When the Vatican opened its sealed archives from the World War II-era pontificate of Pius XII in March, Brown University historian David Kertzer was among the first in line.
Like many other scholars, Kertzer had been eager to mine the papers of a pope — long under consideration for sainthood — whose response to Nazism and the Holocaust had become the target of fierce debate.
Some have cast Pius XII as the pontiff who remained shamefully silent as the Nazis massacred Jews during the war. Others claim that Pius worked behind the scenes to encourage the Roman Catholic Church to save thousands of Jews and other victims of persecution.
Now documents from the archives are beginning to trickle out, offering an early taste of what could emerge from the tens of thousands of papers that scholars had been clamoring to study for decades. Pius XII’s pontificate stretched from 1939 to 1958.
In an article published in The Atlantic on Thursday, Kertzer revealed previously unpublished documents, including a memorandum advising Pius against making a formal protest when the Gestapo rounded up 1,000 of Rome’s Jews on Oct. 16, 1943, for deportation to the concentration camp in Auschwitz.
Kertzer also found a trail of documents revealing that Vatican officials directed clerics in France to resist turning over two Jewish boys who had been put in the care of local Catholics and baptized when their parents were killed in Auschwitz — despite rulings by French courts ordering that the boys be given to their aunt.
The church’s defiance of the aunt’s yearslong efforts to reclaim the two boys — Robert and Gérald Finaly — made international headlines at the time, including on the front page of The New York Times. The documents show that Pius was kept informed, even as French nuns and monks were arrested on charges of kidnapping the boys.
“Among historians, my piece I think will be fairly explosive,” said Kertzer, whose book “The Pope and Mussolini,” about Pius’ predecessor, Pius XI, won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2015.
Vatican officials, provided with Kertzer’s article, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI ordered the release of some official Vatican records relating to the wartime period after Pius XII had been excoriated in Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play “The Deputy,” which attacked the pope for not having publicly condemned Hitler, even though he was aware of the Nazi crimes. Hochhuth died in May.
Four Jesuit scholars published 11 volumes of documents from Pius XII’s pontificate between 1965 and 1981. Critics have said those volumes were selective and insufficient.
Kertzer said a note and a memorandum found from 1943, both translated and reprinted in the Atlantic article, were not included in the Vatican volume dealing with 1943, which does, however, include a document that refers to one of the newly uncovered documents.
The omission gave weight to “suspicions that those four Jesuit scholars may have been loath to publish items that might be seen to cast the pope, and the Vatican, in unfavorable light,” Kertzer said in a Skype interview from his home in Harpswell, Maine. “Frankly this demonstrates that’s the case.”
But others who study church history say that the rush to find gems buried in the newly opened archives could also result in a selective understanding of events.
Scholars have the duty to study the archives thoroughly, said Matteo Luigi Napolitano, a history professor at the University of Molise, who has written several favorable books on Pius XII, including “The Pope Who Saved the Jews. All the Truth about Pius XII from the Vatican Archives” (co-authored with Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of the Vatican’s department of communications).
“You can’t publish one scoop after another just because you’ve been in the library for a few days,” said Napolitano, a member of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. “That’s not the way to work. It’s not a historical method.”
Kertzer only managed to work a few days in the archives when the coronavirus caused the Vatican to shut its doors, but he continued to research with a Rome-based church historian, Roberto Benedetti.
The documents include pages that Kertzer described as “steeped in anti-Semitic language.”
In one document concerning the 1943 roundup, the Rev. Pietro Tacchi Venturi, a close adviser, proposed that Pius XII tell the Germans there was no need to use violence against Italy’s Jews because Mussolini’s racial laws were “sufficient to contain the tiny Jewish minority within its proper limits,” Tacchi Venturi wrote. “One does not understand why and what need there is to return to a question that Mussolini’s Government considered already taken care of.”
Tacchi Venturi’s proposal was dismissed by a memorandum, written by the Rev. Angelo Dell’Acqua, then an official at the Secretariat of State who went on to become the cardinal for Rome, that sought to persuade Pius XII not to lodge a formal protest against the Nazi roundup but instead to speak of it privately with the German ambassador “recommending to him that the already grave situation of the Jews not be aggravated further.”
Dell’Acqua was also involved in the much-publicized case of the Finaly brothers.
The war had left many Jewish orphans in Catholic countries, and on at least two occasions, Jewish leaders had appealed to Pius XII asking for help in ensuring that they be returned to Jewish families. As one document published in 2004 shows, in some instances, church policy had been to resist.
The Finaly boys had been secretly baptized, and the church in France had at first actively opposed attempts to give them back to surviving relatives because the church believed they should be raised in their new faith.
The new documentation cited by Kertzer suggests that the Vatican had been directly involved in efforts to hide the Finaly boys and prevent them from being given to their relatives, all the while seeking to keep its role secret.
The family finally prevailed, and the brothers were taken to Israel, where they still live. Kertzer suggests that the horror of the Holocaust had done little to soften the Vatican’s position.
Demand for full access to the archives intensified after the Vatican moved Pius XII closer to sainthood in 2009, a decision protested by some Holocaust survivors. Speaking to reporters while returning from his 2014 trip to Israel, Pope Francis said that Pius XII would not be beatified, the penultimate step to sainthood, until a miracle could be attributed to him.
“The cause for Pius XII is open. However, there has been no miracle, and if there are no miracles it is not yet possible to go ahead,” Francis said.
No miracle has yet been verified — and for the church to make him a saint, he officially needs two, although Francis waived the second miracle in the case of Pope John XXIII.
When Francis ordered the early opening of the sealed archive of Pius XII in 2019, he said: “The church is not afraid of history.”
At the time, Francis had said that Pius XII’s pontificate had included “moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence.”
The unsealed Pius XII archives (contained in three different Vatican archives) were opened March 2 but closed by the pandemic from March 5 until early June. They are now shut again because of the scheduled summer recess.
But articles and at least one book have already begun appearing, as well as attention-grabbing revelations.
The Rev. Hubert Wolf, a German scholar, who had been at the Vatican in March, gave an interview two months later saying he had found documents that reflected badly on Pius XII and the Vatican. As the Catholic and other media picked up these reports, some academics chastised him for publishing too hastily.
Alberto Melloni, a church historian, said the anti-Semitic tones that emerge from some of the documents of the time should come as no surprise.
“It’s not for nothing that it took 20 years and five months from the end of the war for the church to produce ‘Nostra Aetate,’” Melloni said, referring to a document produced by the Second Vatican Council under Pope Paul VI, which radically redefined the church’s relationship to the Jews.
Benedetti, the Rome historian who has been assisting Kertzer in his research, said that even after the papers were unsealed in March, scholars lacked full access to every document because some archives were still being digitized or inventoried.
While the archive of the Secretariat of State is online, giving scholars ample access, at the apostolic archive, scholars are limited to asking to see three documents in the morning and two in the afternoon. It can be slow going.
“The documentation is truly immense, so I imagine that there will be many publications,” supporting many differing positions, said Benedetti, the director of an online history journal.
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