It has scarcely been noticed in Britain, but a remarkable development has recently taken place in Holocaust studies. Nearly two years ago, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a historical research institute, set out on “a modest project”. It wanted to mark “Houses of Life” – places where Jews were sheltered during the war – with memorial plaques. It found more than 500 such houses in Italy, France, Hungary, Belgium and Poland. Eduardo Eurnekian, chairman of the foundation, wrote that “to our surprise, we have learned that the overwhelming majority of Houses of Life were institutions related to the Catholic Church, including convents, monasteries, boarding schools, hospitals, etc”.
In Rome alone, some 4,500 people found refuge in churches, convents, monasteries and boarding schools. In Warsaw, All Saints Church sheltered Jews. This was remarkable, because the penalty for Poles for rescuing Jews was the death camp or, more likely, instant execution.
It is appropriate that a foundation named after Raoul Wallenberg should find such an extensive Catholic contribution to saving Jewish lives. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Budapest during the war. He and Angelo Rotta, the papal nuncio, saved 120,000 out of the city’s 150,000 Jews. Wallenberg was arrested by the Red Army and never seen again.
The news about the Houses of Life is only surprising because the truth about the Church and the Jewish people in the Second World War has been suppressed. Several aides of the wartime pope, Pius XII, acknowledged that they had worked to rescue Jews on his direct instructions. They included two future popes – Mgr Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII) and Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI). Pius XII himself sheltered Jews both in the Vatican itself and at Castel Gandolfo.
This is a good moment to mark the Church’s witness against Nazism. Eighty years ago, on March 14, 1937, Pope Pius XI issued Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”), an encyclical, pointedly written in German, condemning Nazism. “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, and divinises them to an idolatrous level, perverts an order of the world created by God,” the pope wrote.
Pius XI’s secretary of state was Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pius XII. He distributed the text, which he had helped to draft, secretly within Germany. Four years earlier, in 1933, he had negotiated a concordat between the Holy See and Germany, not to appease Nazism but to have some means of holding the Nazis to account through an international treaty. The regime referred to him as “Jew loving”: he had made more than 50 protests against Nazi policy, the earliest coming just days after the passing of the Enabling Act, which granted Hitler the power to enact laws without Reichstag approval. Pacelli was regarded as so anti-Nazi that the Third Reich attempted to prevent his election as pope in 1939.
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