Having done some reading about Eugenio Pacelli, aka Pope Pius XII, my interest was piqued the other day, when I read that a year from now, the Vatican will be opening sealed archives in an effort to show how Rome responded to the systematic annihilation of six million of our people, during the Holocaust.
I am neither a historian nor the son of a historian. Nor can I profess to know what those archives will reveal. I cannot help but feel, however, that we are in for no surprises. Chances are that those who have vilified the Pontiff for “having done nothing” will continue to do so. It’s also quite likely, that those who have defended the Pontiff for having done “more than we realize,” will continue to do so as well.
Because the vast majority of us will never get to see what those archives will reveal, perhaps we can focus on three aspects of these archives that are most revealing. As strange, unfair and inexcusable as it may seem, the Catholic church has its own agenda. The agenda of the Catholic church is not always in harmony with the interests of the Jews or any other non-Catholics for that matter. Right or wrong, the agenda of the Catholic church places the interests of the Catholic church first and foremost, as it well should. Not that there is the equivalent of a Pope in Judaism, but did you hear Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef (Chief Rabbi in Israel for Sephardic Jews) or Rabbi David Lau (Chief Rabbi in Israel for Ashkenazic Jews) speak out last year at this time, when scores of Syrians being slaughtered by their own? In no way do I presume to equate slaughter of Syrians in an internecine conflict, with the annihilation of Jews by Hitler and his war machine. I do however wish to point out, that agendas and attitudes of religious leaders are by no means culture free and transcendent of religious boundaries.
Speaking of religious leaders, no Jew should ever forget the efforts of 400 plus rabbis, who, three days before Yom Kippur in October 1943, at the height of the Holocaust, traveled to the nation’s capital to meet with the President, to plea that action be taken over the genocide of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Rather than refuse to meet with them, the president furtively exited the White House through a side entrance, leaving his aides to tell the rabbis, that the President was not available. I am not aware of any recriminations by Jews for such behavior on the part of the President, nor do I suggest that there ought to have been. But if pretty much all leaders of the world during that era, get a pass for their “shah-shtill” attitude which was all pervasive, shouldn’t there be a pass for Pope Pius XII as well? There is absolutely no question in my mind, that His Holiness could have done and should have done more to prevent six million Jews being annihilated. But the very same argument of doing more, can also be applied to an American President, Commander and Chief of the Army Air Corps, who could have ordered American fighter aircraft to bomb the railway tracks to Auschwitz, thereby delaying the transport of boxcars stuffed with Jews, destined for extermination, but chose not to. True, the morality expected of a Pope cannot and should not be equated with morality of a President, but let’s put saving human lives at the top of agenda. We can debate morality later.
Regardless of its authorship, in his last speech to the public, Hubert Humphrey reminded us that “…the moral test of government is how that government treats … the needy…”. That same standard applies to any society or community. For a good portion of my life, I harbored much resentment toward the church, for the way it treated Jews over the centuries. Once I discovered how the church treated its own, my resentment toward the church ceased. The silence on the part of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust was no different than the silence on the part of his predecessor Pope Pius XI a quarter earlier, during the Armenian genocide, when Moslem Turks annihilated well over a million Christian Armenians.
Let the Vatican archives be finally opened. Regardless of what those archives reveal, let us reveal, that we are aware that the Vatican has its own agenda, that other world leaders turned deaf ears to us Jews as well, and that before we expect any contrition from Rome, the Vatican has plenty of “teshuvah” to do for neglecting its very own. Next year in the Vatican!