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Pope Pius XII and the Jews


Pope Pius XII has been unfairly blamed over the past fifty years: for not having denounced Hitler publicly, for his perceived inaction against the Nazis, and for his failure to help the Jews.

PiusXII8 Pope Pius XII has been unfairly blamed over the past fifty years for not having denounced Hitler publicly and for his perceived inaction against the Nazis and his failure to help the Jews. For a long time, I have felt an urge to come to the defense of the pope's "silence." In November 1994, while attending a meeting in Rome, Italy, I learned that Sy Rotter was producing A Debt to Honor, a documentary film on the Jews in Italy during the German occupation of World War II. It was not an easy task to contact Rotter, who was in Washington, D.C. at the time.

When I finally succeeded, Rotter informed me that he was scheduled to be in Rome to film the fifth in his video documentary series. He would telephone me upon his arrival. Anxious to assist him, I attempted to contact him in Rome, but to no avail. No call came. He had already gone to northern Italy, but I was determined to reach him and continued to telephone his hotel every day. My messages were unanswered.

An unexpected kiss

One Saturday evening Rotter finally telephoned. He made it clear that he could not see me due to a lack of time. "Furthermore," he said, "I just completed six hours of filming. The documentary on the Jews in Italy during the German occupation will be only thirty minutes." "But Sy," I retorted, "you promised. You must see me!" I was almost in tears. "Why must I see you?" Rotter politely questioned. "Because I'm a nun," I blurted out. He responded, "I know many nuns." Impulsively I said, "But we are different."

There was silence: "How? In what way are you different?" Rotter wanted an explanation. I replied:

Well, I think we are more socially oriented! What I mean is our founders inserted us into seventeenth-century society. They founded schools for young girls. This was a revolutionary innovation. Besides teaching them to read and write, these schools promoted the dignity of womanhood and helped influence a healthy family life. Our legacy and mission is truly an extension of the classroom. Yes, we are different... We are interested in all aspects of social work. I have documentation to show that out Sisters rescued many Jews during World War II.

After listening to me, Rotter very gently said, "I'm sorry. There can be no more filming. I leave for Israel early Monday morning. But...I'll see you tomorrow at 4 p.m." I was satisfied and immediately arranged to meet him at one of our convents in Rome.

I arrived early at the Botteghe Oscure (near the Jewish ghetto). Rotter had never been there. The convent, adjacent to Roman ruins, extends along the entire street, across from the communist headquarters. I decided to go to the third floor terrace to keep my eyes on the passersby. I soon noticed a tall, stately gentleman holding a briefcase under his arm and searching for numbers on the buildings. I waited until he was near Largo Santa Lucia Filippini, and then instinctively I leaned over the balcony shouting: "Sy, here l am!" He looked up, startled, and said: "Sister Margherita?" Yes," I answered, "I'll be right down."

I ran down several flights of stairs and arrived out of breath. By the time Rotter crossed the piazza I was at the door. He was surprised when I greeted him with a kiss on both cheeks Italian-style. That kiss broke the ice and we began a tour of the areas where more than sixty Jewish women and children were housed and cared for by our Sisters. Contrary to his intentions, before Sy Rotter left for Israel, he arranged for a TV crew to film several Sisters who had helped save the Jews from German concentration camps. The film begins with one of these Sisters. 

Opening the cloister

Since this encounter, I've been striving to write from my heart a "manifesto" for justice. Pope Pius XII, through ecclesiastical channels, instructed priests and nuns to shelter any Jew who knocked on their doors. When I learned about this, and about the Vatican's network to provide false identification papers for Jews and other refugees, I decided to publish these facts.

For several years Pope Pius XII did not leave the Vatican, where he was concealing many Jews. Every corner of his estate at Castelgandolfo, his summer home, also was occupied by them. According to Father Robert A. Graham, S.J., the editor of World War II Vatican documents, word spread from the Vatican for Religious to open the doors of convents and monasteries to protect Jews. Directives were only given orally because, under the German occupation, all archives were subject to Gestapo raids.

This was an extraordinary Vatican command because until this time convents and monasteries were considered cloistered. Very strict regulations existed that prohibited the laity from entering these cloistered areas. In those days one's own parents were nor allowed to enter the private quarters of a convent or monastery. Neither was anyone else. However, when Jews and other refugees needed sanctuary, the regulations were suspended.

For fifty years, books have been published, films have been produced, lectures have been given, but few people have defended Pope Pius XII. In his time, people from different parts of the world insisted that the pope publicly condemn the Nazis. But to the very end, Pius XII was convinced that, should he denounce Hitler, there would be serious and devastating retaliation.

Evidence shows that he was right. Bishop Jean Bernard of Luxembourg, an inmate of Dachau from February 1941 to August 1942, declared that "whenever protests were made, treatment of prisoners worsened immediately." Because of the pope's prudence and courage, many more lives were saved. If Pope Pius XII had protested, not only would he have been unsuccessful in halting the destruction, but he might have caused a great deal of additional damage to the thousands of Jews hidden in the Vatican, in convents and monasteries, as well as to the Church in German-occupied Europe. Nazi policy sought the extermination not only of Jews but of certain non-Jewish peoples as well. The thousands of Jews hidden in convents and monasteries would have been sent to concentration camps along with those who were trying to save them. 

Sister rescuers

The Religious Teachers Filippini have lived in Rome since 1707, when Pope Clement XI sent for Lucy Filippini and begged her to open schools for young girls. She obeyed the Roman pontiff and the work of her Sisters teaching, visiting the sick, and helping the poor flourished along the very streets where they live today, near the Jewish ghetto Via Botteghe Obscure and Via Caboto.

The Sisters shopped in local stores, used public transportation, and took care of the needs of 114 Jewish refugees (men, women, and children), providing food for them and protecting them for more than a year. With hundreds of other men and women, these Sisters are indeed among the Holocaust rescuers in Italy.

During an interview with several Religious Teachers Filippini, Sister Maria Pucci said the Jews first arrived in the spring of 1943, and remained until June 1944. The Sisters opened their doors at Via Caboto in Rome for twenty-five men, women, and children. These people were desperate. They had brought all the possessions they could carry.

Describing the scene that first day, Sister Maria recalled: "It was very cold. We gave them what they needed, especially blankets to keep warm. Children were crying, hugging their mothers. They lived in the auditorium, which we closed to the public. They suffered terribly. There were many bombings. When there was an air raid, the Jews fled with us to the basement of the convent in the wine cellar, or they ran to the trapdoor under the stage. We were all frightened. We prayed together. Prayers were mixed with tears."

"Why did the Sisters protect Jews?" I asked. She answered, "This is what our hearts dictated. These were our neighbors. We respected and loved them. We responded to the pope's plea to open our doors." Sister Lelia Orlandi vividly recalled the bitter night in November when Clara Coen-Capon, with an infant in her arms, knocked on the convent door. Her husband accompanied them. "There was heavy rainfall," Sister Lelia remarked. "One of those terrible storms that occur in the fall. It was about 9:00 p.m. Sister Lucia, the superior, answered the door and allowed them to enter. Luciano Capon explained, "We have fled from Rome. We are Jews. The Germans are pursuing us. Allow us to stay. Otherwise we risk being shot! Sister Lucia interrupted, "But you know what the danger is for us. There's a law, a decree, that they will also shoot us." The young couple pleaded for help, "We know, but...for the love of our baby, help us. Don't send us away in this storm." Taking the baby in her arms as she assured the strangers that they would be safe, she responded, "All right. This means that we will follow your fate." 

Public thanks

At the end of the war, in gratitude for having been rescued, a group of Jewish women presented the Sisters with a beautiful five-foot statue of the Madonna. It stands today in a place of honor in the very apartment of Botteghe Oscure where sixty Jews were housed and hidden from the Nazi and fascist soldiers. In October 1994, the Jewish congregation in Rome presented a document that acknowledges the Sisters' participation in saving so many Roman ghetto Jews from the concentration camps.

Fifty years have passed. Yet little attention has been given to the many heroes and heroines who risked their lives to save innocent victims. Survivors of the Holocaust have recognized the moral courage of these men and women who defied racial and religious intolerance. They were not bystanders. They were rescuers. As a passage from the Sanhedrin states: 'Whoever saves one is as though he has saved the entire world."

The testimony of Dr. Joseph Nathan, who represented the Hebrew Commission, is remarkable. At the end of World War II, he addressed the Jewish community and expressed heartfelt gratitude to those who protected and saved Jews during the Nazi-fascist persecutions. "Above all," he stated, "we acknowledge the Supreme Pontiff and the religious men and women who, executing the directives of the Holy Father, recognized the persecuted of their brothers and, with great abnegation, hastened to help them, disregarding the terrible dangers to which they were exposed."

At Pope Pius XII death in 1958, Golda Meir sent an eloquent message: "We share in the grief of humanity. When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for its victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace." Like these heroic witnesses of the Holocaust we must all respond openly and seek the ideal of sainthood, regardless of our different races, religions and ethnic backgrounds. We must have love for one another, hope in the integrity of future generations, and faith in the Almighty Father of us all.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Marchione, Sr. Margherita. Pope Pius XII and the Jews. Crisis 15, no. 1 (January 1997): 20-23.

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

The Author

Sr. Margherita Marchione, Ph.D. is the author of Pope Pius XII: Architect for Peace .

Copyright © 1997 Crisis

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