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The Pope's Jews: The Vatican's Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis, by Gordon Thomas

New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's, 2012. Pp. xx, 314. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $34.99. ISBN: 0312604211.

Hitler’s Pope or the Jews’ Pope?

Since shortly after his death, Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-1958), born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli in Rome in 1876, has been widely maligned as “Hitler’s Pope,” criticized for perceived failure to condemn the Nazis and Fascists and seeming public silence over the atrocities of the Holocaust. He did not, it has been pointed out by critics, excommunicate Hitler and other nominally Catholic Nazis (nor Mussolini and the Fascists), and in his wartime speeches about those thousands suffering and condemned to death never mentioned the word “Jews.” He had, it was known, a greater fear of anticlerical Soviet Communism than Fascism or Nazism, and had negotiated agreements with the latter.

In The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis, Gordon Thomas attempts to absolve Pius XII of accusations of the crime of silence, though he does not completely succeed. (The Vatican’s archives of the period are sealed until 2020, so all of the evidence, as it were, is not in and there are still grounds for controversy.) In his defense, Thomas cites the Pope’s condemnations of genocide and atrocities against noncombatants, including aerial bombardment of cities, but hese were largely buried in vague generalities about the horrors of war and diplomatic language calling for compassion and peace, with a single notable exception; In his first papal encyclical, Pius proclaimed that “there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision.” Pius did not use his papal moral authority to denounce the Nazis specifically; as he spelled out to an envoy of FDR’s, he could not name them without at the same time mentioning the Bolsheviks, whom, he reminded, were allies of the U.S. Thomas further explains Pius’ caution or inaction variously as adhering to the Vatican’s official neutrality and as properly preventing Nazi reprisals against the Vatican (such as military occupation, a perhaps understandable priority) and worse actions against the Jews (worse than Auschwitz, to which 1,007 Jews from Rome’s ghetto – practically “under his window” – were transported and where 811 were immediately gassed?).

Where Thomas is on firmer ground, relying on primary sources, is in establishing that the Pontiff charitably allowed several thousand Roman Jews – along with Allied soldiers who had escaped from Italian prisoner of war camps after Mussolini fell – to be sheltered in Catholic convents, monasteries, schools and hospitals, and even gave over 400 sanctuary within the Vatican itself. The titular “secret plan” that, according to Thomas, Pius initiated, oversaw or at least permitted, was the setting up of a covert underground network of 50 priests, nuns and residents of Rome discreetly to help save local Jews through a variety of means, from hiding them to producing forged documents, such as baptismal certificates. (Thomas does not, however, mention the still-contentious actual baptisms and conversions of orphans.) Furthermore, the Pope authorized 15 kilograms of gold from the Vatican treasury toward the ransom of the ghetto’s Jews, for a time, as well as money from his personal funds to aid emigrating refugees. Nevertheless, though the Vatican, as other neutral states, was a hotbed of espionage, Pius neither warned the ghetto about the roundup nor publicly protested the deportations, though the Vatican did intervene to seek the release of those of mixed religion. It must be noted that, while these efforts were limited in vigor, scope and geography and occurred after Mussolini was ousted and no longer a threat to the Holy See, they were conducted during and in defiane of the German occupation of Rome, and were enough for Hitler to call Pius “a Jew lover” and allegedly order his abduction to Germany (which has been dismissed as British wartime propaganda to outrage Catholics, particularly Italy’s – and Germany’s).

While Thomas does not fully exonerate Pius XII, he does convincingly substantiate that he was neither pro-Nazi (“Hitler’s Pope”). Moreover, despite Pius’s timid desire not to offend, efforts to maintain Vatican neutrality, and his doctrinal nonspecific exhortations about compassion and the scourge of war, Thomas demonstrates that he was not indifferent, doing absolutely nothing about the Jews’ horrific persecution; Rome-born and the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, it was said, he had a pastoral duty to its Jews as well as its Catholics. Nevertheless, while Pius may indeed have tried to help, but the number of dead forcefully declares that he did not do enough. The question of Pius’s “heroic virtue” remains compellingly relevant as the Church has declared him “venerable,” a first step toward canonization as a saint. Justifiably, the process has been paused while his actions on the eve of and during World War II are thoroughly reviewed. It was to refute opponents of his canonization that prompted Thomas to write this book.

Thomas’s style is eminently readable, and his vivid portraits of the Vatican hierarchy, members of the Jewish community, Allied and Axis diplomats, and German SS, Gestapo and military occupiers at times seems as if they were characters in a novel. Despite his subjectivity and advocacy, The Pope’s Jews is a fascinating account of an aspect of the War and the Holocaust that bears further evaluation and likely will continue to do so long after 2020.


Note: The Pope’s Jews is also available in several e-Book formats.


Our Reviewer : Mark L. Blackman is a lifelong history and Jewish history buff. His previous reviews for StrategyPage include Under the Heel of Bushido: Last Voices of the Jewish POWs of the Japanese in the Second World War , The Fascists and the Jews of Italy: Mussolini's Race Laws, 1938-1943 , Fighting Back: British Jewry’s Military Contribution in the Second World War, Maestro John Monash: Australia's Greatest Citizen General, and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia's North Caucasus and BeyondHe lives in Brooklyn.



Reviewer: Mark Blackman   

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