Researchers Identify Jews Aided by Catholics in Nazi Era as Pope Was Silent

A group of historians convened by a research institution of the Vatican announced on Thursday the discovery of documents naming thousands of Jews in Rome who received safe haven in Catholic convents and monasteries during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War.

Historians have long known that some Catholic institutions in Rome provided refuge to some Jews during the period; the documents for the first time supplied some of their identities. But experts say that although the discovery adds to scholarship of the period, it does not fundamentally change the historical understanding of the actions of the church and of Pius XII, the pope at the time.

Nearly 2,000 Jews, about a sixth of Rome’s Jewish population, were deported from Rome and murdered during the Nazi occupation, from September 1943 to June 1944, while Pius remained publicly silent.

“Now we have specific names and numbers, so, from the historiographical point of view, it’s clearly a great satisfaction,” said Liliana Picciotto, a historian at the CDEC Foundation, a Jewish research institute in Milan, referring to the documents, which were in fact discovered 15 years ago but studied only recently.

“But it doesn’t change the historical judgment” of Pius, “which remains harsh,” she said.

The church’s history of involvement in the persecution of Jews long predates Pius and the massacres of the last century. For well over a millennium, Jews were subjected to forced conversion, expulsion, censorship, mass murder by roving Christian mobs and life in ghettos. And that was all before the Inquisition got going.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit Israel, and in 1965, the church issued the Latin document “Nostra Aetate,” or “In Our Times,” which deplored antisemitism and said Jews could not collectively be blamed for the death of Jesus. In 2000, Pope John Paul II offered a sweeping apology for the mistreatment of Jews by Catholics, though he did not specifically apologize for the role of the church leadership in the gravest crimes, including the Holocaust.

In 2019, Pope Francis ordered the archives of Pius opened, saying, “The church is not afraid of history.” Initial evidence from those archives painted a picture of Pius as a pope whose fear of Communism, belief that the Axis powers would win the war and desire to protect the church’s interests and avoid alienating millions of German, and Nazi-sympathizing, Catholics, all motivated him to avoid confronting or offending Hitler.

David Kertzer, a Brown University professor who dug up some of that evidence and who has written several books on the popes of the early 20th century, said in a telephone interview that it was “quite clear” to historians that Pius XII “never called on the Catholic institutions in Rome to shelter Jews during the German occupation and, while he was aware that it was happening, he was in fact was quite nervous about it, not wanting to antagonize the German authorities.”

Pius “certainly did not want Jews concealed in Vatican City, and very few were,” he added.

Defenders of Pius XII, whose case for sainthood is still being evaluated, have long argued that he worked behind the scenes to help Jews. They have chalked up criticism of him to anti-Catholic animus. Other scholars say it will take years to plumb papers referring to Pius and paint a full picture of his papacy.

The documents identified by historians on Thursday have been archived at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, which is affiliated with the Jesuit-run Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. They show that some 4,300 people were sheltered in 155 convents and monasteries during the nine months of the Nazi occupation, according to a statement issued by the historians. The names were not made public out of privacy considerations.

Claudio Procaccia, director of the cultural department of the Jewish Community of Rome, a nonprofit civic group, said that more than 3,200 of these names were Jewish in origin but that research into the documentation, which was presented at a workshop in Rome on Thursday morning, was still in a very early phase.

“Confirmation is always very complicated,” Mr. Procaccia said. He is studying the documents alongside colleagues from the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the biblical institute.

“Obviously, it is a sensitive material that should be treated with due confidentiality and delicacy,” he added, saying that possible conversions to Catholicism, which the church welcome and encouraged, would need to be verified.

Iael Nidam-Orvieto, director of the Yad Vashem institute, said the documents “enable us to ask a lot of questions.”

Historical study over Pius’s role during World War II has intensified since the Vatican opened its sealed archives on his pontificate in March 2020.

There was already evidence that Catholic institutions throughout Italy sheltered tens of thousands of people during the war, including anti-fascists, allied soldiers fleeing the Nazis, Italian soldiers who went away without leave, and families whose homes had been destroyed. The CDEC foundation had identified the names of about a thousand Jews whom institutions had hosted, said Ms. Picciotto, the historian there.

“Rome was bloated with refugees of every kind, and the church was generous with many of them,” Ms. Picciotto said.

Nearly 2,000 Jews were deported from Rome and murdered during the Nazi occupation during World War II while Pope Pius XII remained publicly silent.Credit…Associated Press

But Professor Kertzer of Brown said the archives opened by the Vatican also made clear “that there were plenty of convents that refused to take Jews in,” even when the Vatican was asking and even in the case of Jews who had converted, he said. Some religious institutions would shelter Jews only if they were paid.

He said he was “curious” to see the documents identified on Thursday.

A list of the Catholic institutions that sheltered Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome had been published by the Italian historian Renzo de Felice in the appendix of his 1961 history of Italian Jews under Fascism. “But the entire documentation had been considered lost,” said the Rev. Dominik Markl, a professor of Hebrew Bible studies at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and the Pontifical Biblical Institute.

In 2019, Father Markl became aware of the documents the biblical institute announced on Thursday, and he encouraged the collaboration with Yad Vashem and the Jewish civic group in Rome.

“The value consists in the many names,” Father Markl said in a telephone interview. “It’s a wealth of detailed historical knowledge for historians who deal with the research on this period.”

The focus, he said, should be not on Pius, “but on the fate of the many who were persecuted, and those who helped them to survive.”

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