious – also perished at the hands of Hitler.

  • Apostolic

    Excellent post. The most zealous anti-Pius XII propagandists appear to be renegade Catholic Tabletistas rather than Jewish. The first edition of Cornwell’s scurrilously titled Hitler’s Pope contained an amazing error: after presumably trawling through years of Hungarian diplomatic archives, he listed the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, as a Catholic, when in fact he was a Calvinist – surely the first thing he ought to have known about Hungary’s relations with the Holy See. Denis Mack Smith reviewed this approvingly in the Times Literary Supplement, repeating the error about Horthy being Catholic rather than Calvinist. An historian, Donal Lowry (I think, but this can be checked) on the TLS site), wrote into the TLS soon afterwards to point this out. The next print run of Hitler’s Pope omitted the error, but without acknowledging Lowry or that this was a revised edition. Cornwell’s real target was papal authority, John Paul II’s Papacy at that time, rather than Pius XII, who is still a convenient target for enemies of Benedict XVI.


    Dear Mr. Oddie – I am very disappointed that you failed to look at the entire revised caption as reported in the press release from Yad Vashem on its site
    which was reported only in parts  by all the other news reports (which is why I decided to look up the full revised caption from the source). Obviously the modification does not alter the openly ideological – and historically erroneous – thrust of the Yad Vashem project, but  if you compare it with the old caption, it at least acknowledges there is another side to the controversy and that it is not a closed issue, as the State of Israel continues to purvey as its official line. I conduct a thread on Church news and commentary, mostly about Benedict XVI,  and have been very attentive to all developments regarding Pius XII, and you will find here how I ‘reported’ the caption change.

  • W Oddie

    Thank you for this. I was wrong to say that the old text remained, with qualifying remarks following. It is not as bad as I had thought; but the modified version still goes nothing like far enough. It still says that the view of his critics, that “his decision to abstain from condemning the murder of the Jews by Nazi Germany constitutes a moral failure” is tenable until further evidence emerges. But that is nonsense: we already have ample evidence to insist that THE POPE WAS NOT SILENT about the fate of the Jews and that as Rabbi Dalin insists, almost no one at the time thought him so.

  • Apostolic

    Very true:

    “During the Nazi terror, When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths, above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.” – Golda Meir, Israeli Prime Minister,  in a cable to the Vatican expressing condolences at the death of Pius XII, 1958.
    In 2001 New York Rabbi David Dalin has proposed that Pope Pius XII be proclaimed “Righteous Among the Nations,” the highest award given by the state of Israel to persons outstanding in assisting persecuted Jews during World War II: “More than any other 20th century leader, Pius XII fulfilled this Talmudic tradition, when the fate of European Jewry was at stake. No other Pope had been so widely praised by Jews, and they were not mistaken. Their gratitutde, as well as that of the entire generation of holocaust survivors, testifies that Pius XII was, genuinely and profoundly, a righteous gentile…. Pius XII was not Hitler’s pope, but the closest Jews had come to having a papal supporter, and at the moment when it mattered most.”Moshe Sharrett, former Foreign Affairs Minister and Prime Minister of Israel, after the Second World War went to see Pius XII “to thank the Catholic Church for what it did to save the Jews in all parts of the world.”A New York Times editorial of December 25, 1942, stated: “The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas…. He is about the only ruler left on the continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all.”

  • Vince

    Obviously Yad-Vashem is becoming more and more aware that its former position about Pius XII is just untenable in regards of all the documents, witnesses and testimonies – ie in regards of the historical facts. They are just slowly but surely back-pedalling to avoid a greater embarrassement.

    Let’s welcome this mere act of prudence. And above all let us praise some remarkable Jewish people like David Dalin, Gary Krupp, sir Martin Gilbert (whose recent book about the Righteous is really moving) etc., whose ethic of  truth have really helped turned things in the right direction. Their position demands true moral grit.

  • John Mcarthur

    The reality is that Pius XII never spoke out clearly in public about the Holocaust. Pius was constantly pushed by people to speak out – see the memos of the British diplomat Darcy’ Osborne when he talks of the loss of moral authority regarding the papacy. That he did respond to these pushes by behind the scenes acts of charity doesn’t answer the critics who think his choice of neutrality and justification that things could only get worse (for Catholics? How could things get worse for Jews?) are ill founded. Even as late as the summer of 1942 Pius could tell his Colelge of Cardinals that “Jerusalem has responded to His call and to His grace with the same rigid blindness and stubborn ingratitude that has led it along the path of guilt to the murder of God.” Historian Guido Knopp describes these comments of Pius as being “incomprehensible” at a time when “Jerusalem was being murdered by the million” . David Dalin’s and Ronald Rychlaks  books are riddled with errors e.g Einstein never praised the Catholic Church during the war (Dalin compounds Time Magazine fabrication by inserting the word “Catholic” which even Time never mentioned) in fact he was severly critical of Church and Pacelli in signing the Concordat. The often quoted talk of Pius XI to a group of German pilgrims “spiritually we are all semites” is hacked to miss out the line repeating the same old Judeophobia relating to the legitimacy  of scociety to defend themselves against the socio-political influence of Jews. He also stands in judgment over everyone who dares to tell the truth of about Pius XII and the pre-Vatican II Church on the basis that they are “liberals”. commonly expanded into promoters of abortion etc. The reality is much of this work is part of the First Things Magazine neo-conservative Church of Capitalism (yes I’m forming a judgmenent and will answer for it). To be ewarded for a hacked work of history by being employed by the pizza billionaire at Ave Maria College, where rich Catholics can also have holy mansions built away from the sinful multitude and talk over a cockails how they are persecuted, is poor wages. A person can be a faithful Catholic but still tell the truth about the Judeophobia of the Church pre-Holocaust and even into the 1950′s. Try reading some of the stuff put out by the Vatican journal La Civiltà Cattolica, even whilst the Holocaust was taken place, and remember that each issue was approved by the Pope before publication for a reality check.     

  • Brian A. Cook

     This is a very serious allegation.

  • Helena Scott

    John McArthur’s outpouring shows no historical understanding and many misapprehensions. To take just one example: Pope Pius XII agonized repeatedly over the conflicting demands of the truth that required him to speak out, and the wisdom born of experience, which showed that Nazi retaliation for any protest was swift and savage. From September 1943 to April 1944 thousands of Jews were hidden in Vatican properties, churches and convents all over Rome and Italy. These enjoyed flimsy immunity from raids by the German occupiers. Had the Pope said a word in public against the Nazi or in defence of the Jews during that time, he knew very well that all those sheltered Jews, plus their protectors, would be captured and sent to the death camps. The same was true thoughout the war for all the countries under German occupation: any public protest made things worse for those already in the concentration camps, and lengthened the lists of those targeted for arrest.

  • Ronk

    A small step in the direction of truth but many more such steps are required. Venerable Pius XII was the greatest hero of World war Two who saved more Jews than every other person and organisation all put together. He should be in the central pride of place at the Yad Vashem memorial as the number one ourtstanding “Righteous Among the Gentiles.”