‘Why were you Catholics so awful to the Jews during the War?’

Some controversies just won’t lie down and die. Pius XII and the Holocaust is one of them. I know this because I was at a dinner party recently and was introduced to an elderly German of Jewish origin. An architect by profession, he was the soul of culture and courtesy, as one would expect. He had been to a recent performance of Billy Budd at Glyndebourne and enjoyed singing madrigals with his wife.

He reminisced about his boyhood during the War, lying low in Berlin. Then there was a pause in the conversation and he leaned forward. With a slightly apologetic air, he said, “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but why were you Catholics so awful to the Jews during the War?”

How to respond? I guessed he might be referring to the alleged ‘silence’ of Pius XII so I mentioned the slanderous play by Rolf Hochhuth, ‘The Representative’. I also told him of the work of certain Jewish writers on the subject that I managed to retrieve from my memory. These were Pinchas Lapide’s Three Popes and the Jews, former rabbi Israel Zolli’s memoir, Before the Dawn and David Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope. The old gentleman was interested and also surprised; this was news to him, obviously. It hadn’t occurred to him that there was another side to the argument.

Later at home I checked these authors on Wikipedia (as one does). More controversy: apparently Lapide’s estimate that Pius XII indirectly saved about 860,000 Jews was plucked out of his head (and at the time he wanted papal approval of the new state of Israel). Dalin’s book quotes Lapide’s figures with uncritical approval. Zolli, former chief rabbi of Rome, was out of favour with his co-religionists long before his conversion to Catholicism. Etc Etc. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

If anyone can bring more enlightenment to the topic I would be grateful, if only so that I can be less defensive at dinner parties in future. I need more weapons in my armoury here. Actually, that’s not quite the appropriate metaphor but I’ll leave it for want of a better.

And I dedicate this, my first book blog, to the memory of Dan Frank, former books editor of the Catholic Herald who died suddenly and too young and who used to describe himself humorously as “Jew-ish”. He it was who wisely cautioned me on this subject some years ago, telling me that “A lot of people on both sides have axes to grind and what they say is therefore suspect.”