The Pope, the Jews, and the Secrets in the ArchivesRoundup
tags: Holocaust, Catholic Church, archives, Pope Pius XII
DAVID I. KERTZER, author of The Pope and Mussolini, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, is the Dupee University Professor at Brown University.
In early 1953, the photograph of a prominent nun being arrested was splashed across the front pages of French newspapers. Over the next several weeks, other French clergy—monks and nuns—would also be arrested. The charge: kidnapping two young Jewish boys, Robert and Gérald Finaly, whose parents had perished in a Nazi death camp. The case sparked intense public controversy. Le Monde, typical of much of the French media, devoted 178 articles in the first half of the year to the story of the brothers—secretly baptized at the direction of the Catholic woman who had cared for them—and the desperate attempts by surviving relatives to get them back. It was a struggle that pitted France’s Jewish community, so recently devastated by the Holocaust, against the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy, which insisted that the boys were now Catholic and must not be raised by Jews.
What was not known at the time—and what, in fact, could not be known until the opening, earlier this year, of the Vatican archives covering the papacy of Pius XII—is the central role that the Vatican and the pope himself played in the kidnapping drama. The Vatican helped direct efforts by local Church authorities to resist French court rulings and to keep the boys hidden, while at the same time carefully concealing the role that Rome was playing behind the scenes.
There is more. At the center of this drama was an official of the Vatican curia who, as we now know from other newly revealed documents, helped persuade Pope Pius XII not to speak out in protest after the Germans rounded up and deported Rome’s Jews in 1943—“the pope’s Jews,” as Jews in Rome had often been referred to. The silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust has long engendered bitter debates about the Roman Catholic Church and Jews. The memoranda, steeped in anti-Semitic language, involve discussions at the highest level about whether the pope should lodge a formal protest against the actions of Nazi authorities in Rome. Meanwhile, conservatives in the Church continue to push for the canonization of Pius XII as a saint.
The newly available Vatican documents, reported here for the first time, offer fresh insights into larger questions of how the Vatican thought about and reacted to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews, and into the Vatican’s mindset immediately after the war about the Holocaust, the Jewish people, and the Roman Catholic Church’s role and prerogatives as an institution.
David Kertzer would like to thank his collaborator, Roberto Benedetti, whose work in the Vatican archives, after Kertzer was compelled by the COVID-19 pandemic to leave Italy, proved crucial to unearthing the documents on the Finaly case. Kertzer and Benedetti are preparing a longer version of this account for publication in a historical journal, providing full archival references to all the documents cited here.
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