Thousands of records detailing requests to the Vatican made by Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis were made available online to the public, the Vatican announced last Thursday. Allowing access to the documentation titled “Ebrei” (“Jews”), which has been available to researchers since March 2020, was made “at the request of the Holy Father,” who ordered universal access aimed “to preserve the petitions for help from Jewish people all over Europe, received by (Pope Pius XII) during the Nazi-Fascist persecutions.”
The letters, written by Jewish people across Europe begging Pope Pius XII and other Roman Catholic officials for help, total 170 volumes, equivalent to nearly 40,000 digital files, containing some 2,700 individual appeals, the Vatican said.
While the Vatican made no such direct link publicly, the decision to make the documents available online closely follows the controversy over a new book by historian David I. Kertzer, titled, “The Pope at War,” in which Kertzer suggested that Pope Pius remained silent out of fear of the Nazis and that the Vatican prioritized saving Jewish converts to Catholicism from persecution.
Proving Kertzer’s point, the archive contains a letter written on July 29, 1941, by a parish priest seeking help for a German Jew who was trying to emigrate to Brazil. The priest asks: “Is it true that the Holy See — with a passport visa — is able to help Jews get to places where they can find hospitality?” The Vatican’s response, one week later, is: “You can respond that only Jews who converted before 1935 receive a visa.”
The archives contain many requests from Jewish converts to Catholicism asking the Vatican for proof of their conversion. Others are asking the Vatican to help prove they were Arian, such as the 1940 appeal from an anonymous man from the city of Turin who wanted to marry a Catholic woman.
In an article for the Vatican newspaper, the Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher highlighted the case of Werner Barasch, a German Jewish convert to Catholicism who was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Miranda de Ebro, Spain. Barasch wrote a letter in 1942 to an Italian friend and asked that Pope Pius secure his release with the authorities in Madrid so he could travel to the United States and be reunited with his mother. According to Gallagher, the archive revealed that “he was released from the Miranda camp the year after his appeal in a letter to the pope, and that in 1945, he was finally able to join his mother in the United States.”
Kertzer responded, saying that putting the files online was “part of a continued attempt of the Vatican to present a certain kind of narrative of its role” under Pious XII. “I am sure one can find some cases where Jews were helped, but most of these cases where they offered any help were Catholics who were being considered Jews by the Nazis, which of course the Vatican was very opposed to,” he added, noting that “many Jews thought that their only hope of escaping being murdered was to convert, and so thousands of Jews did,” and that the files “have very little information on what if anything was done for them, much less whether it did any good.”