From the Desk of Fredric Brandfon: A Policy of Silence; the Vatican and the Holocaust

Fredric Brandfon is the former chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Stockton University in New Jersey and founder of the Department of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. He has published numerous articles on Roman and Italian Jewish history. His book, Intimate Strangers (Jewish Publication Society) came out this month.

My book, Intimate Strangers: A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome begins with Jews living in Rome as far back as 139 BCE. Since then, the Jewish community has been a permanent fixture in Rome. Unlike other European Jewish communities, the Roman Jews have been neither expelled nor exterminated. However, in 1943-1944 Rome was occupied by Nazi forces with explicit orders to kill or deport every single Jew in Rome. The oldest Jewish community in Europe was to be wiped out. 

Not without pain, that catastrophe was averted. Thousands of Jews were rounded up and shipped by train to their death in Auschwitz. But thousands of others survived. The overwhelming majority of those who survived were sheltered and given refuge in churches, convents, monasteries, and the homes of lay Catholics. Both the deadly deportations and the safe-harbors provided took place near the Vatican, beneath the Pope’s very windows as one historian has put it. How both circumstances came to be is a conundrum I address in my book. However, since I finished writing, I have come across additional information that may illuminate Papal policy concerning the Holocaust. 

Pope Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust have always been controversial. Many believe that had he been more decisive in confronting Hitler about antisemitism, lives might have been saved. In Intimate Strangers, I reached my own conclusion. I wrote that: “[E]ven [Pius XII’s] critics described the pope as a profoundly spiritual man…Yet according to the available evidence, during the war years of 1939 through 1945 and specifically from September 8, 1943, through June 5, 1944—the time of crisis when the Nazis occupied Rome—Pius XII failed to live up to that image” (p. 245). 

He failed because while sympathizing with the suffering of innocent people during World War II, he could not bring himself to say that many if not most of those sufferers were Jews. He did not once call out the Nazi regime about their murder of Jews. One explanation for that omission has some plausibility.

“Pope Pius may have been afraid to jeopardize Church institutions across Rome, Italy, and Europe that were clandestinely sheltering Jews. Had the Pope given Hitler any excuse to move against the church, even invade the Vatican, the lives of thousands of Jews in safe hiding would be risked and might well have been lost. While such an explanation is plausible, there exists no evidence that the Pope had such concerns” (p. 243). 

After writing the book, I did not discover any such evidence directly about the Pope.  However, in my reading of Claudio Pavone’s A Civil War: A History of the Italian Resistance, I came across a statement of exactly that policy from Monsignor Ambrogio Marchioni, the Secretary of the Nunciatore in Italy, the ambassador from the Vatican to the Italian government. He was answering a question from General Rudolfo Graziani who was a commander of Mussolini’s armed forces and the Duce’s Minister of Defense. On October 15, 1943, three months after Mussolini was deposed, and a month after the Nazis rescued Mussolini from jail and installed him as the dictator of a puppet Italian regime, in northern Italy, the General asked for the Monsignor’s support for the newly minted fascist Italian Social Republic (Repubblica Sociale Italiana) known also as the RSI. 

The Monsignor replied diplomatically. He insisted that the Church and the Vatican must remain neutral in any contest between belligerents. 

“The duty of priests rather was to instill calm, tranquility, order so as to ensure that ill-advised actions do not produce serious reprisals against so many innocent people or the entire population.”

That one sentence explains the Pope’s silence. And like Pius XII, the Monsignor avoids identifying who the “innocent people” are. In this particular case, the innocents were Jews, and more than Jews. The innocents could have included priests, nuns, peasants and townspeople. All were vulnerable to reprisals from the RSI or the Germans. But the Monsignor does not want to specifically address that delicate subject. Indeed, it appears to have been Vatican policy in both the statements by Pius XII and Monsignor Marchioni to deplore the suffering of innocents without identifying who was causing the suffering. The Nazis and the Fascists were the agents of the suffering, but that was a matter left unsaid. As Pavone notes, it was a policy to “deprecate the deeds without denouncing the culprits.” And it was supposedly done to protect the Church, because, to be sure, it was the Church that was using its offices to give shelter to innocent Jews and others in its convents and monasteries. 

Evasive as his words sound, Monsignor Marchioni also said, “the Church does not and cannot remain neutral between good and evil.” That seems admirable. Yet as in the statements of the Pope, there is a palpable reluctance to say clearly who the forces of evil (and good) were. In an Archbishops’ letter of 1944 they recommended “an able and eloquent silence,” a recommendation that was obviously followed. 

A policy of silence avoided challenging the murderous Nazi activities, while hoping that someone else would take the steps necessary to alleviate the suffering of Jews and other innocents. If that “someone else” was a priest, nun or other Catholic cleric—and often it was—that may have been what was intended. But it is difficult to know. When the policy is silence, the intent of the policy cannot be certain. We are left with an uncertainty that may accurately reflect a flawed solution to an excruciating dilemma.

The past rarely reveals itself to the historian with crystal clarity. That can be most disturbing when questions and complexity both illuminate and obscure our darkest moments.

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