The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum has qualified its hostile representation of Pius XII’s policy towards the Jews; but this, though welcome, is not enough

The Hall of Names at Yad Vashem (Photo: PA)

The museum attached to Israel’s national Holocaust memorial has, it seems, modified its account of Pope Pius XII’s conduct toward the massacre of Jews during World War Two. A wall panel at the museum still lists occasions when he did not protest against the slaughter of Europe’s Jews. But it also mentions the views of those who say the Church’s “neutrality” helped to save lives. “This is an update to reflect research that has been done in the recent years and presents a more complex picture than previously presented,” said the museum in a statement.

Well, that’s something, and the the papal envoy in Israel, archbishop Antonio Franco, welcomed what he called “the positive evolution”. But the evolution is hardly positive enough. The following utterly distorted account, as I understand it, remains unaltered:

“In 1933, when he was Secretary of the Vatican State, he was active in obtaining a Concordat with the German regime to preserve the Church’s rights in Germany, even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime. When he was elected Pope in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared. Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. The Pope maintained his neutral position throughout the war, with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia towards its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged Churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react.”

To this has now been added a brief statement, to the effect that there are those who believe that Pope Pius’s silence in condemning the murder of Jews was not a moral failure but a tactic that prevented harsher measures against Church institutions, enabling Church officials to carry out secret rescue missions.

It goes no further than that: Yad Vashem’s view is that until the Vatican opens its archive, no more can be said. But that is, of course, nonsense: the documentation already available is comprehensive, and from it a very different picture emerges, as many Jews have acknowledged for years. As Rabbi David Dalin has said, it cannot be claimed that “Pius was ultimately successful as a defender of Jews. Despite his desperate efforts to maintain peace, the war came, and, despite his protests against German atrocities, the slaughter of the Holocaust occurred.” Nevertheless, he insists (and get ready for his fascinating conclusion about the source of recent anti-Pacelli distortions) “to make Pius XII a target of our moral outrage against the Nazis, and to count Catholicism among the institutions delegitimised by the horror of the Holocaust, reveals a failure of historical understanding.” And here’s his sting in the tail: “Almost none of the recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust is actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Their real topic proves to be an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists.”

Well, well, well, how very interesting: and how can we entirely blame Jews for getting it wrong, when they are encouraged by our fellow Catholics with a quite different, anti-Vatican, axe to grind. Thus, for instance, Rabbi Dalin homes in on John Cornwell as his first example of a general tendency among these critics: “The technique for recent attacks on Pius XII,” he says, “is simple. It requires only that favorable evidence be read in the worst light and treated to the strictest test, while unfavorable evidence is read in the best light and treated to no test. So, for instance, when Cornwell sets out in Hitler’s Pope to prove Pius an anti-Semite (an accusation even the pontiff’s bitterest opponents have rarely levelled), he makes much of Pacelli’s reference in a 1917 letter to the “Jewish cult” — as though for an Italian Catholic prelate born in 1876 the word “cult” had the same resonances it has in English today, and as though Cornwell himself does not casually refer to the Catholic cult of the Assumption and the cult of the Virgin Mary.”

Catholics who have read any of Cornwell’s books are accustomed to his gross distortions (they are, for instance, particularly gross in his polemic The Pope in Winter, a nasty book about Pope John Paul). Rabbi Dalin deals with more of the same sort from other writers; but he prefers to remember more substantial Jewish writers who have strongly defended Pope Pius:

In response to the new attacks on Pius, several Jewish scholars have spoken out …. Sir Martin Gilbert told an interviewer that Pius deserves not blame but thanks. Michael Tagliacozzo, the leading authority on Roman Jews during the Holocaust, added, “I have a folder on my table in Israel entitled ‘Calumnies Against Pius XII.’ … Without him, many of our own would not be alive.” Richard Breitman (the only historian authorised to study US espionage files from World War Two) noted that secret documents prove the extent to which “Hitler distrusted the Holy See because it hid Jews.”

Still, [Pinchas] Lapide’s 1967 book remains the most influential work by a Jew on the topic, and in the 34 years since he wrote, much material has become available in the Vatican’s archives and elsewhere. New oral-history centres have gathered an impressive body of interviews with Holocaust survivors, military chaplains, and Catholic civilians. Given the recent attacks, the time has come for a new defence of Pius — because, despite allegations to the contrary, the best historical evidence now confirms both that Pius XII was not silent and that almost no one at the time thought him so.

Rabbi Dalin goes on to talk about much of this evidence at length. I do not have space for it here, but anyone still in doubt should go to the above link: this material really is conclusive. “Any fair and thorough reading of the evidence,” as Rabbi Dalin insists, “demonstrates that Pius XII was a persistent critic of Nazism.” He points out, for instance, that throughout the 1930s, the then Cardinal Pacelli was widely lampooned in the Nazi press as Pius XI’s “Jew-loving” cardinal, because of the more than 55 protests he sent the Germans as Secretary of State.

The news that some small modification has been grudgingly conceded to the utterly distorted caption accompanying his photograph at the Yad Vashem museum is, I suppose, welcome. That it hardly goes far enough is no surprise. But we need to remember that Yad Vashem has its own very understandable agenda, as you will find if you go there (as you certainly should, as a priority, on any first visit to Jerusalem).

You will visit it because it is Israel’s official memorial to those who died in the Holocaust, and you will go, therefore, first and foremost to pay your respects to the victims of that unimaginable horror. In the event, it is not, of course, as simple as that, and I have to admit to mixed feelings on my own visit.

But the remembering of the dead is what stays most powerfully with me. The Hall of Remembrance itself is a deeply moving space, whether you are Jewish or not. It is a numinous place, where voices are hushed and the awesome nature of what actually took place in the concentration camps whose names are commemorated here — it is staggering simply to contemplate the sheer number of them — enters deep into the consciousness of anyone who enters it. In the words of John Paul II on his own visit: “Here at Yad Vashem the memory lives on, and burns itself into our souls.” Indeed it does, and so it should. This is my own enduring memory of Yad Vashem; this and nothing else is what I try to remember.

The museum is a different matter. It is built at a distance from the memorial itself. You enter at one end, and are fed through to the other. At first, the museum’s exhibits serve to inform and deepen the mood which the memorial has induced. It is heavily dependent, as any museum of this kind must be, on photographic evidence, and many of the photographs are familiar. They are well displayed; but I found, as I moved through the museum, that I was beginning to become uneasy.

Memorial was little by little, or so it seemed to me, becoming transformed, from the simple recounting of the terrible story of what had happened, into something quite different: memorial was becoming indoctrination, with a particular underlying ideology, at first indistinct, then absolutely clear beyond peradventure. Curiously, I for some reason missed the exhibit to do with Pius XII (I wonder if it was there at that time, about 10 years ago; I was there with a group of other editors of Christian papers, and nobody mentioned it); but the feeling that the focus was moving away from the reverent remembering of the victims of the Holocaust towards something else hardened into certainty when we progressed into a quite new section of the museum, to do with the foundation of the State of Israel. The message here was simple: you have seen what happened to six million Jews during the war: the declaration of the state of Israel was not only the only possible outcome of this genocidal crime, but (it can’t have actually said this, but this was somehow implied) this declaration took place for no other reason — as though Zionism as a movement had its roots not in the 19th century but in the death camps. I left the Hall of Remembrance deeply moved by the experience: I left the Yad Vashem museum with the sense that my feelings had been politically used and manipulated.

Yad Vashem — that is, the museum and those who control it — has become the centre of an anti-Catholic sentiment which was not entertained by Jews at the time of the Holocaust, and which has no roots in historical truth or in justice. We should welcome the “evolution” of its anti-Pacelli display. But I am sure that the Vatican remains unhappy about its evident remaining intention; and so should we be. This cannot be the end of the story.