A new film, Under the Roman Sky, starring James Cromwell as Pius XII, details the heroic efforts of Pius XII to save the Jews of Rome from the Nazis, after Rome came under Nazi occupation subsequent to the fall of Mussolini following the Allied invasion of southern Italy in 1943.
Rabbi David G. Dalin, in his review of a Moral Reckoning, a tome by Daniel Goldhagen which sought to blame Catholicism for the Holocaust, details the efforts of the Pope to save the Jews of Rome:
Goldhagen’s centerpiece is the outrageous allegation that Pius XII “did not lift a finger to forfend the deportations of the Jews of Rome” or of other parts of Italy “by instructing his priests and nuns to give the hunted Jewish men, women and children sanctuary.” Much of this is lifted straight from anti-Pius books like Susan Zuccotti’s Under His Very Windows–and thus Goldhagen repeats the errors of those books and adds extras, all his own, in his determined attempt to extend their thesis into over-the-top railings against the sheer existence of Catholicism.
GOLDHAGEN IS APPARENTLY UNAWARE (or, more probably, doesn’t care) that many distinguished scholars have declared Zuccotti’s book “not history but guesswork,” as the historian Owen Chadwick put it. Zuccotti’s principal charge, mindlessly repeated by Goldhagen, is that there is no credible evidence that Pius XII ever explicitly ordered his subordinates to assist Jews in Italy. In fact, there is a whole body of evidence that proves Pius did. In 1964 Cardinal Paolo Dezza, the wartime rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, published a signed article stating unequivocally that during the German occupation of Rome, Pius XII explicitly told him to help “persecuted Jews” and do so “most willingly.” In his 2001 book Gli ebrei salvati da Pio XII, Antonio Gaspari compiles additional testimonies. And more recently, Gaspari came across new documents, establishing that as early as 1940 Pius XII explicitly ordered his secretary of state, Luigi Maglione, and Maglione’s assistant, Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Paul VI), to send money to Jews protected by the bishop of Campagna.
The Nazi deportations of Italy’s Jews began in October 1943. Pope Pius ordered churches and convents throughout Italy to shelter Jews, and in Rome itself 155 convents and monasteries sheltered five thousand Jews throughout the German occupation. Pius himself granted sanctuary within the walls of the Vatican, and his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, to countless homeless Jews. Goldhagen’s book conspicuously lacks any discussion of Castel Gandolfo, which enjoys a unique place in the annals of Jewish rescue (and Catholic rescuers) during the Holocaust: In no other site in all of Nazi-occupied Europe were as many Jews saved and sheltered for as long a period.
The recently released memoirs of Adolf Eichmann also contain new evidence disproving Goldhagen’s claim. The memoirs confirm that Vatican protests played a crucial part in obstructing Nazi intentions for Roman Jews. Eichmann wrote that the Vatican “vigorously protested the arrest of Jews, requesting the interruption of such action.” At Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Israeli attorney general Gideon Hausner said, “the pope himself intervened personally in support of the Jews of Rome.” Documents introduced at the trial provide further evidence of Vatican efforts to halt the arrest and deportation of Roman Jews.
Over 6,000 Roman Jews were secretly sheltered within churches, convents and monasteries in and around Rome during the occupation. Other Jews were the recipients of baptismal and birth records forged by Church officials. When the Nazis sought a large sum of gold from the Jews of Rome, Pius offered to pay it, although the Jews were able to pay the sum without his help. The evidence that these efforts were done at the command of the Pope mounts each day:
Pope Pius XII created a clandestine network to save the lives of Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis. One of the members of this group is still alive: an Italian priest, Giancarlo Centioni, who was born in 1912. Between 1940 and 1945, he served as a military chaplain for the National Security Volunteer Militia in Rome and lived in a house of German priests who become involved in the network in order to save lives.
“I lived in the General House of the Pallottine Fathers and my fellow German priests invited me to take part. Given that I was a chaplain for the fascists, it was easier for me to help the Jews.
The other Pallottine priests from Hamburg, Germany, had founded a group called St. Raphael’s Society, instituted to help the Jews.
It offered the opportunity to first escape from Germany to Italy, and then later to Switzerland and to Lisbon, Portugal.”
In Germany, Father Centioni recalls, the society was lead by Father Kentenich, known throughout the world as the founder of the apostolic movement “Schönstatt”. This Pallottine Father was later incarcerated and confined in the Dachau concentration camp until the end of the war.
“This activity was based in Rome on 57 Pettinari Street by Father Anton Weber, who kept in contact with Pius XII and his secretary.”
This network gave passports and money to Jewish families so that they could escape.
“The money and the passports were handed over to Father Anton Weber; yet he received them directly from the His Holiness’ Secretary of State, in the name of and paid by Pius XII.
I often brought money to Jewish homes.
At least 12 German priests in Rome were allowed to help me.”
The network’s intervention had already begun even before Germany had invaded Italy.
“They began prior to the war; they kept going– as far as I know – at least until after 1945, because Father Weber had an intense relationship with the Vatican, with the Jews, and with a lot of people it was very strong. Among those who helped us afterwards were two Jews whom we had helped to hide: author Melchiorre Gioia and from Vienna, Erwin Frimm Kozab, a great composer during that time who wrote songs and operas. One we hid on Giuseppe Street, near Bari, and the other on 57 Pettinari Street. Later they assisted us quite a lot, giving us very explicit information, etc.
After the liberation of Rome by the Allies, a delegation of Roman Jews came to the Pope to thank him for his protection of them during the occupation. Pius responded as follows: “For centuries, Jews have been unjustly treated and despised. It is time they were treated with justice and humanity, God wills it and the Church wills it. St. Paul tells us that the Jews are our brothers. They should also be welcomed as friends.”
The efforts of Pius XII to save the Jews of Rome from the Nazis was in microcosm a reflection of the efforts he made to save the Jews of Europe from the Nazis. Everyone knew this at the time. During and after the war Pius XII was hailed as both an enemy of the Nazis and a friend of the Jews. No one disputed this. It was only after his death in 1958 that a campaign of lies, originally begun as part of Soviet propaganda against the Church, was instigated to smear the good name of this great and holy man. These calumnies have been seized upon in recent years by those who hate the Church, as one more weapon they use in their never-ending war against the Church. The historical record is crystal clear as to Pius and always has been crystal clear. He did more than any other single man or woman to aid the Jews of Europe at their time of greatest peril, and he deserves to be honored for it.