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Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust

2/11/2007 - 7:00 AM PST

(Page 3 of 4)

railway tracks to prevent passage of the deportation trains…."

Metropolitan Stefan, Metropolitan Kiril, and "eight other senior churchmen including the highly respected Neofit of Vidin, signed a formal protest to the king on behalf of all the Jews of Bulgaria." Bulgaria was exceptionally compact in its defense of the Jews. The Orthodox Church, the parliament itself, the people and their king, were all solidly and publicly against the deportations.

Help Given by the Catholic Church, the Vatican and Pius XII

It is clear without the slightest doubt that not only Catholic religious institutions, but also the Vatican itself helped to save the lives of Jews -- as well as those of deserters of the German, American, Italian, French, British armies and politicians in danger.

In addition to the many stories told in this book, I can personally testify through the research I have done that new documents continue to be found that prove the extent to which religious institutions and people networked to save lives. I recently saw a document that gives evidence to the fact that Father Pancrazio here in Rome had the approval and help of members of the Vatican Department of State in saving prisoners of the SS headquarters in Via Tasso.

Political prisoners and Jews were jailed there. The French College (Seminary) at the Vatican was also able to hide Jews with the help of an official letter bearing the Vatican stamp stating that the college was Vatican property and in Vatican territory, which meant it was off grounds for the SS.

However, the Vatican's official policy in its totality is more complex and touches on highly sensitive issues for both sides. So many righteous individuals without means or power -- Muslims, nuns, priests and clergy of all religions, as well as non believers risked their lives to heed an inner calling to moral integrity. In view of this, one could legitimately raise the question of whether anything less could have been expected from a moral authority guiding the consciences of hundreds of millions of people in Europe, and whether an authority as portentous as the Holy See could have remained inert.

No, the Holy See did not remain inert. As stated, within so many Catholic institutions, and even within the Vatican itself, the persecuted, including Jews, who knocked at their doors, found refuge. Yet the strategic choices made by Pope Pius XII still seek historical evaluation.

I recall what was said to me by Father Pierre Blet, the last of the four Jesuit scholars who edited the series of volumes of documents on "The Holy See and World War II." When he presented his successive book summarizing the topic, he told me that the Holy See's main priority was to help the Allies win the war, while at the same time, for the Catholic Church, fear of the rise of Communism was another major factor in determining policy.

Efforts were made to save lives wherever possible, including those of Jews, but the thrust of Vatican diplomacy was, above all, focused on strategies for winning the war. "The Jewish question, at the time, did not exist as a separate problem," Father Blet told me.

In Martin Gilbert's opinion, Pius XII could not have spoken out more strongly against the Nazis' persecution of Jews without exposing Catholics, as well as Jews, to even greater dangers. In a recent interview published by the monthly Inside the Vatican, Gilbert refers to the Reich security main office's fury at Pius XII after the Pope's 1942 Christmas message in which he stated his concern "for those hundreds of thousands who without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction."

The Nazi bureau in Berlin responsible for the deportation of Jews "noted angrily, 'In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order.… Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.'"

But there were no subsequent declarations by Pius XII. And the disappearance of the encyclical prepared by Pius XI a few months before his death and never pronounced, remains a mystery. Opposing and contradictory conjectures over what might have become the consequences of a firmer public papal condemnation of the Nazi murders, persecutions and deportations of Jews feed this controversy. Holocaust survivors, with their personal memories, are still alive, and despite this -- or perhaps because of this -- historians are still far removed from a shared and common evaluation.

The debate becomes high-pitched with emotions at times, and further complicated, by the lack of access to the Secret Archives of Pius XII's papacy. There are both Jews and Christians who dissent from Martin Gilbert's appraisal regarding the wisdom of the ...

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