The wartime pope may have saved thousands of Jewish lives by secretly securing visas so they could escape the Third Reich, a German historian has claimed.
Pope Pius XII, who has been severely criticised for his alleged silence during the Holocaust, may have arranged the exodus of some 200,000 Jews from Germany just three weeks after Kristallnacht.
The claim was made by Dr Michael Hesemann, an academic carrying out research in the Vatican Archives for the Pave the Way Foundation, a US-based inter-faith group.
He said that Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli – the future Pius XII – wrote to Catholic archbishops around the world to urge them to apply for visas for “non-Aryan Catholics” and Jewish converts to Christianity who wanted to leave Germany.
Dr Hesemann says that additional evidence suggests that in fact the visas would be given to ordinary Jews desperate to escape persecution.
“The fact that this letter speaks of ‘converted Jews’ and ‘non-Aryan’ Catholics indeed seems to be a cover,” said Dr Hesemann.
“You couldn’t be sure that Nazi agents wouldn’t learn about this initiative,” he said. “Pacelli had to make sure they didn’t misuse it for their propaganda, that they could not claim that the Church is an ally of the Jews.”
A clue that Cardinal Pacelli was not referring to Jewish converts, said Dr Hesemann, came in a part of the letter in which he asks Church leaders to provide for the “spiritual welfare” of the refugees and to “protect their religious cult, customs and traditions” – which distinguished them from Catholics.
Also, in their reply to the cardinal’s appeal many bishops dropped the pretence and simply referred to the recipients of the visas as “persecuted Jews”.
The appeal from Cardinal Pacelli, then the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was dated November 30 1938 – just 20 days after the “night of broken glass” when Nazis rose up against German Jews, burning thousands of homes, synagogues and businesses.
Cardinal Pacelli was able to ask for the visas because the 1933 concordat he signed with the Nazis specifically provided protection for Jews who converted to Christianity.
Elliot Hershberg, the chairman of Pave the Way Foundation, said the intervention would have inevitably saved the lives of many ordinary Jewish people.
“We believe that many Jews who were successful in leaving Europe may not have had any idea that their visas and travel documents were obtained through these Vatican efforts,” he said.
“Everything we have found thus far seems to indicate the known negative perception of Pope Pius XII is wrong,” he added.
Professor Ronald Rychlak, author of Hitler, the War and the Pope, said the new evidence proved that “efforts that appear to have been directed to protect only converted Jews actually protected Jews regardless of whether they had converted”.
But Dr Edward Kessler, the director of the Cambridge-based Woolfson Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, said the documents would not “resolve all the basic issues still under discussion”.
“It is clear that Pius XII facilitated the saving of Roman Jews,” he said.
“Very few people deny this or if they do, their views are rejected by mainstream scholarly opinion. I agree – as do all reasonable scholars – that Pius XII was not a Nazi sympathiser, an anti-Semite and a Hitler collaborator. The fundamental question is: what did he do, did he do enough and did he do it soon enough?”
In December Pope Benedict XVI placed Pius one step closer to canonisation when he declared him “Venerable”, meaning that the Church believes he lived a life of heroic virtue. Two miracles are needed to canonise him as a saint and the Vatican is already investigating at least one apparently inexplicable healing at his intercession.
But some Jewish groups want the process frozen until the Vatican opens its secret wartime archives in 2014. At present the Vatican is cataloguing millions of documents into thousands of folders and files and has doubled its staff to speed up the process.
British historian Sir Martin Gilbert, the world’s leading expert on the Holocaust, has said that Pope Pius XII should be considered as a “righteous gentile” by Yad Vashem.