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Voices Online Edition -- Vol. XXI No. 3
Michaelmas 2006

A Forest of Eight Hundred Thousand Trees

by RoseMary Johnson

RoseMary Johnson lives in the Sierra-Nevada Mountains of California, and is a junior in high school. She has been home-schooled all her life and has loved every minute of it. She wrote this research paper as part of an English assignment. RoseMary decided to write about Pope Pius XII because she wanted to do her part to defend one of the greatest popes of the twentieth century. The more she learned about him, the more she was amazed at what a truly great hero Pius XII was.

[Details about the Young Writers Award.]

What the Vatican did will be indelibly and eternally engraved in our hearts.... Priests and even high prelates did things that will forever be an honor to Catholicism.
—Former Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli (Akin)

In the hidden chambers beneath Castelgandolfo there stands an enormous cross. Beautifully decorated, this cross was presented to Pope Pius XII at the end of World War II by the Jewish refugees whom he had hidden in all the rooms, cellars, and passages of his summer residence (Marchione 59). It is estimated that during the war twelve thousand refugees were given food and shelter there, and thirty-six children were born in the pope’s own private apartments (Brunelli).

Today Pius XII is considered the Italian Quisling, the man without whom Hitler would never have been able to carry out his “final solution”. He is called “the silent pope” and “Hitler’s pope”. Either out of fear of reprisals, or through a plan to make use of the Nazis for his own purposes, or through a personal anti-Semitism, he neither condemned the Nazis nor lifted a finger to help those who were being murdered “under his very windows”.

These accusations, however, are completely unfounded. Pius XII was the best friend the Jews had during World War II, as the record of his wartime actions and the testimony of his contemporaries demonstrate. Through diplomacy, public statements, and underground activity, Pius XII saved a total of approximately 800,000 Jews, more than everyone else put together (Bogle).

Before one attempts to analyze Pius XII’s role in the war, one must realize that, whether he wished to or not, he could not have halted the Nazi butchery, either by secret action or public denunciation. The Vatican was situated in the middle of an Axis country, and was completely at the mercy of Germany. Food, water, sewer, electricity, and communications were all controlled by the Italian government, Hitler’s ally.

Occupation by Axis troops was a real possibility; in fact, though his plans never materialized, after Italy’s surrender Hitler actually gave the orders to “occupy as soon as possible the Vatican and Vatican City” and “massacre Pius XII with the entire Vatican” (Dalin, Pius XII and the Jews). On the other hand, Pius did possess some political influence, a worldwide audience, and all the resources of the Catholic Church, and he did not hesitate to make use of these to aid the victims of the war, especially “those hundreds of thousands who … sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction”, as he stated in his 1942 Christmas Message (Dalin, A Righteous Gentile).

One of his most powerful tools was diplomacy. As ruler of the Vatican, the pope had diplomatic connections with almost every nation in the world, including most of the belligerents. The pope and his nuncios, or ambassadors, were especially active in attempting to prevent Axis atrocities and in persuading the Allied and neutral nations to accept Jewish refugees. The Vatican’s diplomatic efforts did not always meet with success, but they never ceased throughout the entire duration of the war.

From the very beginning he repeatedly pleaded with the Allied and neutral nations to disregard immigration restrictions and open their borders to those fleeing from the Nazis. He urged governments to recognize the passports of refugees, “no matter how illegally obtained”, and pressured countries that possessed influence in Berlin to intervene on behalf of the Jews (Graham “France”).

From experience Pius knew that he had very little influence in Germany. Nevertheless, hundreds of letters protesting German atrocities were sent to Berlin. At the Nuremberg trials Germany’s foreign minister, Von Ribbentrop, stated: “I know that we had protests from the Vatican, that is, we had a whole desk-full of protests from the Vatican” (Yale University 141). Hitler had given orders not to reply to Vatican protests, though, and a large number were never even read (Yale University 142).

The Vatican had a measure of success in its dealings with Germany’s allies, however, especially those that still had independent governments. Great pressure was applied to Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania to halt the deportation of Jews that was occurring. The wording used in such appeals was often extremely strong by diplomatic standards; for instance, Pope Pius’s nuncio in Hungary condemned such deportations as “unjust in their motive -- for it is absolutely inadmissible that men should be persecuted and put to death just because of their racial origin -- and brutal in their execution” (Graham “Hungary After Horthy”). In 1944, an open telegram from the pope to Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian Regent, greatly influenced his decision to halt a planned deportation of 800,000 Hungarian Jews (Graham “The Pope’s Telegram”).

The most remarkable instance of Pius XII’s use of his diplomatic connections was his involvement in one of the seven plots against Hitler. From 1939 to 1940 he acted as an intermediary between Great Britain and the German opposition, which offered to get rid of Hitler if they were assured of honorable peace terms (Craughwell). He also relayed a warning from the German generals involved in the plot that Hitler was planning a massive offensive upon France by way of the Low Countries for the spring of 1940 (Gaspari). The Allies were not interested, though; the British ambassador described the plan as “desperately vague”. The pope’s agreement to act as intermediary, however, completely contradicts his enemies’ charge of collaboration with Hitler.

Probably the one thing Pius XII is most often accused of is silence. Pius XII was not silent. This charge arises from those who wish he had blasted the Nazis with excommunication and fiery judgment. There are three things that must be remembered, however. Firstly, as a religious leader the pope could not enter the political fray, and so could not condemn the Nazis by name unless he also condemned the equally brutal Communists, and that would have caused a lot of trouble for the Allies. Secondly, language that to modern America sounds dispassionate was described by his contemporaries as “outspoken” and “bold”. Lastly, any such condemnation was more likely to increase the persecution than to decrease it. The violent protest of the Dutch bishops, for example, precipitated the arrest and execution of approximately 40,000 Catholics of Jewish origin (Bogle). As the pope reflected later, “No doubt a protest would have gained me the praise and respect of the civilized world, but it would have submitted the poor Jews to an even worse persecution” (Graham).

Nonetheless, he had a duty to condemn evil, and he fulfilled that duty in language that, while not explicit, was readily understood by the entire world. His first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, a condemnation of racism and totalitarianism, was released only two months after the outbreak of the war. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the equivalent of the Associated Press, described it as “an unqualified condemnation” of racism, totalitarianism, and materialism, and declared that “few observers had expected so outspoken a document” (Cavalli). The Allies air-dropped 88,000 copies of the encyclical over Germany, where the Nazis would not permit it to be printed (Gumpel).

Pius XII’s Christmas Messages of 1940, 1941, and 1942 also drew attention. In 1940 the New York Times stated: “If the pope in his Christmas message had intended to condemn Hitler’s system, he could not have done it more effectively” (DiGiovanni “The Moral Order”). In 1941 the Times declared that he “put himself squarely against Hitlerism”, and the following Christmas it described him as “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent” (The Christmas Editorials). An analysis of the Pope’s Christmas Message of 1942 by the Reich Central Security Office stated:

In a manner never known before, the pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order … the pope does not refer to the National Socialists in Germany by name, but his speech is one long attack on everything we stand for…. Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice towards the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals. (McGath)

Pope Pius had another reason for not using more fiery and obvious language than he did: if he drew down Hitler’s wrath upon the Vatican, he would also be drawing it down upon the thousands of people the Vatican was protecting, both those who were hidden by the Church throughout Europe and those who derived some degree of safety from the thousands of false documents the Vatican had issued. If he made it too obvious that he was opposed to Nazism, he would ruin every chance he had to help in other, more effective ways. And he was helping in other ways.

It is not known for certain how many Jews were hidden by the Church, but the situation in Rome provides a good idea. Over a third of the Jewish population of Rome was hidden by the Vatican. Many Jews were hidden in Pope Pius XII’s summer residence, as described above.

Rabbi Lapide records: “in Rome we saw a list of 155 convents and monasteries … which sheltered throughout the German occupation some 5,000 Jews in Rome … sixty lived for nine months at the Jesuit Gregorian University, and half a dozen slept in the cellar of the Pontifical Bible Institute” (quoted in Akin).

Nearly the entire Italian National Committee of Liberation was hidden in the Roman Seminary at St. John Lateran only a few yards away from Gestapo headquarters (Graham, “Rome, ‘Open City’”). The Sons of the Immaculate Conception, who ran the Dermatological Institute of the Immaculate, hospitalized many people who were running from the Nazis, using creams to disguise the fact that the “patients” were in perfect health. And the production of a Vatican-commissioned film saved around 300 fugitives by disguising them as substitute actors (Zenit, “Film Financed by Vatican”).

Priests and bishops all over Europe hid Jews in churches, religious houses, and their own homes, encouraged by the pope. Leon Poliakov, a Jewish historian of the Holocaust, states: “There is no doubt that secret instructions went out from the Vatican urging the national churches to intervene in favor of the Jews by every possible means” (quoted in Altham). Pius XII even lifted the barriers of the canonical cloister from convents and monasteries so that religious houses could hide Jews inside the cloister (Blet 215).

The Vatican supplemented its efforts to hide the Jews by issuing thousands of false documents, especially baptismal certificates and Vatican passports. Since baptized Jews were not targeted, at least at first, the Vatican issued thousands of false baptismal certificates. In Hungary alone, approximately 80,000 were distributed (“860,000 Lives Saved”), much to the chagrin of a scrupulous Red Cross worker, who protested that forged documents were against the Geneva Convention . Vatican passports were distributed by the hundreds, and the number of the pope’s Palatine Guards (each possessing a Vatican passport) rose from 300 to 4000. Many of the new members were Jews (Craughwell).

Immediately after the war an official message of thanks was sent to the pope:

The delegates of the Congress of the Italian Jewish Communities, held in Rome for the first time after the Liberation, feel that it is imperative to extend reverent homage to Your Holiness, and to express the most profound gratitude that animates all Jews for your fraternal humanity toward them during the years of persecution when their lives were endangered by Nazi-Fascist barbarism. Many times priests suffered imprisonment and were sent to concentration camps, and offered their lives to assist Jews in every way. This demonstration of goodness and charity that still animates the just, has served to lessen the shame and torture and sadness that afflicted millions of human beings. (Dalin, A Righteous Gentile “In Tribute”)

In the face of this, how can anyone accuse Pius XII of complicity with Hitler? Pius XII set in motion all the machinery of the Catholic Church to aid the Jews. He employed the Vatican’s diplomatic relations to intervene with the Axis, Allied, and neutral countries in favor of the Jews. His public statements and secret actions inspired thousands of Catholics to follow in his footsteps, so much so that a French newspaper stated: “Every Catholic family shelters a Jew” (Altham). The wartime Vicar of Christ did all he could to alleviate the suffering caused by the war. At Pius XII’s death so many tributes were made that the New York Times “could list only the names of their authors in the October 9, 10, and 11 issues” (DiGiovanni). Tributes on paper, though, are easy to forget, especially if one wishes to.

In the Negeb, southeast of Jerusalem, however, there stands a forest that was planted in acknowledgment of the Jewish lives saved by Pope Pius XII, one tree for every life. The forest has 800,000 trees.

Works Cited (web addresses abbreviated)

“860,000 Lives Saved -- The Truth about Pius XII and the Jews.” 1999. Eternal Word Television Network.
Akin, Jimmy. “How Pius XII Protected Jews.” Catholic Answers.
Altham, Elizabeth. “Catholic Heroes of the Holocaust.” Feb. 10, 1998. The Augustine Club at Columbia University.
Blet, Pierre. Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1999.
Bogle, James. “The Real Story of Pius XII and the Jews.” Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. pius/realstory.htm.
Brunelli, Lucio. “Those Birthcries Stronger than the Bombs.” 30Days.
Cavalli, Dimitri. “The Good Samaritan: Jewish Praise for Pope Pius XII.” October 2000. Eternal Word Television Network.
“The Christmas Editorials.” Catholic League.
Craughwell, Thomas J. “Pius Defenders.” March 18, 1998.
Dalin, David G. “A Righteous Gentile: Pope Pius XII and the Jews.” Catholic League
Dalin, David G. “Pius XII and the Jews.” March 1, 2002. The Augustine Club at Columbia University. June 16, 2006
DiGiovanni, Stephen M. “Pius XII and the Jews: The War Years”, as reported by the New York Times. Catholic League.
“Film Financed by Vatican Saved Jews During War.” Zenit. Aug. 21, 2003.
Gaspari, Antonio. “Pope Pius XII and Nazi Germany.” March 4, 2003. Popes.Info.
Graham, Robert A. “Pius XII’s Defense of Jews and Others: 1944-45.” Pius XII and the Holocaust: A Reader. September 19, 2000. Catholic League.
Gumpel, Peter. “Cornwell’s Pope: A Nasty Caricature of a Noble and Saintly Man.” September 16, 1999. Zenit.
Marchione, Margherita. Consensus and Controversy: Defending Pope Pius XII. New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2002.
McGath, Christopher. “Pius XII and the Holocaust”. March 31, 2000.
“New Revelations on Jews Saved by Pius XII.” February 16, 2001. TCRNews.
“Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 10.” June 12, 2006. Yale University.

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