The Vatican and the Anti-Jewish Persecution in Italy through Diplomatic Documents of the Holy See
Following the controversy concerning the decision of Yad Vashem to change the caption on Pius XII in the permanent exhibition of the museum, the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan has made available an overview of the existing evidence on the behavior of Pope Eugenio Pacelli toward the situation of the Jews written by Liliana Picciotto. We publish here the English version as a contribution to the public debate.
The death of Pius XI and the succession to the papal chair of his Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli as Pius XII (March 2, 1939), preceded by only few months the outbreak of World War II.
The pontificate of Pius XII was characterized by a constant quest for neutrality, a goal the new Pope pursued with great determination, as it suited both his personality and his previous role in international diplomacy as the Vatican’s Secretary of State.
The objective of preserving the ability to influence relations between states emerged as early as his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (October 20, 1939). In the spirit of his predecessor, Pius XI, the encyclical was markedly anti-totalitarian, but without specific references to either the European conflict and its contenders, or to the Jews of Europe – the main victims of the Nazis. The purpose of his “active” diplomatic caution was to be able to “intervene” rather than, as some have claimed, “not to intervene”.
It was in this climate that, in our opinion, the decision was taken not to publish the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas, commissioned by Pius XI and already prepared as a first draft. Publishing it in 1939 would have meant weighing too obviously against nationalism and fascism and was thought to implicitly play in favor of communism.
Among the reasons for not releasing the encyclical, it is also conceivable that the Pope was reluctant to publish so bluntly the theses of traditional Catholic anti-Judaism. This would have provoked outrage among Western democracies, especially since the safety of the Jews had come under grave threat following the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 11, 1938.
Given the circumstances, Eugenio Pacelli, a sophisticated diplomat by training, plausibly, thought it wise to postpone any decision on the matter.
When the war broke out, Pius XII indiscriminately proffered words of solidarity to all suffering people, but avoided any open condemnations of Nazi violence. Besides his concern for neutrality, the Pope did not want to risk worsening the already difficult situation of Catholics in Nazi-controlled countries and a possible schism of pro-Nazi Catholics. These were real dangers which he intended to avoid at all costs.
Fragmentary news about the extermination
Before describing the Vatican’s reaction to the October 16th, 1943 roundup of the Roman Jews, it is important to understand what exchanges had taken place between the Vatican and national and international entities regarding the plight of the Jews.
The Holy See had received in depth information about the ongoing genocide of the Jews in Eastern Europe practically since its inception.
In their seminal studies, historians Susan Zuccotti and Giovanni Miccoli provided a comprehensive list of the reports that reached the Vatican prior to October 1943. For the purpose of this article we will only mention the main ones.
The first account came on October 27, 1941 from Monsignor Giuseppe Burzio, the Vatican Chargé D’Affairs in Slovakia, concerning the massacres perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen in Russia. Then, in January 1942, Don Pirro Scavizzi, a chaplain on a military train organized by the Order of Malta to support the Italian Troops in Russia and the Pope’s special envoy to report on the atrocities of war, sent a second report. On March 18, 1942, Gerhard Riegner, secretary of the Geneva-based World Jewish Congress, who had first-hand information of the Nazi extermination from the Gross Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, sent a memorandum to Monsignor Filippo Bernardini, Apostolic Nuncio in Switzerland, with an overall description of the situation of the European Jews.
Two more reports were sent to the Pope by Monsignor Groeber, Archbishop of Freiburg (June 14, 1942) and by the Metropolitan of Leopoli of the Ruthenians, Monsignor Szeptyckyj (29-31 August, 1942). Also in August 1942 the Vatican received accounts concerning the genocide of Polish Jews by poison gas. At that time the project of extermination had already assumed the technological revolution that characterized it until the end of the conflict: the introduction of poison gases and the use of sealed rooms to kill large numbers of people.
The SS Obersturmfuehrer Kurt Gerstein, responsible for the supply of gas in the extermination camp of Belzec (Poland) and voluntary witness of these crimes, informed Dr. Winter, legal counselor of the Bishop of Berlin, Preysing Konrad, of the gassings he had witnessed and asked that this information be forwarded to the Vatican. On December 12, 1942, Monsignor Antonio Springovics, Bishop of Riga, who had witnessed the mass shootings of Jews by the Einsatzgruppen, wrote a letter to Pius XII, providing information on the massacres in Latvia.
On May 5, 1943, based on the information received up to that moment and which, although scattered, was unmistakable in its substance, the Vatican Secretariat of State drew up a letter summarizing the memoranda concerning the demise of Polish Jewry: “Jews. Horrendous situation. Before the war, in Poland there were about 4,500,000 Jews; it is estimated now that less than 100,000 remain, including those who moved to Poland from other countries occupied by Germany.
A ghetto was created in Warsaw that initially contained about 650,000 people. Now there may be 20-25,000 left. Of course many Jews may have been able to escape, but there is no doubt that the majority was exterminated. After many months of transporting many thousands of people, no one has ever sent any news, a fact that can be explained in no other way than by their death (…).
There are special death camps near Lublin (Treblinka) and at Bret Litowski: it’s been said that hundreds (of Jews) at a time are locked in sealed rooms, where they are gassed to death. They are then transported in cattle cars, tightly locked, with quicklime floors.
Sister Margit Slachta, who came in person to urge action by the Holy See in favor of Slovak Jews, brought similar information to Rome. On March 16, 1943, the military chaplain in Russia, Ottorino Marcolini, reported to the Vatican Secretary of State gruesome episodes on the German treatment of the Jews.
It is therefore clear that on October 1943, the month of the roundup of the Jews of Rome, the Holy See had full knowledge of the ongoing genocide of the Jews of Eastern Europe, even though specific information concerning Auschwitz-Birkenau became known only in April-May of 1944 when 4 detainees escaped to Slovakia.
This awareness however did not affect the traditional Catholic attitudes toward Judaism and the Jews, as revealed in the startling letter by Father Tacchi Venturi to Cardinal Maglione on August 29, 1943. The letter accompanied a list of Vatican requests concerning the racial legislation, directed to the Minister of Interior Umberto Ricci (Minister by 10 August 1943): “His Excellency Cardinal Secretary of State of His Holiness assigned me to approach the competent authorities of the Royal Italian Government in order to obtain their acceptance of the three proposals I am reporting to you, regarding the current racial laws … “.
The letter was written during the Badoglio administration. Mussolini had fallen on July 25 and the anti-Jewish laws had not been abolished because the government of the Kingdom of Italy did not want to provoke the Germans. The Holy See, instead of demanding the repeal of the anti-Jewish laws, sought to emphasize three issues within these laws that had been already raised with Mussolini in 1938, but had never been resolved. These were clearly minor issues in the wider contexts of the Shoah (and by insisting on them rather than the abrogation of the Racial Laws, it shattered the hope of many Italians that Badoglio’s would be a non dictatorial government).
After the fall of Mussolini, Father Tacchi Venturi and Cardinal Maglione took action to obtain: a) the recognition of “mixed” families as “Aryan”, including the spouse of Jewish race, b) the recognition as “Aryans” of the catechumens, that is, Jews awaiting baptism, including those after October 1, 1938; c) the transcription into the civil registry of marriages between two Catholics, one of which of Jewish origin.
Further, in a letter accompanying the requests made to Minister Ricci, Father Tacchi Venturi wrote to Cardinal Maglione these startling words: “I received your revered letter dated the 27 of this month, with the report by Mr. X on the situation of Italian citizens of the Jewish race, and in particular on racially mixed families. I thank you for sharing this report with me, as it helped me in the task I was assigned to undertake. It is especially useful to know what the Israelites in Italy wish for: the complete re-establishment of the liberal governments’ legislation that was in place until November 1938. In approaching the matter with His Excellency the Minister for the Interior, I limited myself to discussing the three points expressed in Your Eminence’s revered paper dated August 18th. As agreed, I stayed clear of bringing up the total abrogation of a law which, according to the principles and traditions of the Catholic Church, has provisions that need to be repealed, but contains many other that deserve confirmation. […] “.
The plight of Italian Jews, who, since 1938 had been offended, segregated, impoverished, deprived of their civil rights and harassed by a vexatious law, was not even deemed worthy of a mention. In fact the Catholic Church unequivocally reiterated its sympathy toward the racial laws and the practice of segregation, in perfect harmony with the statements and writings of previous years. Note also the shocked reaction to the wish of the Italian Jews to return to the legislation of the liberal governments: an old leitmotiv that associated Judaism with the abhorred liberalism.
Tacchi Venturi’s requests were actually rendered irrelevant by the Article 31 of the armistice between Italy and the Allies (September 8, 1943), which required “all Italian laws involving discrimination based on race, color, political or religious creed to be repealed and all individuals detained for such reasons to be freed in accordance with the orders of the United Nations. The Italian Government will comply with all further directions of the Supreme Allied Commander concerning the repeal of the Fascist legislation and the removal of any impediment or prohibition resulting from it.”
The armistice was in effect only in the liberated South of Italy. Unfortunately, the rest of the peninsula remained under the rule of Fascism and German occupation. There, the darkest chapter of their persecution still awaited the Jews of Italy.
The Holy See and the roundup of the Jews of Rome
We now return to the chronicle of events that affected the Roman Jewish community during the tragic months of September-October 1943. It is worth noting that the Holy See was following attentively the moves of the German occupiers.
Rumors of German persecutory measures against the Jews in Italy had begun to circulate on September 17. A note of the Secretary of State stated: “[…] There are no reports of such measures being enforced, specifically against the Jews. However, the Jews are terrified, since rumors began to circulate about impending actions especially against the heads of Jewish families. In order not to leave an intervention on their behalf unattempted, there seems to be no other possibility than to make a generic appeal to the Embassy to the Holy See, in favor of the civilian population of any race, especially for the weakest.
To this end, it might be possible to deliver a memo to the German Embassy, or a word to the Honorable Ambassador, in the event he is expected sometimes soon at the Vatican. […].”
On September 18 a member of the Jewish community had gone to the Vatican State Secretariat seeking assistance in finding housing for about 150 foreign Jews. They had been temporarily accommodated in the building of the Jewish school and, not knowing Italian, could be immediately identified. The request was denied and the Secretariat of State suggested that the refugees try to reach the liberated South.
During the same days Albrecht von Kessel, the Counselor of the German Embassy to the Holy See, took it upon himself to make known the impending measures against the Jews. He did this through his Swiss friend, Alfred Fahrener, general secretary of an institute of the League of Nations.
The German demand of 50 kilos of gold from the Roman Jewish community in exchange for their safety -which occurred on September 27, 1943 – was announced to the Vatican on the same day:
Monsignor Arata announced: “Doctor Foà, chief rabbi of Rome, [sic!] was called by the German police, who ordered him to deliver 50 kg of gold by tomorrow at 11 am”.
On this occasion the Jewish community made the aforementioned requests for help to the Holy See and, on September 29, the head of special affairs at the Holy See, Bernardino Nogara, informed Cardinal Maglione: “Dr. Zolli came today at 2 pm to tell me that they had found the missing 15 kg of gold from Catholic communities and therefore there is no need to participate in the collection. He asked, however, that a door remain open to him in the future.”
During the same days the local German authorities in Rome were informed of the upcoming roundup of the Jews. Similar information had reached the Vatican on October 11from Italian sources: “Mr. XY, personally known by d. B. reports today: SIM, (the Italian Military Secret Service) of which XY is a member, has been reorganized and now functions against the Germans. According to reliable sources, Kesselring had asked Rommel for 3,000 SS to form patrols for house searches in Rome. The operation is expected to begin on the 18th and last three days with the cooperation of the fascists; […] The only salvation would be an action of the Holy See in favor of Rome, the Pope’s diocese […]. ”
The Day of the Roundup
The alarm of the raid on the ghetto was first given by Princess Enza Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, who, early in the morning on October 16, was woken up by a friend who resided in the vicinity of the ghetto, who informed her that the Germans were arresting all the Jews – entire families with women and children – and loading them onto trucks.
The princess was a devout Catholic, involved with many charitable endeavors, and on good terms with the highest ecclesiastical circles of Rome. She had already been received by the Pope in a private audience. She decided to leave the house immediately to personally bring the tragic news to the Pope. Since she had no car, she telephoned an assistant German Ambassador to the Vatican, Karl Gustav Wollenweber, who immediately picked her up in a diplomatic car and brought her to the Vatican.
During the trip, the princess asked to pass by the Jewish quarter to see personally what was happening. At the Vatican, she was welcomed by the Master of the Chamber, Monsignor Arborio Mella St. Elias who brought her to the private library of Pope Pius XII. He had just finished saying Mass.
The Pontiff was surprised to hear the story. He said that the Germans had promised they would not touch the Jews. He picked up the phone in the presence of the princess. In a few hours, the Secretary of State of the Holy See, Cardinal Maglione, summoned the Ambassador of Germany, Ernst von Weizsäcker.
The following is the report of the conversation, written by Maglione himself: “Having heard this morning that the Germans have rounded up the Jews, I asked the Ambassador of Germany to visit me and to intervene on behalf of those poor people. I spoke to him as best as I could in the name of humanity and Christian charity.
The Ambassador, who admitted he knew about the arrests but doubted they were targeted specifically toward the Jews, told me with a sincere and heartfelt tone: “I always expect to be asked why I remain in this office.”
I exclaimed: “No, Mr. Ambassador, I do not and will never ask you such a question. I simply say: Your Excellency, who has a sensitive heart, could do something to save many innocent people. It is painful to the Holy Father, painful beyond words, that in Rome, under the eyes of the Common Father, so many people are made to suffer solely because they belong to a particular ancestry…”
After some moments of reflection, the Ambassador asked: “What would the Holy See do if things were to continue?”. I answered: “The Holy See does not want to be put in the position to pronounce words of disapproval”.
The Ambassador noted: “It is more than four years that I follow and admire the attitude of the Holy See. It managed to conduct the ship in the midst of rocks of all types and size without crashes, and even though it trusted its allies, it maintained a perfect balance. I wonder if, now that the ship is to arrive in port, you should put everything in jeopardy. I think of the consequences that would result from a reaction of the Holy See … These directives come from the highest places … “Your Eminence leaves me the freedom to not ‘faire état’ of this official conversation?”.
I observed that I had asked him to intervene by appealing to his feelings of humanity. I thus deferred to his judgment to make mention or not of our conversation, which had been so friendly.
I wanted to remind him that the Holy See had been so attentive, as he himself had pointed out, not to give the impression to have done or wanting to do the slightest thing against Germany during this terrible war.
But I had to tell him that the Holy See should not be put in the position to protest. Should the Holy See be obliged to do so, it would rely on the Divine Providence for the consequences. Meanwhile, I repeat: Your Excellency said that he would try to do something for the poor Jews. I don’t even thank you. I leave it up to your judgment. If you believe it appropriate not to make mention of this conversation, so be it.”
The weakness and the futility of the intervention of Cardinal Maglione is clear: a private conversation to be kept confidential which never took the form of a diplomatic note of protest. Cardinal Maglione spoke to the German Ambassador Weiszaecker “in the name of humanity and Christian charity” and appealed to his “sensitive heart”.
One has the impression that the intervention of the Cardinal, so timid and resigned, was made as official duty, without the commitment that the situation demanded.
The statement of the German Ambassador remains obscure: “what would the Holy See do if things were to continue?” to which Maglione responded with a vague reference to a possible “word of disapproval.” It is not clear whether the conversation took place while the raid was still in progress, that is, between 5:30 am and 1:00 pm on Saturday, October 16 or, more likely, in the afternoon of the same day. In the first case the two may be referring to the possibility of suspending the raid; in the second, of stopping future raids, while sacrificing the Jews who had already been arrested.
Beyond the language of diplomatic “courtesy” used by Weizsäcker, his words conveyed a more significant threat than it may appear at first sight: “ I wonder if, now that the ship is to arrive in port, you should put everything in jeopardy. I think of the consequences that would result from a step of the Holy See … Directives come from the highest places”. The Holy See, in truth, could not ignore this warning at a time when the Germans ruled over Rome.
On the same day, October 16, the Vatican took another step in favor of the Jews who had been arrested and were detained in the former Italian Military Academy, awaiting the train that would deport them to Auschwitz. Pope Pacelli sent his nephew, Prince Carlo Pacelli, to confer with Bishop Alois Hudal, dean of the German language school of Santa Maria dell’Anima. The prince asked the Bishop to write a letter to General Rainer Stahel, military commander in Rome, protesting of the raid.
This is the text of the letter he obtained from the Bishop: “Allow me to talk about a very urgent issue. A high Vatican authority from the entourage of the Holy Father just informed me that this morning the Jews of Italian citizenship were rounded up and arrested.
In the interest of the peaceful relations that have existed up to this point between the Vatican and the German Military High Command, primarily due to the political intuition and magnanimity of His Excellency, which will one day go down in the history of Rome, I beg you earnestly to order the suspension of the arrests in Rome and its surroundings. German international prestige requires such measures, as well as the danger that the Pope may take a public stand against it. Since in the very near future the German Reich could avail itself of the assistance of the Vatican – I know that as early as March, there have been contacts to this end – it would be a grave damage to the peace negotiations if the persecution of the Jews would lead to further disagreement between the Vatican and the Reich”.
The next day, October 17, Stahel answered Bishop Hudal by phone: “I immediately sent a letter to the local Gestapo and even to Himmler. Himmler ordered that, in view of the special status of Rome, these arrests be immediately suspended.”
Stahel also sent a written message to Hudal in which he did not confront this issue, but instead only stated his non involvement in this action: “[…] As for the arrests of Jews in Rome and surroundings, that you told me about, I can only tell you that, personally, as military commander, I do not have anything to do with it. This is a police action over which I have no influence, because my duties are purely military. Nevertheless I did pass on your concerns to the pertinent authorities.”
It is worth noting that both Hudal and Himmler referred to the possibility of suspending the arrests, but neither mentioned a possible release of the Jews who were already in German hands and in the process of being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The letter signed by Hudal was considerably more explicit and peremptory than the friendly conversation between Maglione and Weizsäcker. Unfortunately neither one of them was in the right position to make a real difference. Hudal was not high enough in the Roman Curia and Stahel, being an Army General, as he pointed out himself, had nothing to do with the arrests of the Jews, which, like in all other occupied countries, were managed by the German Police.
However, the letter must have impressed the German authorities to some degree because on October 23 it was delivered to Adolf Eichmann, the most powerful official of the RSHA (Reichssicherheitspolizei, Central Office for Reich Security) in charge of the Jewish question in Europe. It was sent to him by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ernst von Thadden.
In the meantime, on October 17, the German Ambassador to the Vatican Weizsaecker, sent the following telegram to the German Foreign Ministry: “I can confirm the reaction from the Vatican concerning the deportation of the Jews of Rome, as reported by Monsignor Hudal. The Curia is particularly touched because the action took place, so to speak, under the windows of the Pope. The reaction would probably be softened if the Jews were sent to forced labor in Italy.
Circles that are hostile to us are taking advantage of what happened in Rome to force the Vatican to give up its silence. The Bishops of French cities where similar actions occurred, have taken a clear position. The Pope, in his capacity of supreme pastor of the Church and Bishop of Rome, cannot be more cautious than them.
People begin to compare the present Pope with the much more assertive Pius XI: the propaganda of our enemies abroad will certainly seize this opportunity to generate tensions between us and the Curia.”
Instead, contrary to all expectations, the only official reaction of the Holy See was a small article which appeared in a back section of the Osservatore Romano on October 25, 1943 and was entitled Charity of the Holy Father. The article made a very vague reference to the deportation of Roman Jews, the majority of whom had already been murdered in Auschwitz two days before: “The Holy Father continues to receive more insistent than ever the pitiful echo of the misfortunes that the current conflict, in its magnitude, continue to cause. The Supreme Pontiff, as is known, after having vainly endeavored to avoid the war by trying to dissuade the leaders of nations from resorting to the force of weapons that are ever more tremendous, did not cease to engage with all means in His power to relieve the suffering caused in whatever way by this immense conflagration. With the growth of many evils, the universally paternal charity of the Supreme Pontiff has become, one might say, almost more active and does not stop in front of any boundaries, be it of nationality, religion or ethnic descent. The incessant actions of Pius XII have intensified in recent times due to the growing suffering of so many poor people. May this charitable activity, driven with unanimous consent and fervor by the prayers of people of faith throughout the world, achieve more extensive results, and hasten the day when the earth will shine in the eye of peace, and men will lay down their weapons and extinguish all discord and rancor, recognizing one another as brothers and finally working together with loyalty and for the common welfare. ”
On October 28, 1943, Weizsäcker was able to send his Foreign Minister the following report reassuring him on the mood at the Vatican:
“Even though he was urged to do so by many parties, the Pope took no position against the deportation of the Roman Jews. He will naturally have to deal with the fact that this position will not be forgiven by our enemies, and Protestant circles in Anglo-Saxon countries will use it for propaganda purposes against Catholicism. He has done everything, in this delicate situation, as not to jeopardize the relationship with the German government and German authorities in Rome.
Since there is no doubt that here in Rome there will be no further actions against the Jews, we can assume that this unfortunate issue has been resolved, for the good standing of German-Vatican relations.
From the Vatican, there are clear signs in this direction. On October 25, L’Osservatore Romano published an unofficial statement on the charitable activity of the Pope, which, in the typical style of the Vatican press, appears rather nebulous and convoluted. It states that the Pope, in his paternal benevolence, benefits all men, without distinction of nationality, religion and race.
It also states that recently the activities of Pius XII have further expanded because of the great suffering of so many unfortunate people. I doubt any objection can be made against this publication, especially as the text, attached in translation, cannot be taken by readers as an allusion to the Jewish question.”
In this letter Weizsaecker does not mention the release of those who had been arrested, but only the suspension of future raids in Rome. He refers to fact that Dannecker, (Eichmann’s envoy), and his special team that conducted the raids against the Jews throughout Italy, was expected to move out of the city and that there would be no other massive raids such as the one of October 16. As a matter of fact the arrests of Jews in Rome continued for many more months, conducted both by the Italian and German police and causing at least another 800 victims.
There are open questions concerning the genesis of Bishop Hudal’s letter to General Stahel. Oddly, there are two versions of it, one more complete and stronger in tone than the other. According to Vatican documents it was the Pope’s nephew who visited and urged Hudal to write it. On the other hand, the former attaché of the German Embassy in Rome (not at the Vatican), Gerhard Gumpert, during Ernst Weizsäcker’s trial on April 2, 1948 gave a different version of the facts. He stated that it was he who alerted everyone he could and visited Hudal.
According to this version, which was partially adopted by Robert Katz in his book Black Saturday, when warned of the raid in progress, Gumpert immediately telephoned General Stahel, who pretended not to be aware of the raid. Gumpert then decided to call the German Embassy to the Holy See and talked to Weizsaecker. The ambassador was absent, and Gumpert spoke with his assistant, Albrecht von Kessel. According to Gumpert, they agreed that the best way to ensure the suspension of the round up would be to obtain a letter written by a high Vatican dignitary to be submitted to General Stahel, that could then be used by Weizsäcker as leverage in Berlin. From the letter “it was to transpire the chagrin of the Vatican and the Holy Father in the face of these events.”
This would explain why one version of the letter was found in the archives of the German Foreign Office, coming from the German Embassy in Italy, and not from the German Embassy to the Holy See.
The issue of the release of prisoners arrested on October 16
Let us now focus on the claim that that the meeting between Ambassador Weizsäcker and Cardinal Maglione following the raid of the Jews in Rome lead to if anything, the release of many prisoners. This idea comes from a report by Sir Francis Osborne of the British Foreign Office who, on October 31 wrote: “As soon as he heard of the arrests of Jews in Rome Cardinal Secretary of State sent for the German Ambassador and formulated some [sort?] of protest: The Ambassador took immediate action with the result that large numbers were released…The Vatican intervention thus seems to have been effective in saving a number of these unfortunate people. I enquired whether I might report this and was told that I might do so but strictly for your information and not on account for publicity, since any publication of information would probably lead to renewed persecution”. [note: the Foreign Office was aware of the plan of the round up already at the beginning of October and decided to do nothing to protect the intelligence service].
Osborne’s source was Cardinal Maglione himself who, without putting it in writing, had probably asked the German Ambassador to release some prisoners of particular interest. But what did Osborne mean by saying “with the result that a large number was released”? On October 18th, the Holy See actually handed Weizsaecker a list of 29 baptized Jews asking for their release. Among them was Mr. Foligno, leading lawyer of the Roman Rota, who was of Jewish origin, but Catholic by birth, with an Aryan wife and children. His release is documented. Nothing is known of the others. For five of them the Holy See sent further requests on October 22 and again on October 23.
As for the release of non-Jews and Jews married to Aryans, we are fortunate to have been able to interview one of the protagonists of that story, Arminio Wachsberger, who was captured with his wife and daughter and asked by Dannecker, because of his knowledge of German, to translate the orders to the Jews detained at the Military College. Wachsberger stated that he was asked to announce standing on a table, that non-Jews arrested by accident during the raid and Jewish spouses of Aryans, would be released. Wachsberger was sure that no Vatican officer was present when Dannecker asked him to make the announcement. And, in fact, no intervention was necessary since the Germans had already adhered to this policy.
The merit of the releases, which is generally ascribed to a Vatican intervention, seems rather due to the quick thinking of some Jews who, like Bianca Ravenna and her daughter Piera Levi, managed to pass for Catholics, and above all to the precision of German diplomacy. At that time and for many months to come, Jewish spouses of mixed marriages received preferential treatment in Italy, as well as throughout the territory of the Reich.
On October 17, Don Iginio Quadraroli, of the Second Section of the Secretariat of State, wrote to Cardianal Maglione that he had gone to the Military College located at Palazzo Salviati to bring a food package that he was asked to deliver. He described the situation in these terms: “[…] They did not let me speak with any one of them […]. The person who sent me there told me that yesterday these poor people did not received either drinks or food.
I saw them from a distance, crowded in the classrooms, and then again in line for bread. I noticed a poor woman trying to explain with gestures to an SS guard that her daughter needed to find a bathroom. I saw the guard brutally forbid it. I also saw a car with some doctors from the Santo Spirito Hospital who went to treat some of those poor people who had been beaten. While going out I learned that a woman went into premature labor and shortly thereafter, I met a midwife, who had received an emergency call, and who asked me how she could go in.
According to some, who were outside and knew some of the prisoners, there are also people who had been baptized, confirmed, and married into the Catholic faith. Prisoners are not allowed to receive any clothing, only some food and even a few lines of correspondence, which of course, can be treacherous.”
Astonishingly, no aid, not even packages were provided to Jews by the Holy See, nor were they visited by any high-ranking prelate, or by the Pope himself.
What follows is a report of the hopes and expectations of the Jews, at odds with what really happened. On October 19th, Red Cross personnel stationed at the Padua train station informed the local bishop of the pitiful state of the Jews deported from Rome. The bishop wrote to Cardinal Maglione: “A few days ago a train carrying Jews from Rome transited through the city. Many of them expressed the desire that the local bishop be informed of their transit and their pitiful conditions, so that he could then inform the Holy Father.
Their desire was motivated by the hope that the Common Father could do something to alleviate their painful conditions especially through prayer and blessing. Compassionately I bow … “.
After the roundup of the Roman Jews, a number of urgent requests reached the Holy See, from relatives or friends of the victims who wanted news of their loved ones. Most queries, which went on throughout the month of October, were conveyed to Father Tacchi Venturi. On October 25th, Tacchi Venturi took the initiative to bring them to the attention of the Secretary of State Cardinal Maglione: “[…] I have been receiving with great frequency appeals to support the cause of the Jews with the Holy Father in his boundless charity. In recent days, due to the iniquitous and cruel German treatment of these unfortunates, their requests have remarkably increased in number and intensity. I send this address to you at this special time to beg that the Holy See take urgent measures to at least inquire about the destiny of the many Jews and many Christians, men and women, young and old, adolescents and children, barbarously transported last week like animals to be slaughtered from the Military College in Via della Lungara. An action of this kind by the Holy See, even in the unfortunate case that it does not obtain the desired effect, will generate, no doubt, increased veneration and gratitude […] “.
A formal request for aid from the Holy See was drafted by the President of the Italian Jewish Communities, Dante Almansi and the secretary of the Roman branch of DELASEM, Settimio Sorani. As Sorani was arrested while on his way to deliver the letter to Cyril Kotnik, the head of the Yugoslav Delegation to the Holy See, the petition never reached its destination.
On October 27th, Rabbi David Panzieri -who had replaced the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, after the latter went into hiding- wrote a heart wrenching appeal to the Pope. Voicing the pain of thousands of members of the Jewish community of Rome for the horrific raid of October 16th, Panzieri asked the Holy Father to intervene for their release and return to their homes. If this was not possible, Roman Jews hoped that the Pope could at least help deliver winter clothes to their loved ones, including infants, toddlers and elderly who had been taken from their beds in summer night gowns: “[…] Help these people, Holy Father, help us, and may God, compensate your intervention […]. ”
Rumors had reached the Secretariat of State that even the German military circles had expressed a very unfavorable impressions for the deportation of Jews of Rome and the silence of the Church on this sad event.
On October 30th, the diplomatic representative of Sweden in Italy went to Cardinal Montini “[…] to inquire about the fate of the Jews who had been taken away from Rome” and to reiterate that “[…] a public statement of the Holy See concerning actions against the life of human beings would be very well received.”
Finally, on November 6th, Cardinal Maglione decided to take a step in that direction and addressed Weizsaecker: “The nobility of your Excellency encourages me to ask if there is anything that could be done to satisfy the wish of many relatives and friends of the non-Aryans who were recently arrested in Rome, and who would like to receive news of their loved ones, as well as to possibly send them some material help. Numerous petitions, in fact, have come and continue to come to the Holy See to this end, so that a motion of your Excellency with the higher authorities would give way to the Holy See itself to bring relief to many families.”
The train transporting the Roman Jews was sighted on October 28th near Vienna; Maglione had been informed by then that they had crossed the Italian Northern border. Moreover, General Stahel had made it clear to Senator Richard Motta, government commissioner in Rome, that the Jews would never return to their homes.
Nevertheless, the cardinal addressed Weizsaecker in a subdued and fearful tone, which appears as a constant element of the resigned attitude of the Vatican toward the German Government.
The policy of non-intervention of the Pope Even in the face of such extreme measure as the mass arrests of the Jews of Rome, the Pope did not abandon the restraint he had chosen as a guiding principle of his politics, and pronounced no words of disapproval that could be heard by the entire world.
It is likely that, out of respect for the Pope, the train with the Romans Jews was initially directed to the concentration camp of Mauthausen. Given the weakness of the Vatican’s reaction, it was then redirected, like all transports of Jews from Western Europe, to the extermination camp of Auschwitz.
The deportation of the Jews from Rome, although the gravest, due to the very place where it occurred, was the culmination of a long series of non-responses to international appeals to the Pope urging him to express his disapproval for the extermination of the Jews.
What follows is a brief list of the main appeals.
On March 17th, 1942, after a meeting with the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Bernardini in Bern, the representatives of the Jewish Agency, the World Jewish Congress and the Swiss Jewish community sent a petition and a notice to the Pope: “[ …] We take the liberty of calling your attention to the situation in Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, and unoccupied France, where the measures already adopted or in course being adopted may perhaps still be revoked, or at least mitigated by the intervention of the Holy See […] “.
On July 30th, 1942, Harold Tittmann U.S. diplomatic representative to the Holy See during Myron Taylor’s absence, sent a telegram to the State Department: “[…] In my recent reports to the Department, I called attention to the fact that the lack of any public protest by the Holy See against the Nazi atrocities puts in jeopardy its moral prestige and undermines confidence in the Church and the Pope himself. On several occasions I have unofficially reminded the Vatican of this danger and some of my colleagues have done the same, but without success. The answer is always the same, that the Pope, in his speeches, has already condemned the moral damage caused by the war and that a more explicit step could only worsen the situation.
Yesterday, the Brazilian ambassador to the Holy See came to see me and asked if I was willing to participate in a joint initiative (not so much collective but simultaneous) to persuade the Pope to condemn publicly and in very specific terms the atrocities the Nazis are committing in the regions occupied by the Germany […] “.
On September 14 and 26 September, both Tittmann and Taylor sent similar letters to Cardinal Maglione: “[…] The Charge d’Affairs is also authorized by his government to emphasize that an open condemnation by the Holy Father could help curb violent actions by the Nazi regime.”
That same month, in mutual agreement, the ambassadors of Brazil, Great Britain, Belgium and Poland made separate requests to the Vatican Secretary of State, asking the condemnation of the massacres.
Shortly before Christmas 1942, Osborne, the British representative asked that the Holy See pronounce some sort of disapproval on the occasion of the joint declaration of the allied nations of December 17th, in which the extermination of the Jews was denounced and condemned.
In early May 1943, a letter from American Jewish community leaders was sent to Cardinal Cicognani, asking that: “the Holy Father made a public appeal and prayer to stop the massacre and deportation [of the Jews].”
Prior to October 16th, 1943, Pius XII had made references to the situation of the Jews on only two occasions. One was during his Christmas address of 1942: “(…) Mankind owes this vow of peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of nationality or ancestry, are destined for death or progressive extinction (…). ”
Another time, on June 2nd, 1943, in an address to the Sacred Assembly on the universal function and tutelage of the image of the Church, “to which belonged the denunciation of evil without violating the love that [the Church] was required to show to all”. The Pope explained his reticence in the face of Nazi crimes with his concern to avoid greater disasters. Issues included in this important speech were: the tragic fate of the Polish people, the problem of German retaliation in occupied European countries and the extermination of European Jews. Here is the passage that concerned them: “(…) On the other hand, venerable brothers and beloved sons, do not be surprised, if our heart responds with concern and particularly solicitous and heartfelt prayers to those who turn to us because they are anxious and troubled by reason of nationality or ancestry, of greater calamities and more severe pain, and are destined, even without fault on their part to the yoke of extermination. (…) Neither should you expect us to expose here all we have attempted in the effort to mitigate their sufferings (…) Every word in this direction that we addressed to the competent authorities, as well as any public mention of the matter, had to be seriously weighted and measured in the interest of those who suffer, in order to avoid taking any risk, even unintentionally, to make their situation more unbearable. (…). The Vicar, while asking only compassion and sincere return to the elementary rules of law and humanity, sometimes found himself in front of doors that no key could open”.
Even with the arrest of the Roman Jews, the Pope remained faithful to this policy, so clearly enunciated in the speech of June 2nd.
Historian Giovanni Miccoli appropriately emphasized the growing reluctance of the Pope to mention the Jews and to explicitly talk of Jews in public speeches. Pius XII resorted to circumlocutions that avoided calling the Jews by name. They were called “civilian populations of any race,” “people of a certain ancestry or nationality”, as if to avoid naming the Jews was a way to demonstrate his impartiality.
Pius XII imposed caution and discretion for himself, in essence, a non-intervention policy, (although several diplomatic notes were issued by the Secretary of State to the countries allied with Germany) not only in relation to the condition of the Jews, but also on the general issue of the increasingly barbaric methods of warfare.
Nor did he express his dissent when, in March 1944 in Rome, the Germans massacred 335 hostages of all religions at the Fosse Ardeatine.
The stated idea that led the Pope in his choice was the desire to appear impartial at all costs between the parties involved in the war. Was this in order to play better cards in a possible negotiation? Or to avoid the risk of appearing pro-Soviet? As for the fear of worsening the situation of the victims and causing more extreme reactions, what could have been more extreme than the indiscriminate extermination of an entire people? There are also indications that Pius XII was skeptical about the information concerning the atrocities committed against the Jews, which he regarded as exaggerated.
Undeniably the fear of the threats by the Nazi leadership weighted in. For example, after Pius XII’s Christmas address of 1942, the German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop had instructed his ambassador to the Vatican to confer with the Pope: “There are signs that may lead to the impression that the Vatican is willing to abandon its usual neutrality and take sides against Germany. It is up to you to inform him that in this case Germany has means of retaliation.” These harsh and clear words substantiated the more than justified concerns for the safety of anti-Nazi Catholic priests in Germany who had already been subjected to arrests and deportations to concentration camps.
The Holy See’s position on the anti-Jewish policy of the RSI The Holy See did not recognize the newly founded Italian Social Republic (RSI) and therefore formal diplomatic relations were never established. Indeed, on this occasion, the Vatican understood precisely the danger that the new situation represented for the Jews. The RSI immediately ordered the arrest and deportation to concentration camps of all the Jews residing on its territory.
Two prelates expressed great concern for the situation: the patriarch of Venice Adeodato Piazza and the Bishop of Ferrara, Ruggero Bovelli. Piazza acted even before the decree was issued, warning the Vatican Secretary of State of the tragic situation in which the Jews would found themselves under the Republican legislation, modeled after the Nuremberg Laws. Bovelli also implored intervention from the Vatican “with the proper authorities in favor of non-Aryans, especially those members of mixed families.”
The manner in which the grave problem of the new anti-Jewish laws was handled becomes clear in this note by Cardinal Maglione, of December 20th, 1943: “[…] General Chieli whom I had asked to speak with Marshal Graziani for an intervention with Mussolini in favor of the Jews, told me yesterday that Mussolini has stated that mixed families should not worry. Other changes would also be examined. We hope! Concerning Mussolini’s order of internment, the authorities here in Rome and in the surroundings are looking for a way around it. It will takes time and they think it will be necessary to postpone taking up the issue. The Archbishop alludes to an intervention with the Republican Government that has recently decreed severe measures against non-Aryans. Clearly, a direct and official intervention of the Holy See’s official is not appropriate under these circumstances. It would be possible to send a letter to Father Tacchi asking him to do everything possible. Tacchi is not the Nuncio, and his remarks cannot be considered as a direct intervention of the Holy See.
It is also possible to ask the Monsignor Nunzio to say a word in confidence, to Marshal Graziani or to Buffarini-Guidi, urging them to show mercy, especially toward mixed families.
To the Monsignor Archbishop we may reply that, as in the past, the Holy See is trying with all means to assist non-Aryans, particularly of mixed families. It will be difficult to obtain what is asked because the Republican Government is probably acting under the influence of the German authorities. If nothing else, one can always say that the Holy See has done everything possible to help these unfortunate people.”
This letter expresses unequivocally Maglione’s philosophy: give priority to the protection of mixed families, try not to provoke the Nazis or the Fascists, avoid any pressure and appease further requests for action by declaring that everything possible had already been done.
An article entitled “Civil Charity” that appeared in the Osservatore Romano on December 3rd, 1943, has a very different tone and takes a strong stand against the government ordinance of November 30th. The article quoted the entire text of the ordinance stressing that the reasons for tightening the anti-Jewish measures were not explained. Whatever those reasons were, the greatest majority of those affected were: “… devoid of any responsibility, … innocent of any guilt: children, women, old and sick people: the most vulnerable to the hardships that such measures cause … “. It concluded: “The current times bring great distress. There is a keen need and desire not to aggravate them with new tribulations and concerns – which are not limited to those directly touched, but, through kinship, affinity and friendship, affect large parts of the population -, […] it is essential to deserve God’s help through charity toward all his creatures. […] ”
God forgives so much for a work of mercy. […] Let us be just and merciful […] ”
To conclude this overview, where some gray areas emerge regarding the behavior of the Holy See, it is important to mention the extensive work in aid to the Jews, carried out by Catholic clergy, as well as by members of the organization called Azione Cattolica. The CDEC Foundation (Center of Contemporary Jewish Documentation) has undertaken an in depth research project entitled Memory of Salvation, which will offer a comprehensive picture of the dynamics and extent of the aid given to the Jews by the Catholic world and by the Italian civil society.
The research is both qualitative and quantitative and will lead to a better understanding of the overall reactions of the Italian Jewish world to the Shoah and the parallel reaction of non-Jews with respect to the same emergency.
As for the ecclesiastical world, religious institutions opened their doors to Jews and other persecuted people, including political dissidents, deserters, army officers of all provenance: a multitude of people dependent on the help of others, and on safe shelters provided by the Church.
As we have amply demonstrated, at the time of the Nazi-Fascist persecutions, the Catholic Church remained entrenched in its traditional anti-Jewish prejudice. This had nothing to do with Nazi and Fascist racist anti-Semitism, but was nevertheless loaded with tragic consequences because of its intrinsic strength and its capacity to capture the popular opinion.
The Church’s hostility toward the Jews, however, did not prevent that Christian charity bestowed on all the persecuted people and the entire civilian population suffering enormous pain, be also extended to the some Jews. A matter yet to be studied and a topic for reflection. Giovanni Miccoli offers an assessment on the matter, to which we subscribe: “… it was not necessary for anybody to reconsider their feelings toward the Jews, rather, at a time of emergency, Christian solidarity prevailed”.
As well as Emile Poulat’s opinion: “ in order to act efficiently – to save Jews: men, women and children in danger for their life – it was not necessary to have revised one’s own theological beliefs or clarify one’s thoughts on the matter. Christian instinct, the humanitarian reflex, were enough if there was courage. The time for reflection would come later…”
The question is admirably expressed by the words of Monsignor Santin, Bishop of Trieste in his letter of protest to the treatment of the Jews, addressed to the deputy governor of the Adriatic Coast October 31st, 1943: “… Why are you still ranting against them [the Jews]? They’re not my congregants, but the love of Christ and the sense of humanity know no limits … ”
Undoubtedly one of the most striking examples of a seemingly contradictory attitude is that of Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, Archbishop of Florence, who, though definitely tied to the traditional ideas of the Church regarding the Jews, nonetheless lent moral and material aid to the Jewish Committee for Relief to the Refugees, led by Rabbi Nathan Cassuto.
A similar ambivalence is found in the attitude of Cardinal Adeodato Piazza, Patriarch of Venice, who in his 1938 pastoral letter for Lent, vented his bloodthirsty instincts, speaking of the deicide people, belonging to the most lurid sects, from Freemasonry to Bolshevism:”… this people […] must be branded and kept wandering like Cain, indeed, to bear witness of the divine blood spilled and never atoned”. The letter for Lent of 1940, commenting a passage of Pius XII’s encyclical Summi Pontificatus, stated that “the Jewish people committed deicide and, though shattered and scattered, became the yeast of darkness, anywhere and at all times “.
Less than three years later, Piazza himself -in a letter that reached the Vatican on December 6th, 1943, through Cardinal Rossi, head of the Congregation of the Consistory – expressed himself in the following terms: “Allow me to mention to Your Reverend Eminence the plight of the Jews, who come every day to ask for advice and help, alarmed by the foreign and enemy threats, and by the upcoming Republican law which is said to be modeled after the Nuremberg Laws. Those who have been baptized and who, under the new law, will be considered of the Jewish race, are especially concerned. I am sure that the Holy See will do everything possible to save these unfortunates, whose fate cannot but worry the Church. For my part I have alluded to this painful problem, suggesting moderation, when the Consul General of Germany who lives in Venice came to pay me a private visit. He promised me he would follow up. But will he? I took the courage to write to Your Eminence in the hope you might choose to present it to His Excellency, the Cardinal Secretary of State – or even to the Holy Father. Indeed this is something which the Church cannot ignore.”
* This essay is an abridged version of one of the chapters of the book “Comprehensive History of the Holocaust in Italy” in preparation for the Institute Yad Vashem in Jerusalem