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Pope Pius XII and the Roman razzia

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Pope Pius XII and the Roman razzia

Pope Pius XII's response to the Roman razzia; Italian for roundup, or mass deportation of Jews on October 16, 1943; is a significant issue relating to Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. Under Mussolini, no policy of abduction of Jews had been implemented in Italy. Following the capitulation of Italy in 1943, Nazi forces invaded and occupied much of the country, and began deportations of Jews to extermination camps. Pius XII protested at diplomatic levels, while several thousand Jews found refuge in Catholic networks, institutions and homes across Italy - including in the Vatican City and Pope Pius' Summer Residence. The Catholic Church and various historians credit this rescue in large part to the direction of Pope Pius XII, as Bishop of Rome, and head of the Catholic Church, however, some historians cast doubt on the extent of his responsibility for the rescue effort, and have criticised Pius for not making a "public condemnation" of the round-up.

Various historians have given different emphases to accounts of Pius' actions. According to Michael Phayer, "the question of the pope's silence has become the focus of intense historical debate and analysis" because the deportations occurred "under his very windows". The term "under his very windows" was used as the title of a book on the subject by historian Susan Zuccotti.[1] The phrase is based on an actual quotation from the report of Ernst von Weizsäcker, the German ambassador to the Vatican, who reported to Berlin that the razzia had taken place "under the Pope's windows".[2][3] It also echoes the reported words of the protest made to Weizsäcker by Pius' Secretary of State on the morning of the round up: "It is sad for the Holy Father, sad beyond imagination, that here in Rome, under the very eyes of the Common Father, that so many people should suffer only because they belong to a specific race.”

Phayer and Zuccotti's emphasis on "papal silence" can be contrasted with Jewish historian of the Holocaust, Sir Martin Gilbert's, emphasis on "papal action" in relation to the roundup. By Gilbert's account, when the Nazis came to Rome in search of Jews, Pius had already "A few days earlier... personally ordered the Vatican clergy to open the sanctuaries of the Vatican City to all "non-Aryans" in need of refuge. By morning of October 16, a total of 477 Jews had been given shelter in the Vatican and its enclaves, while another 4,238 had been given sanctuary in the many monasteries and convents of in Rome. Only 1,015 of Rome's 6,730 Jews were seized that morning".[4]

Lead up to roundups

Foreknowledge of Vatican

According to Phayer, there is no doubt that "Pius XII knew of the plan to murder Roman Jews".[5] Phayer writes that Pius XII's under-secretaries of state Giovanni Montini and Domenico Tardini first learned of the planned deporations in mid-September 1943.[6] Specifically, the Vatican learned of a "telegram from Berlin instructing the SS in Rome to seize the city's Jews" several weeks before the razzia began.[7] According to Jewish historian, Rabbi David G. Dalin, "A fair reading suggests Pius had heard rumors and raised them with the Nazi occupiers. Princess Enza Pignatelli Aragona reported that when she broke in on the pope with the news of the roundup early on the morning of October 16, 1943, his first words were: "But the Germans had promised not to touch the Jews!"[8]

Pre-emptive efforts to protect Jews

By October, "various members of the German military and diplomatic corps" were attempting to prevent the planned deportation of Rome's Jews.[7] Ernst von Weizsäcker took over from bishop Alois Hudal the task of compiling a comprehensive list of the properties of the pope in Rome and sending hundreds of "letters of protection" to those properties, guaranteeing them extraterritorial status.[7] However, von Weizsäcker delegated the task of actually warning the Roman Jewry to his assistant Albrecht von Kassel, who encountered great difficulty due to the prevailing opinion, generated by former Fascist Jews Dante Almansi and Ugo Foa, that there was "no cause for alarm".[9] In any case, according to Phayer, "Pope Pius gave them no warning".[9] In the end, very few Jews "availed themselves of opportunities to hide" before October 16.[9] Contrary to many non-contemporary accounts, historian Susan Zuccotti finds no evidence that "the populations of convents and monasteries surged before the fateful day".[9]

According to Martin Gilbert, the Pope had helped the Jews of Rome in September, by offering whatever amounts of gold might be needed towards the 50kg demanded by the Nazis. At the same time, wrote Gilbert, the Capuchin Father Benoit had saved large numbers of Jews by providing them with false identification papers, helped by the Swiss, Hungarian, Rumanian and French embassies, and a number of Italian officials. A few days before the October 15/16 roundup, Pius XII personally directed Vatican clergy to open the sanctuaries of the Vatican to all "non-Aryans" in need of refuge.[10]

According to Zuccotti, not only did Pius XII not aid the efforts of Father Père Marie-Benoît (later honored as Righteous among the Nations for his efforts to save Jews), he actively discouraged his work.[11] Father Benoît was called to Rome in June 1943. Zuccotti wrote that he had no success in enlisting the aid of the pontiff to help Jews escape Italian-occupied France.[12] With respect to Benoît's actions during the razzia, Zuccotti writes, "far from claiming receipt of material aid from Vatican officials, Benedetto never even wrote that they encouraged him".[13] For example, Msgr. Angelo dell'Acqua, an official in the Vatican Secretariat of State, wrote on November 20, 1943 that he had repeatedly told Benoît to "use the maximum prudence", lamenting that Benoît had "not wished to listen to the humble advice given to him".[13] According to Zuccotti Vatican officials actively attempted to "subdue" the efforts of Benoît and others, cautioning them against even meeting with Jews, with "whom it would be better to speak less".[13] When Benoît asked Monitini for a letter of recommendation he needed to provide false documents to Jews, "he received little but a reprimand".[14]

Rabbi David G. Dalin has queried Zuccotti's methodology and conclusions, writing that "There exists testimony from a Good Samaritan priest that Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini of Assisi, holding a letter in his hand, declared that the pope had written to request help for Jews during the German roundup of Italian Jews in 1943. But because the priest did not actually read the letter, Zuccotti speculates that the bishop may have been deceiving him — and thus that this testimony should be rejected. Compare this skeptical approach to evidence with her treatment, for example, of a 1967 interview in which the German diplomat Eitel F. Mollhausen said he had sent information to the Nazis' ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsäcker, and "assumed" that Weizsäcker passed it on to Church 'officials'. Zuccotti takes this as unquestionable proof that the pope had direct foreknowledge of the German roundup."[15]

Pius offers loan to Jews

SS Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler is "notorious for holding the Jews of Rome for ransom" due to his demand of 50 kilograms of gold, for which he was convicted of extortion by an Italian court after the war.[11] In fact, it is possible that Kappler's intentions were to "bribe Berlin [rather] than to shake down the Jews".[11]

The Jews of Rome turned to the pope in an attempt to meet the ransom.[11] Pius XII offered to loan the Jews the gold, with no deadline for repayment and no interest.[11] However, this loan never took place because the Jews came up with the required amount on their own by September 28.[11] A German cable from October 11—which does not mention their recent receipt of the extorted gold—ordered Kappler to proceed with the deportation as planned.[5]

Actions of the German diplomatic corps

In addition to von Weizsäcker and von Kessel, the deportations were opposed by General Reiner Stahel, the commandant of Rome, Field Marshal General Albert Kesselring, and Eitel Friedrich Möllhausen, German chargé d'affaires to Italy.[16] Kappler suggested to the foreign ministry on October 6 that the Jews would be "better used as laborers in Italy" and Mollhausen communicated similar sentiments to Stahel.[5] A second telegram the next day from Mollhausen to Berlin said that the field marshal had asked Kappler to postpone the roundup.[5]

Knowing that the German officials in Rome were unanimously opposed to the roundup, Adolf Eichmann sent Theodore Dannecker, the SS captain responsible for the deportations of the Parisian Jews, to Rome.[5] Having a very limited force compared to the 8,000 Roman Jews, Dannecker pressed Kappler to provide him with additional forces and a list of addresses; both Kappler and Stahel complied.[5]

The razzia

Roundup commences

The roundup began on October 16.[7] The Germans surrounded the Roman Ghetto on Shabbat and went door-to-door in the early morning, waking up the sleeping Jews on their list of addresses.[5] They were given twenty minutes to assemble their possessions and assemble outside in the rain.[17] 1,000 Jews—900 of whom were women and children—were taken to the Military College of Rome, only a few blocks from St. Peter's Basilica.[17]

Martin Gilbert wrote that the Germans "combed the houses and streets of Rome in search of Jews who, regardless of age, sex or health were taken to the Collegio Militaire. A few days earlier, Pope Pius XII had personally ordered the Vatican clergy to open the sanctuaries of the Vatican City to all "non-Aryans" in need of refuge. By morning of October 16, a total of 477 Jews had been given shelter in the Vatican and its enclaves, while another 4,238 had been given sanctuary in the many monasteries and convents of in Rome. Only 1,015 of Rome's 6,730 Jews were seized that morning".[18]

Owen Chadwick estimates the number of deportees to Auschwitz at 1,007 and the number of survivors at 15.[19]

The Hudal letter

That same day, Cardinal Secretary of State Luigi Maglione requested that von Weizsäcker meet with him to discuss the action and sent a telegram of protest to Berlin.[17] The telegram is known as the "Hudal letter", named after bishop Alois Hudal, the rector of Santa Maria dell'Anima, the German national church in Rome.[17] Hudal would become notorious after the war for his masterminding the "ratlines" through which Nazi war criminals escaped to South America. According to the ADSS, the Hudal letter was conveyed to Berlin by Carlo Pacelli, the pope's nephew, through General Stahel.[17]

The letter requested a suspension of the arrests, stating "otherwise I fear the Pope will take a position in public as being against this action, one which would undoubtedly be used by the anti-German propagandists as a weapon against us Germans".[17] According to Albrecht von Kessel, Hudal did not write the letter but merely signed it after it was drafted primarily by von Weizsäcker, von Kessel, Gerhart Gumpel (another German diplomat in Rome), and even General Stahel himself.[20] von Weizsäcker sent a telegram to Berlin a few hours later vouching for the authenticity and argument of the letter.[20]

Phayer does not rule out the possibility of papal involvement with the letter, but suggests that if Pius XII was involved, that the letter was designed "to rescue Jews without risking a papal statement of denunciation".[20]

Maglione and von Weizsäcker meeting

On the morning of the roundup, Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal Maglione, on the orders of Pope Pius, met with German ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsacker. According to Phayer, the meeting "ranks as one of the most dramatic scenes of Holocaust historiography".[21] In particular, the meeting received the attention of British historian Owen Chadwick and is often "taken center stage in accounts of the razzia in Rome".[21] Phayer disagrees with Chadwick's assessment of the importance of the meeting.[21]

By Martin Gilbert's account, upon receiving news of the roundups on the morning of 16 October, the Pope immediately instructed Maglione to protest to Weizsacker: "Maglione did so that morning, making it clear to the ambassador that the deportation of Jews was offensive to the Pope. In urging Weizsacker 'to try to save these innocent people,' Maglione added: 'It is sad for the Holy Father, sad beyond imagination, that here in Rome, under the very eyes of the Common Father, that so many people should suffer only because they belong to a specific race.'" Following the meeting, Weizsacker gave orders for a halt to the arrests.[22]

Chadwick quotes a letter from D'Arcy Osborne to the Foreign Office from the last day of the month:

"As soon as he heard of the arrests of the Jews in Rome the Cardinal Secretary of State sent for the German ambassador and formulated some sort [undecyphered word] of protest. The Ambassador took immediate action with the result that large numbers were released [...] Vatican intervention thus seems to have been effective in saving a large number of these unfortunate people".[23]

Phayer wrote in 2008 that, "nearly all" historians agree that Maglione did not protest the seize of that morning in his meeting with von Weizsäcker.[21] Nor did Pius XII ever speak publicly of the razzia.[21] However, on October 25 (by which time most of the Jews who had been rounded up were probably already dead or soon to enter the gas chamber), L'Osservatore Romano ran an article saying that "the Holy Father's charity was universal, extending to all races".[21] According to Gilbert, following Maglione’s appeal, to protect Rome's remaining Jews from a possible German reversal, Pius gave instructions for the Vatican to be opened to the city's Jews, and for the convents and monasteries to provide hiding places, or provide false papers. Gilbert credits this papal initiative, with resulting in a larger percentage of the Jews of Rome being saved than were saved in any other city then under German occupation.[22]

Von Weizsäcker wrote of the Vatican diplomacy on October 22 in a letter to his mother, saying "fortunately so far no one has taken a public position".[24] According to Phayer, "historians—as opposed to writers whose sole objective is to defend Pius XII—are not in agreement with the editors of the Actes et Documents, who maintained that Maglione succeeded in registering a papal protest of the roundup of the Jews".[24] According to Maglione's account of the meeting, when asked by on Weizsäcker "What would the Holy See do if these things were to continue?", he replied that the Holy See did not wish to have to express disapproval, and when asked whether on Weizsäcker should report the conversation to his superiors, he replied that he was "leaving it to his judgement".[25]

Sanctuary in the Vatican, monasteries and convents

A large number of Jews, perhaps more than 6000, found refuge in the various religious properties of Rome, including monasteries and convents; a much smaller number, took refuge in Vatican City itself.[26] It is clear from the number of letters of protection issued by von Weizsäcker that many of the buildings possessing letters of protecting (and asserting extraterritorial status) were in fact not owned by the Church.[26]

Martin Gilbert wrote that, in October 1943, with the SS occupying Rome and determined to deport the city's 5000 Jews, the Vatican clergy had opened the sanctuaries of the Vatican to all "non-Aryans" in need of rescue in an attempt to forestall the deportation. "Catholic clergy in the city acted with alacrity", wrote Gilbert. "At the Capuchin convent on the Via Siciliano, Father Benoit, under the name of Father Benedetti, saved a large numbers of Jews by providing them with false identification papers [...] by the morning of October 16, a total of 4,238 Jews had been given sanctuary in the many monasteries and convents of Rome. A further 477 Jews had been given shelter in the Vatican and its enclaves." Gilbert credited the "rapid rescue efforts" of the Church as saving over four fifths of Roman Jews that morning.[27] Il Collegio San Giuseppe - Istituto De Merode, like other Roman Catholic schools, hid numerous Jewish children and adults among its students and Brothers[28][29].

Pietro Palazzini, who was later appointed a Cardinal and recognised as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem, endangered his life in his efforts to save the Jews of Rome.[30] As assistant vice rector of the Seminario Romano (which was Vatican property), he hid Italian Jews for several months in 1943 and 1944. In accepting his title from Yad Vashem, Palazzini said that "the merit is entirely Pius XII's, who ordered us to do whatever we could to save the Jews from persecution."[31]

In Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, Susan Zuccotti argued that the pope "did not give orders to the various Roman Catholic institutions of Rome to open their doors to the Jews".[32] Zuccotti's other published works advance her argument that Pius XII neither ordered, nor was aware of the full extent, of the rescue operations carried out by Catholics and Catholic institutions.[33] In fact, Zuccotti argues that Pius XII disapproved of the rescue efforts, as evidenced by a December 1943 letter from the Rector of Pontificio Seminario Romano Maggiore apologizing to Pius XII for accepting refugees, apparently having been previously reprimanded.[33] Zuccotti also finds a February 1944 order to remove fugitives from Vatican properties inconsistent with the existence of a papal directive to save Jews.[33] Phayer agrees with this interpretation while arguing that in fact "the Vatican cooperated in this rescue attempt", which he believes was initiated by the German diplomats of Rome.[32] Zuccotti argues that any coordination was the result of the efforts of an Italian Jewish agency DELASEM which petitioned Italian bishops and turned over funds and lists of names to those who agreed to help.[33]

Jonathan Gorsky, wrote for Yad Vashem, that the scale of the rescue of Jews would have been impossible without Papal approval: " The rescue of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, and the opening of Catholic institutions as places of shelter, could not have occurred in the face of papal disapproval. This is especially true with regard to institutions within the confines of Rome and the Vatican... No one has denied the significant scale of Catholic rescue activity, and gratitude was indeed expressed by leading Jews after the war"[34]

Robert Leiber, a close Jesuit adviser of Pius XII, asserted in 1961 that Pius XII personally ordered superiors of church properties to open their doors to Jews.[35] For his statistics on the number of Jews he claimed Pius XII to have saved, Leiber relied on fellow Jesuit Beato Ambord; the original compilation of the numbers is unknown.[36] A more recent study by Dwork and Pelt concurs with Zuccotti, concluding: "Sam Waagenaar challenged Leiber. On the basis of our research, we find Waagenaar's refutation convincing. Pope Pius XII did nothing. Many convents and monasteries helped—but not to the extent that Pius's close associate Robert Leiber claimed".[37]

Jews within the Vatican City State itself were "guests in the private apartments of individual prelates" who were in fact ordered to leave in a February 1944 order, but allowed to stay after much uproar from the prelates in question.[33]

In August 2006 extracts from the 60-year-old diary of a nun of the Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati were published in the Italian press, claiming that Pius XII had issued such an order to Rome's convents and monasteries.[38][39]



  • Chadwick, Owen. 1977. "Weizsäcker, the Vatican and the Jews of Rome". Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 28(2): 378.
  • Chadwick, Owen. 1988. Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War. Cambridge University Press.
  • Dwork, Debórah, and Pelt, Robert Jan. 2002. Holocaust: a history.
  • Hill, Leonidas. 1967. "The Vatican Embassy of Ernst von Weizsäcker, 1943-1945". The Journal of Modern History. 39(2): 138-159.
  • Phayer, Michael. 2000. The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930–1965. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33725-9.
  • Phayer, Michael. 2008. Pius XII, The Holocaust, and the Cold War. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34930-9.
  • Ritner, Carol and Roth, John K. (eds.). 2002. Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. New York: Leicester University Press. ISBN 0-7185-0275-2
  • Sánchez, José M. 2002. Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. ISBN 0-8132-1081-X
  • Zuccotti, Susan. 2000. Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08487-0
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