A letter recently discovered in the Vatican Archives suggests that the Pope Pius XII, who ruled the Catholic Church during World War IIlearned detailed information, from a trusted German Jesuit, about the up to 6,000 Jews and Poles who were executed daily in gas chambers in Nazi-occupied Poland.
The letter, reproduced this weekend in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serawill appear in a book about the newly opened archives of Pius XII’s pontificate (1939 to 1958), compiled by Giovanni Coco, researcher and archivist of the Vatican apostolic archives. Dated December 14, 1942, it was addressed to Pius XII’s private secretary, a fellow German Jesuit named Reverend Robert Leiber, and signed by the German Jesuit priest Lothar Koenig.
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Written in German, the letter addresses Leiber as “Dear friend” and continues reporting that the Nazis killed up to 6,000 people every day, “especially Poles and Jews” in “SS ovens” in Rava Ruskaa city in pre-war Poland that is now in Ukraine, and transported them to the Belzec extermination camp.
According to the Belzec monument inaugurated in 2004, a total of 500,000 Jews died in the camp. The monument’s website reports that until 3,500 Jews from Rava Ruska had already been sent to Belzec in early 1942 and from December 7 to 11 the city’s Jewish ghetto was liquidated..
“Between 3,000 and 5,000 people were shot there and between 2,000 and 5,000 were taken to Bełżec.” says the website.
Giovanni Coco told the newspaper Il Corriere that the letter is important because it represented detailed correspondence about the Nazi extermination of Jews, including in ovens, from an informed ecclesiastical source in Germany who was part of the anti-Hitler Catholic resistance and who was able to obtain otherwise secret information.
“The novelty and importance of this document comes from this fact: that regarding the Holocaust, there is now certainty that Pius XII was receiving from the German Catholic Church accurate and detailed news about the crimes perpetrated against Jews”said the historian.
However, Coco noted that Koenig also urged the Holy See not to make public what he was revealing because he feared for his own life and that of the resistance sources who had provided the intelligence. When asked if the letter proved that Pius knew this, the archivist replied: “Yes, and not only from then on.”
The date of Koenig’s letter is significant because suggests that correspondence from a trusted Jesuit companion reached Pius XII’s office in the days after the ghetto was emptiedand after the Pope had received multiple diplomatic notes and visits from a variety of foreign government envoys from August 1942 onwards with reports that up to 1 million Jews had been killed up to that point in Poland.
While it cannot be certain that Pius saw the letter, Leiber was his top assistant and had served the Pope when he was the Vatican ambassador to Germany during the 1920s, suggesting a close working relationship.especially in matters related to Germany.
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“As a moral leader, Pius XII must be considered a failure”
During decades, Historians were divided on the actions of Pius XIIwho was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli and diplomat of the Holy See in Germany before World War II.
Pope’s supporters insist he used ‘quiet diplomacy’ to save Jewish lives, while critics say he remained silent as the Holocaust raged. Some They claimed that he saved tens of thousands of Italian Jews by ordering convents to open their doors to receive them.
For other historians, Pius XII –crowned Pope in 1939 and died in 1958– could have more strongly condemned the massacre of Jews by the Nazis, but they believe that he did not do so out of diplomatic caution and so as not to endanger Catholics in the countries of Europe occupied by Germany.
Other critics of the Pope argue that, With his considerable moral authority, speaking out against the Nazis could have influenced German Catholics to distance themselves from the regime..
Many conclude that while this Pope may have disapproved of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, he was also a product of traditional anti-Jewish Catholic teaching until the Second Vatican Council of 1962 to 1965, which positively transformed Catholic-Jewish relations. Therefore, Jews were not the priority of this Pope, who was instead concerned about the fate of Catholics and was fiercely opposed to communism, they argue.
According to the book The Pope at warby Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist David Kertzer, a senior official in the Secretary of State, Monsignor Domenico Tardini, told the British envoy to the Vatican in mid-December that The Pope could not speak about Nazi atrocities because the Vatican had not been able to verify the information. “As a moral leader, Pius XII must be considered a failure,” the historian wrote.
Pius’s perceived passivity was fostered in part by a play, “The vicar“, by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth in 1963, which was later adapted by Greek director Costa-Gavras into the 2002 film “Amen“, which portrayed the pontiff as a weak man. The controversy also spawned dozens of books, including bestsellers such as “Hitler’s Pope” from 1999, by John Cornwell.
Coming from the Roman nobility, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli was papal nuncio – ambassador of the Holy See – in Germany between 1917 and 1929, at the height of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. In 1930, Pacelli was appointed Secretary of State, the number two position within the Vatican, and three years later signed a concordat with Hitler’s Germany on relations between the German authorities and the Church. His Papacy extended from his election on the death of Pius XI, in 1939, until his death in 1958.
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Revelation of letter undermines Vatican argument that pontiff could not verify diplomatic reports on Nazi atrocities to denounce them and could increase the debate on the legacy of Pius XII and his stalled beatification campaign.
While other popes such as John Paul II were canonized as saints, the first step in the process, Pius “, the first step towards sainthood on the condition that a miracle be recognized, a decision that sparked protests among Jewish organizations.
A year later, Benedict called Pope Pius XII “one of the great just, who saved the Jews more than anyone else.” “He personally suffered enormously, we know. He knew he had to speak, but the situation prohibited him from doing so,” the late pope noted. In 2014, Pope Francis said he had “a little existential hives” over attacks on Pius XII, “a great defender of the Jews.”
In 2020, it arrived the opening of the archives of Pope Pius XII. The controversy over Pius XII revolves around whether the head of the Catholic Church, a former Holy See diplomat in Germany, remained too silent during the Holocaust and never publicly condemned the Nazis.
Pope Francis declared that the Church “is not afraid of history” when announcing the opening of some 30,000 volumes of archives from the papacy of Pius XII to researchers. “The Church is not afraid of history. On the contrary, it loves it and would like to love it even more, as it loves God,” Francisco told the archive staff. “Thus, with the same confidence as my predecessors, I open and entrust this heritage of documentation to researchers.”