The 1963 play, "The Deputy" by Rolf Hochhuth, which presents Pope Pius XIIs silence during the holocaust as criminal, inhuman and cowardly, almost certainly generated the largest controversy in the history of drama.
Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy, had its world premier in Berlin in the year 1963.
The Deputy is Pius XII, the deputy or vicar of Christ. The play was soon translated into English and imported to Broadway in New York City. The playwright contends that Pope Pius XII, when he was the sovereign pontiff of the Catholic Church, might have prevented deportations and the mass murder of so many Jewish people had he spoken out against the Nazi extermination camps. His silence, according to Hochhuth, was criminal, inhuman and cowardly.
The storm of controversy The Deputy generated and continues to generate is almost certainly the largest ever raised by a play in the history of drama. Hochhuth himself, an instant celebrity at age 31, added to the storm's intensity when he came to the United States in 1964 accompanied by an unusual amount of press and radio-TV coverage, together with a great outpouring of emotion.
In reviewing the play in 1964, The New York Times stated that its facts may be in dispute; the history imperfect; the indictment too severe. America condemned the play as an atrocious calumny against the memory of a good and courageous world leader occupying the Chair of Peter during one of the great crises of humanity. Cardinal Francis Spellman called the play an outrageous desecration of the honour of a great and good man, and an affront to those who know his record as a humanitarian who love him and revere his memory:
In response to the play's contention that the pontiff was criminally responsible for the death of countless Jews, Jewish historian Pincus Lapide set to work researching the matter. The result was his book, Three Popes and the Jews, in which he defended Pius XII. According to Lapide, as many as 800,000 Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust owe their lives to the pontiff's leadership.
The pope may have been silent, but he was not inactive. In order to be effective in assisting the Jews, he had to act surreptitiously. Had he been too outspoken, he most likely would have invited swift and severe retaliation from both the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. When Hochhuth was asked in an interview whether the pope should have protested publicly, granted that his opposition would have retaliated, his answer was categorical: Absolutely.
In The Pope and the Holocaust, researchers John Bader and Kateryna Fedoryka provide evidence that both Pope Pius XI and XII were targeted by Hitler because of their pro-humanity efforts which included stern repudiations of anti-Semitism. It was only too clear that the pope could be most helpful if he remained alive and acted covertly. It is now well known how nearly all Catholic convents in Europe were hiding Jews and that the Vatican was instrumental in forging thousands of documents, especially in southern France, to facilitate their emigration.
The pope was involved in the systematic work done by nuncios throughout Nazi-occupied Europe of enlightening the heads of governments in Catholic countries about the true and murderous meaning of the word resettlement.
The Jewish community has not been silent about what Pius XII did for his persecuted brethren. In October 1945, the World Jewish Congress made a financial gift to the Vatican in recognition of the work the Holy See performed in rescuing Jews from Fascist and Nazi persecutions. Dr. Israel Goldstein of the same World Jewish Congress said, on the occasion of Pius XII's death, The Jewish community told me of their deep appreciation of the policy which had by the pontiff for the Vatican during the period of the Nazi-Fascist regime to give shelter and protection to the Jews, whenever possible.
Hochhuth and his supporters alleged that Pope John XXIII would have acted differently had he been the pope instead of Pius XII. They cited with admiration Roncalli's (John XIII's surname) rescue record as apostolic delegate in Istanbul. But Roncalli never failed to point out that the reportedly heroic things he did then were done with the approval and even on orders from the Vatican.
The glib way in which thoughtless or uninformed writers condemn Pius XII for his silence is a good example of the very propaganda and prejudice that the Nazis themselves exemplified in spreading their doctrine of anti-Semitism.
The data smog of endless sound-bites and factoids that our information superhighway supplies often clouds reality. Education is not the mere accumulation of information, but an integrated and often complex understanding of how things really are or truly have been.
One cannot begin to take steps to eradicate prejudice by exchanging an old prejudice for a new one. Factoids travel faster than truth. This itself is a truth that cannot be ignored in the continuing fight against prejudice.
DeMarco, Donald. 800,000 Saved by Pius XII's `Silence'. Catholic Register (May 18, 1998).
Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Dr. Donald DeMarco is Professor Emeritus, St. Jerome's University and Adjunct Professor at Holy Apostles College. He a former corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy of Life and author of forty-two books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad, Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, and How to Flourish in a Fallen World. He and his wife, Mary, have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.Copyright © 1998 Donald DeMarco