A newly revealed letter from the Vatican archives suggests that World War II-era Pope Pius XII was aware thousands of Jews were being killed in gas chambers in occupied Poland, undercutting earlier Vatican arguments justifying the pope’s wartime silence on the Holocaust.
Following decades of pressure from Jewish organizations and historians, the Vatican in 2020 opened its secret archives on the wartime pope, who headed the Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958. Pius XII has since become one of the most controversial pontiffs for not publicly condemning the Nazis during the war, with critics dubbing him “Hitler’s Pope.” Others, including the Vatican, have argued his diplomacy saved lives in part by preventing a Nazi backlash.
A newly unveiled document has added fuel to the debate. It’s a German letter sent by a German Jesuit member of the anti-Nazi resistance, Father Lother Koenig, and addressed to the pope’s trusted private secretary Rev. Robert Leiber. In the letter dated Dec. 14, 1942, Koenig wrote that up to 6,000 people, “above all Poles and Jews,” were dying every day in “SS-furnaces” at the Nazi-run Be?zec concentration camp in what was then occupied Poland. Reported this week by Italian daily Corriere Della Sera, the letter was discovered by Vatican archivist Giovanni Coco, who described it as further evidence of a flow of explicit and detailed news on Nazi crimes to the Holy See.
From March to December 1942, about 450,000 Jews, mostly from Poland, were killed at the Belzec concentration camp, according to the website of the museum and memorial in Belzec.
In the years since Pius XII’s papacy ended, critics have scrutinized his action, or supposed inaction, during the war. Holocaust survivors have lobbied to freeze his sainthood process.
When the millions of pages in the Pius archives were opened in 2020, Pope Francis said the Church was “not afraid of history” and that Pius’s papacy had “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence,” according to PBS.
In his 2022 book “The Pope at War,” historian and anthropologist David Kertzer argued that Pius put the Catholic Church ahead of moral leadership, fearful that hostility toward Hitler might cause the countries to break with the church. Pius XII had also initially thought he could negotiate with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and temper Nazi hatred with diplomacy, the author wrote. While the pope acted carefully amid initial concerns that Axis powers may eventually control Europe, Pius XII never changed his approach even as evidence, and pleas for the Vatican to take a stand, mounted.
“As a moral leader, Pius XII must be judged a failure,” the historian wrote.
(c) 2023, The Washington Post · Sammy Westfall