Pius XII Altered in History

Author: Maurizio Fontana

Pius XII Altered in History

Maurizio Fontana

Panel at Yad Vashem changed

"Only when all material is available, will a clearer picture emerge". This is the important news of a change which, read between the lines, travelled around the globe in a few hours. The Yad Vashem museum, dedicated to the history of the Shoah, has replaced the controversial caption under the photo of Pius XII, a text which had described the Pope's approach to the extermination of the Jews as ambiguous. On
July the museum's website announced that "recently, following the recommendation of the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research, the panel regarding the wartime activities of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII has been updated. This is an update to reflect research that has been done in the recent years, and presents a more complex picture than previously presented. Contrary to what has been reported", the statement stresses, "this change is not a result of Vatican pressure".

Thus the title of this text was altered from: "Pius XII and the Holocaust" to "The Vatican and the Holocaust". And the opening lines of the caption, regarding the Concordat between the Holy See and Germany in 1933, which previously stated "even if this meant recognising the Nazi racist regime", now it says that Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Secretary of State, signed a concordat "in order to preserve the rights of the Catholics in Germany". The new caption underlines that "the reaction of Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, to the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust is a matter of controversy among scholars". The difference in perspective is significant. The controversy concerning the Pope's role during the Nazi persecutions of the Jews is far from being over. But this step must be pointed out because it is qualitatively significant. It would seem that the move from an ideological stance to an historical evaluation has been made: "Over the past few years", the museum's statement reads, "new research, in part based on the opening of archival collections such as the Pius XI archive (up until 1939) and on other information, including that which was presented at an international academic workshop 'Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust — Current State of Research'" held at Yad Vashem in 2009, has clarified certain issues, while still leaving many questions open. Only when all material is available, will a clearer picture emerge (...) Yad Vashem looks forward to the day when the Vatican Archives will be open to researchers so that a clearer understanding of the events can be arrived at". Therefore prime importance has been restored to the facts, documents and testimonies. Archbishop Antonio Franco, Apostolic Nuncio in Israel and in Cyprus, has worked resolutely and respectfully to achieve this result. In recent years L'Osservatore Romano too has tried to recover the voices, memories, emotions and facts recalled by survivors and by the archives in order to offer historians new texts and documents for their evaluation. It is a commitment which has created much interest on many fronts.

"The panel", affirms the website, "noted that the reaction of Pope Pius XII is a matter of controversy. Some visitors to the Museum did not understand the controversy. The panel now presents this controversy in more detail". Now the caption also cites the Christmas radio message of 1942 when Pope Pacelli referred to the "the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or ethnic origin (stirpe), have been consigned to death or to a slow decline". The text suggests that the Pope's critics claim his "moral failure" was due to the lack of a clear condemnation of the murder of the Jews. This opens the question on both sides of the debate. In fact, on one hand, the lack of clear proof "left room for many to collaborate with Nazi Germany, reassured by the thought that this did not contradict the Church's moral teachings". However, on the other hand, as well as recognizing the initiatives of individual priests and lay people who rescued Jews, the caption expresses the reason of those who "maintain that this neutrality prevented harsher measures against the Vatican and the Church's institutions throughout Europe, thus enabling a considerable number of secret rescue activities to take place at different levels of the Church".

And the bottom line statement on the museum's website: "Of course, no panel in a museum can ever fully explore any topic and for those interested in learning more, the library and archives at Yad Vashem have a plethora of material". It is as if to say that on such an important and delicate topic we must not be stopped by definitions and slogans, but that a serious, detailed and respectful approach to study and research is necessary. At last history, documents and new information are now being discussed. Open debate is taken into account.

Without a doubt "open", given the initial reaction to Yad Vashem's statement. Already, on 2 July, the daily web news of the Union of the Italian Jewish Community, entitled "l'Unione informa", reported a heated debate. Strong arguments were made by Dr Riccardo Di Segni, Chief Rabbi of Rome, and of Ambassador Sergio Minerbi. Both are convinced that the correction to the museum text was merely the result of diplomatic pressure made by the Vatican: a result that, concerning the former, "leaves a bad taste in your mouth" and that for Minerbi is truly "a shame". The ambassador expressed his disapproval of Yad Vashem's initiative, acting "as if it were neutral in the matter".

Anna Foa, historian, assessed the situation differently: "It does not seem to me that the new caption represents any less harsh of a judgement in comparison to the previous caption"; what emerges today is "a historical rather than a moral judgment: an awareness present in a debate which is still open". The previous caption, continued Foa, "was the outcome of a dogmatic and absolute judgement that disregarded the existence of a historiographical debate and of the existence of new evidence concerning the events. The new caption paves the way for further changes, in one way or another, demonstrating that history is based on documents and interpretations, not on political prejudices or on common sense. And those in charge at Yad Vashem, with this courageous gesture, have shown that they are completely aware of this".

Vittorio Dan Segre, a diplomat and essayist, also commented along these lines: "The battle, of those who on behalf of the Jews would like to condemn Pope Pacelli of remaining perpetually closed to a dimension of moral condemnation without appeal, is not sustainable in the long run under the political and perhaps also the historiographical profile".

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
18 July 2012, page 10

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