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Monday, December 21, 2009

Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy

Today I looked up the book Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy by Susan Zuccotti, and read a review of it from the Christian Century by Victoria Barnett. Here's part of it ....


[...] The recent interest in Pius XII reflects a growing public interest in the Holocaust and, among scholars, a closer examination of the dynamics of institutional complicity. The Vatican is not the only institution to come under scrutiny; Protestant churches, international NGOs such as the Red Cross, banks, art museums and international corporations such as Ford and IBM have been called to account for their behavior. A closer examination of the role of anti-Semitism inevitably raises questions about traditional Christian teachings about Judaism and the churches' role through the centuries in sanctioning and, all too often, instigating measures against the Jews ..... a devastating pattern of compromise, prejudice, self-interest, silence, passivity and even criminal behavior. Most Catholic and Protestant leaders failed to protest against either the initial persecution of Jews or, finally, the mass murders and the death camps; their priority was to preserve their institutions and to avoid confrontations with the Nazis. It is particularly terrible to read some of the theological statements of the era: the apologias for Nazism, the carefully crafted protests that avoided any explicit mention of the victims, and the sermons that interpreted Nazi policies as instruments of God's historical will .....

We do know that the situation facing the Catholic Church throughout Nazi-occupied Europe was complex. Catholics were involved in acts both of rescue and of murder. In Poland, they were persecuted brutally--almost 20 percent of Polish priests died at the hands of the Nazis. In other places, church leaders made an uneasy peace with Nazi authorities. In Croatia, Catholics, including priests, joined the perpetrators in the massacres of Orthodox Serbs. Depending on their own circumstances, Catholic leaders throughout Europe urged the Vatican to speak out, to remain silent or to negotiate. Our main problem is how to interpret the pope's public silence and restraint and how to balance historical research with responsible analysis ......

Susan Zuccotti, known for her work on Italy and the Holocaust, has written a detailed description of the pope's response to Nazism and the Vatican's reaction to the events unfolding in Italy. It's a solid, often damning work of historical research that gives much new detail about the persecution and rescue of Jews in that country.

The dramatic heart of Zuccotti's book--the deportations of over 1,000 Jews from Rome in October 1943--exemplifies the historian's dilemma I described above. It is clear that the Vatican knew of the deportation plan and that it could have warned Roman Jewish leaders but did not do so (they were warned by Albrecht von Kessel, a diplomat and member of the German resistance, but did not believe him). The day after the deportations, the Vatican issued a public statement expressing gratitude for the German military's respectful and civil treatment of the Holy See, with no mention of the horrors that had just occurred.

On the other hand, most of the 4,000-5,000 Jews who escaped this roundup did so by hiding in convents and monasteries. Many of the rescuers were priests and members of religious orders. The degree to which such rescue was supported, sanctioned and even ordered by officials is unclear, but Zuccotti concludes that Catholic rescue of Jews in Italy took place despite the pope, not because of him. She bases this conclusion largely upon his silence at other key times. Vatican statements criticizing Nazi policies were so painstakingly and cautiously worded that they can be interpreted in all kinds of ways (although many observers at the time, including the Nazis, viewed them as direct attacks). Once genocide had begun, the pope made only two very general statements on behalf of those suffering, despite pleas from some Catholic leaders and Western diplomats such as Myron Taylor, Roosevelt's emissary to the Vatican, for a more explicit protest.

Yet it is speculation to conclude that the Vatican had nothing to do with the rescue of Jews in Italy. Zuccotti correctly observes that the Vatican had extensive knowledge of the persecution of the Jews and the genocide, once it began. But if Pius XII had such detailed knowledge of these atrocities, it's difficult to believe he didn't know that Jews were being hidden in convents and monasteries. Knowledge that this was happening would, I think, have meant sanctioning it. In fact, the pattern of rescue in Italy reflects a general pattern among Catholics and Protestants throughout Europe. Rescuers were predominately individuals; church leaders consistently exercised what they saw as pragmatic caution and refrained from public protest ....

If nothing else, the history of the post-Holocaust era testifies eloquently to our helplessness in this regard. We may all wish that Pius XII had spoken out forcefully against the genocide and rallied Europe's Catholics behind him; but we simply don't know whether that would have stopped the Nazis. Several U.S. and European Protestant leaders, including the archbishop of Canterbury, did issue impassioned condemnations of the genocide and called for lifting the immigration restrictions against Jewish refugees. Yet they were unable to rally much support, either from members of their churches or from their governments.

Ultimately, we don't know whether Pius XII believed that he was actually doing the best he could to help the victims of Nazism. The pope's defenders often bypass the central moral reality of this history, which is that millions of innocent people were left to the mercy of their persecutors, and that all too often the churches were silent. His critics tend to ignore the historical options and realities that he faced, and the perceptions of many at the time. All would be better served if scholars could have access to the Vatican archives.

I suspect that what we would find there would be similar to what has emerged from Protestant archives here and in Europe: a complex and incomplete picture of courage and cowardice, of good intentions and indifference, of failure and of small, poignant successes. Archival material is important especially because it gives us insight into how people actually thought. It makes historical figures come to life. By giving us people's actual words, unfiltered by hindsight, archival material reveals how the world looked to them. Among other things, it gives researchers a strong sense of humility.

But though the Vatican's closed records would be invaluable for helping us to understand what happened under Nazism, they would not resolve the daunting question that remains: How can an institution like the church respond effectively to something like the Holocaust? Rethinking theology and eradicating prejudice are part, but not all, of the answer. As all three of these books remind us, the relationship between faith and political power shapes the church's witness in the world, its alliances and its legacy for Christians and non-Christians alike.



Blogger Mike L said...

I don't think we will ever get a straight story on Pius XII and what he did or did not do for the Jews. One thought strikes me: As pope he was responsible first for the Catholics and after that perhaps for Christians, and then for non-Christians like the Jews. I have no idea, and even if I did I am not sure I could judge, how he balanced those responsibilities.

Personally I am more bothered by the raising of JPII. It seems to me that he had to have knowledge of Marciel's abuse and protected him none-the-less. To me this is material co-operation with an intrinsic evil. Perhaps this is a nod to public opinion, again we do not, and probably will not know the truth in this life.

I do wonder if the two were announced at the same time expecting the major criticism to fall to Pius and this let JPII slip through.


Mike L

7:54 AM  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...

I love this part:

"But if Pius XII had such detailed knowledge of these atrocities, it's difficult to believe he didn't know that Jews were being hidden in convents and monasteries. Knowledge that this was happening would, I think, have meant sanctioning it."

So the nicest thing we can say about him is that he probably knew rescue efforts were being made, and he didn't stop them. What a hero!

11:49 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

That's an interesting thought - that the Vatican would use Pius to run interference for JPII. Yeah, I don't see either of them as saints, but I know less about JPII, though he's more recent.

12:18 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi PrickliestPear,

Yes, I agree with you. Not exactly an example of the "heroic virtue" he's supposed to be exhibiting. How can this guy possibly outshine someone like Romero?

12:21 PM  

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