By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Defenders of Pius XII, whose alleged silence on the Holocaust is a source of tension between Jews and Catholics, met in Rome this week to project a more positive image of the wartime pope. While that’s perhaps not remarkable, the aegis under which they gathered certainly is – a foundation called “Pave the Way,” dedicated to interreligious understanding and led by an American Jew.
The organizer of the Sept. 15-17 conference at Rome’s Palazzo Salviati, which included a number of Jews in the audience, is New York businessman and philanthropist Gary Krupp. While making his living in the medical supply business, Krupp became a benefactor of a hospital in southern Italy founded by the legendary Capuchin stigmatic Padre Pio, and is today one of just a handful of non-Catholics to belong to the papal Knights of St. Gregory.
Improbably, Krupp, who says he grew up “hating” Pius XII, has emerged as a passionate defender of the pontiff once famously excoriated as “Hitler’s Pope.”
“It’s our obligation to recognize somebody who saved more Jews than all the other world leaders and religious leaders combined,” Krupp said in an interview with NCR. “This man should be raised up as righteous among the nations, not demonized.”
Krupp referred to the negative portrayal of Pius XII in some Jewish circles — including a critical placard at Yad Vashem, the main Holocaust memorial in Israel — as a shonda, the Hebrew word for “shame.”
While Krupp represents a distinctly minority view within Judaism, he is not alone. Sir Martin Gilbert, the distinguished Jewish historian in England, has praised Pius XII’s efforts to save Jews, and American Rabbi David Dalin has proposed that Yad Vashem recognize Pius as “righteous among the nations.” Probably no one, however, has devoted more time and energy –including his own financial resources – to the defense of Pius XII.
Krupp argued it’s in the best interests of Judaism and Israel to pursue better relations with the Catholic church.
“Today, we’re faced with people such as the president of Iran who want to see us wiped off the map,” Krupp said. “Don’t you think that 1.2 billion friends might be good to have?”
The lineup at Krupp’s symposium featured a “who’s who” of leading defenders of Pius XII, including Filippini Sr. Margherita Marchione of Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey; Ronald Rychlak, a Catholic law professor at the University of Mississippi; William Doino, author of The Pius War; Andrea Tornielli, a prominent Italian journalist; and Fr. Peter Gumpel, relator for the sainthood cause of Pius XII.
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Ironically, the conference was held in the location where slightly more than 1,000 Roman Jews were brought before their deportation to Nazi concentration camps on Oct. 16, 1943. Several participants argued that the reason just 1,000 of some 6,700 Jews in Rome were rounded up that day was the personal intervention of Pius XII.
Organizers published a 200-page glossy book offering documentation of Pius’ efforts to save Jews, including transcripts of eyewitnesses and previously secret material culled from diplomatic archives in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The case for the defense of Pius XII, as presented during the conference, is highly complex, but in essence it pivots on three claims:
• Charges that Pius XII was “silent” are false, because he spoke on numerous occasions in defense of Jews, in ways that were abundantly clear to everyone at the time and for decades afterwards;
• If he did not directly and dramatically condemn Hitler or National Socialism, it was because he had well-founded fears that doing so might unleash greater persecution upon both Catholics and Jews;
• Behind the scenes, he mobilized church resources in multiple ways to save Jews.
To take an example of the kinds of stories told at the conference, Rychlak recalled that the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo was turned into a sanctuary for refugees during the war, including scores of Jews. Pius’ own bedroom was converted into a makeshift nursery, and some 40 babies were born there. A June 1944 article in the Palestine Post records a group of Jews who had taken shelter in Castel Gandolfo passing on their thanks to the pope.
Gumpel also reported that during his official investigation for Pius’ sainthood cause, he discovered that the pope had placed his housekeeper, Sr. Pasqualina Lehnert, in charge of the Vatican storerooms during the war, and personally directed her to drive trucks with food and other supplies out to religious houses around Rome where Jews were being sheltered.
“These are the kinds of things that anti-Semites just don’t do,” Krupp said.
Eugene Fisher, former expert for the U.S. bishops on Catholic/Jewish relations and another speaker at the Rome conference, said this sort of information has a hard time competing with the critics in the court of public opinion.
“The books attacking Pius get major reviews, but those defending him are ignored,” Fisher said. “All people ever hear is the negative side, because it’s all that filters through the press.”
In his address, Fisher proposed one step he feels the Vatican could take to bolster the pro-Pius argument: Opening its archives from his papacy, at least up to the end of the war and the immediate post-war years.
“The sooner the archives up to 1948 are open, the better,” Fisher said. “It would ease an enormous amount of pressure.” The fact that the archives have only been selectively released, Fisher said, is a “symbolic issue for the organized Jewish community.”
At least some in the audience seemed impressed.
“Prior to coming to this conference, I had heard negative things about Pius XII for 50 years,” said Howard Graff, a Jew from Chicago who serves chairman of the Illinois Masonic Charities Fund.
“I’ll go home with a more open, balanced view, and I believe that’s good,” he said.