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Newly Unveiled Archives Reveal Pope Pius XII's Response To The Holocaust

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Documents that have been newly unearthed from long-secret Vatican archives shed light on the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. And NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports they also reveal the pope's role in trying to keep orphans of Holocaust victims from being reunited with their Jewish relatives.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Vatican officials have long insisted that Pope Pius XII did everything possible to save Jewish lives. But many scholars accuse him of complicit silence on the Nazis' mass murder of Jews.

DAVID KERTZER: And Pope Pius XII thought that he should not take sides in the war and therefore he should not be criticizing either side of the war, including the Nazis.

POGGIOLI: Brown University professor David Kertzer was among the first to enter the Pius archives when they opened in March after decades of requests from scholars. Kertzer has just published his early findings in a long article for The Atlantic. They reveal an intense debate in the Vatican in 1943 when the Nazi occupiers of Rome rounded up over a thousand Jews and sent them to Auschwitz; only 16 survived. In one letter, a Vatican diplomat urged the pope to protest privately to the German ambassador. Pius asked for advice from his Jewish affairs expert, Monsignor Angelo Dell'Acqua.

KERTZER: And the second document that I found is Dell'Acqua's thoroughly anti-Semitic document explaining why he thought the pope should not, in fact, speak out.

POGGIOLI: Dell'Acqua, says Kertzer, thought the diplomat's letter was overly sympathetic to Jews.

KERTZER: He said Jews have caused problems, have - do threaten healthy Christian societies, so why should the church be speaking out for them?

POGGIOLI: And so again, Pius said nothing. The new findings also involve two Jewish orphans secretly baptized in France after their parents were deported to Auschwitz. The Finaly brothers became an international cause celebre. Nuns and monks and a mother superior were put in jail for kidnapping when they defied court rulings to hand the boys over to their surviving relatives. French church officials invoked a centuries-old doctrine claiming the baptized boys were now Catholics and must not be raised by Jews. And they asked the pope for guidance.

KERTZER: This is when the Vatican began its involvement behind the scenes because as it continued over the next months to issue instructions on how the church should proceed, the Vatican is telling them to resist the law. They also specified that be sure that no one knows that these orders are coming from the Vatican or from the pope.

POGGIOLI: In 1945, the boys were two of the estimated 1,200 French Jewish orphans in non-Jewish families or institutions. Ultimately, the brothers did join an aunt in Israel. Kertzer's findings helped fill many behind-the-scenes gaps, but there's one question he says Pope Pius XII never seemed to ask.

KERTZER: How could so many thousands and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Germans and their allies take part in the mass murder of Jewish children and old people and so forth still thinking they were good Catholics?

POGGIOLI: Kertzer says his findings reveal that the horrors of the Holocaust did not temper the Vatican's anti-Semitic mindset. That mindset was not repudiated until 20 years after the war when the Vatican formally rejected the centuries-old Catholic doctrine that held Jews responsible for the death of Christ. That ushered in a new era of Catholic-Jewish dialogue and ultimately the opening of the Pius XII archives. And Kertzer says there's still much more to be learned from the newly available trove of documents. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.