Pope Benedict’s recent visit to Auschwitz helped rekindle the controversy over the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. Although some Jewish leaders and Catholic writers often condemn Pius XII today, the wartime Jewish press had a favorable opinion of the pope.
In March 1939, many Jewish newspapers in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Jerusalem welcomed Pope Pius’s election and described him as a friend of democracy. In an editorial (March 6, 1939), The Palestine Post, the predecessor of The Jerusalem Post, observed, “Pius XII has clearly shown that he intends to carry on [Pius XI’s] work for freedom and peace…we remember that he must have had a large part to play in the recent opposition to pernicious race theories and certain aspects of totalitarianism…”
On October 27, 1939, the pope’s first encyclical, “Summi Pontificatus,” was made public. The American Israelite in Cincinnati (November 9, 1939) asserted that the encyclical “contains a ringing denunciation of all forces which put the state above the will of the people, a condemnation of dictators and disseminators of racism who have plunged the world into chaos.”
On January 26, 1940, the Jewish Advocate in Boston reported, “The Vatican radio this week broadcast an outspoken denunciation of German atrocities and persecution in Nazi [occupied] Poland, declaring they affronted the moral conscience of mankind.”
This broadcast graphically described atrocities against Jews and Catholics and gave independent confirmation to reports about Nazi atrocities, which the Reich previously dismissed as Allied propaganda.
On March 14, 1940, London’s Jewish Chronicle commented on Pius’s five conditions for a “just and honorable peace,” which he articulated in his 1939 Christmas message. The Jewish Chronicle described the pope’s conditions, especially the protection of all racial minorities, as a “welcome feature,” and praised him for fighting “for the rights of the common man.”
In the same month, Italy’s anti-Semitic laws went into effect, and many Jews were dismissed from the government, universities, and other professions. Pius XII responded by appointing several displaced Jewish scholars to posts in the Vatican library. In an editorial, the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle (March 29, 1940), concluded that the pope’s actions showed “his disapproval of the dastardly anti-Semitic decrees.”
On August 28, 1942, the California Jewish Voice hailed Pius XII as a “spiritual ally” of Jews after noting that the Vatican, through its diplomatic representatives, protested the deportations of Jews from France and Slovakia.
On April 16, 1943, the Australian Jewish News published a brief article about Pierre Cardinal Gerlier of Lyon, France who protested the deportations of French Jews. The newspaper quoted the cardinal as saying that he was obeying Pius XII’s orders by opposing the Vichy regime’s anti-Semitic measures.
On October 17, 1943, the Nazis began to arrest Jews in Rome. On October 29, 1943, the Jewish Chronicle wrote, “The Vatican has made strong representations to the German Government and the German High Command in Italy against the persecutions of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Italy…”
Along with the Vatican’s protests, thousands of Jews found refuge in Rome’s convents, monasteries, and the Vatican itself.
In June 1944, the Allies liberated Rome, and Pius XII protested the deportations of Hungarian Jews. “With Rome liberated, it has been determined, indeed, that 7,000 of Italy’s 40,000 Jews owe their lives to the Vatican,” the American Israelite (July 27, 1944) editorialized. “Placing these golden deeds alongside the intercession of Pope Pius XII with the Regent of Hungary in behalf in behalf of the Hungarian Jews, we feel an immense degree of gratitude toward our Catholic brethren.”
On October 8, 1958, Pope Pius XII died. Many Jewish newspapers around the world eulogized him, recalling his wartime opposition to Nazism and role in saving Jews. In an editorial (October 10, 1958), The Jerusalem Post stated that “Jews will recall the sympathetic references to their sufferings contained in many of his pronouncements, the refuge from Nazi terror which he gave to many in the Vatican during the last war, and the very cordial way he received his Jewish visitors.”