The Pope's Jews: The Vatican's Secret Plan to Save the Jews from the Nazis

Thomas Dunne Books  2012


Among the more contentious issues in Holocaust historiography is the response of Pope Pius XII to the deportation and extermination of the Jews. Was he the pope who, according to Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide, was “instrumental in saving at least 700,000 Jews… from certain death at Nazi hands” or the pontiff who, according to Italian Auschwitz survivor Settimia Spizzichino, in a 1995 BBC documentary stated: “… I lost my mother, two sisters, one brother and my niece. Pius XII could have warned us about what was going to happen. He played right into German hands…he was an anti-Semitic pope…he didn’t take a single risk. And when they say the pope is like Jesus Christ, it is not true. He did not save a single child. Nothing.”

The book under review is the most recent addition to the controversy which has pitted mostly Catholic historians in the ongoing argument as to whether the pope, by ordering the use of convents and monasteries as sanctuaries for Jews, had done all in his power to confront the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust. Focusing on the events leading to the deportation of Rome’s Jews Thomas, a prolific author, has relied on mostly secondary sources, interviews, and Vatican documents to defend the record of Pius XII during the Shoah. In describing the relationship of Pius XII to Rome’s Jewish community, Thomas’s riveting narrative, which reads like a novel rather than a work of scholarship (conversations are recorded without footnoting sources), relates the ongoing decisions in regard to the Jews made by Pope Pius XII, who is, incidentally, on track to be elevated to sainthood. He cites the pope’s orders to open convent and monastery doors to harbor Jews, issuing Vatican passports that allowed thousands of German Jews to leave Nazi Germany, and displaying his diplomatic efforts to protect Rome’s Jews from deportation following the Nazi occupation of the city.

Thomas reveals that the pope’s plan was not to publicly denounce the excesses of the Nazis. To do so, states Thomas, “would destroy an effective strategy to protect the Jews and give them an opportunity to escape the Nazi tyranny… the strategy was silence. Any form of denunciation in the name of the Vatican would inevitably provoke further reprisals against the Jews.”

Pius’s “silence,” however, was deafening during the deportation of Rome’s Jews (let alone the rest of European Jewry) to Auschwitz and other death camps. Thomas recreates the agony of the Nazi roundup and deportation of Rome’s Jews, which took place almost under the pope’s window, thus raising the question why he had not warned the Jews that mass extermination was about to happen? The Pope’s strategy of silence also does not explain other questions dealing with his response to Hitler’s war against the Jews: When it was apparent that the strategy of “silence” was not effective, why didn’t the Pope issue an encyclical condemning the Holocaust? Why did he not excommunicate Nazi Catholics, including Hitler and Himmler? Why did the pope’s Christmas message both in 1942 and 1943 not address the deportation of the Jews?

Questions such as these surround Pius’s papacy but will not be resolved until 2020 when the Vatican will release a selection of wartime documents relating to the pope’s decisions during World War II. As Thomas notes, “the wartime files…will finally end the controversy that Pius was 'Hitler’s pope' and silence the argument that he is not worthy to become a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Have You Read...