Wednesday, 8 March 2017


“For me Pope Pius XII is probably the greatest pope of the contemporary era, because his pontificate will pass to history as an irreplaceable and historically  memorable  pontificate. Pius XII was a great pope.” H.E. Cardinal Jose’ Saraiva Martins’, CMF, 30.9.2011

In the era of the Second World War, the behaviour of Pope Pius XII created and still creates a certain amount of controversy amongst scholars, by his perceived insufficient condemnation of Nazism and the  extermination of the Jewish Community, in territories occupied by the Nazis during those six years of war.

Other scholars conclude, that his policy during that time of terror, was the best method he could have adopted in the best interest of the Catholic Church, and also of those Jews who were being persecuted in the Nazi Concentration camps.

Today I am not going to narrate the Pope’s life in biographical terms.  Instead I would like to help readers follow this article based on continuous research hoping that after reading it readers will have a better appreciation of the good work done by Pope Pius XII with the Jews at the time of the Second World War.

One must not forget and must use as point of discussion, the praise that was heaped on Pius XII  during the Second World War as well as the very positive appreciations from varied sources during the mourning period in the first few days after his death in 1958.

How did the evil campaign against the Pope begin?

Pacelli was not criticised after his death.  In fact, I can say that the first few years after his death, he was highly praised as only few were before him. Some say this evil strategy against him was ignited by the KGB that exploited the work of  the German Rolf Hochhut, who wrote and directed the drama ‘The Deputy, A Christian Tragedy’ in 1963.  In this drama, Hochhuth harshly criticized the role of Eugenio Pacelli during the Second World War.   In 2007 Ion Mihai Pacepa, who was a former Russian spy, stated that this drama was part of the campaign to discredit the role of Pius XII and at the same time to disregard the many Jews he managed to save from Nazi persecution.

This drama was first shown in Berlin on 20th February 1963.  It was also shown in England, Scotland, as well as in Broadway in the United States.

In 2002 Costas Gavras converted this drama to a film with the name ‘Amen’.

In 2005 Hochhut was at the centre of controversy when he declared that more women died in the back seat of Senator Edward Kennedy’s car in Chappaquiddick than in the gas chamber at Auschwitz.  The President of the ‘Central Jewish Council’ of Germany, Paul Spiegel, had argued that with this statement, Hochhut denied the Holocaust.  After weeks of criticism Hochhut made a apology.

First encounter with the Jews

A young Eugenio Pacelli

The first experience of Eugenio Pacelli with the Jews dates back to his childhood.  He describes the Jewish boy, Guido Mendes, as the greatest friend he ever had in his childhood.  They had met in ‘Liceo’ Visconti and after school they used to play at each other’s homes and exchange books.  Later on, when anti-racial laws were introduced, Pacelli played a vital role for the escape of Mendes from Italy.

His career in the Church

Eugenio Pacelli whose grandfather and father had served Popes as their lawyers in the Roman Curia, made a brilliant career in the ‘Santa Sede’.

At the age of 25, a short while after he took the Holy Orders, he already  served the Cardinal Secretary of the State, Pietro Gasparri, in the codification of the Canon Law.

At the age of 43, towards the end of the First World War in 1917,  Pope Benedict XV appointed him as his Apostolic Nuncio  in Bavaria.  Three years later, Pius XI appointed him as his Apostolic Nuncio  in Berlin.

It was at that time, both in the role of Apostolic Nuncio  as well as in his later role as  Cardinal Secretary of State, that he showed his moral strength against the extreme policies promulgated by Adolf Hitler.

Sister Pascalina Lehnart recalled how Archbishop Pacelli had already described Hitler as a madman and that was capable of trampling over whoever opposed him as early as 1929, when Eugenio Pacelli was still Apostolic Nuncio in Germany, four years before Hitler was elected to rule his country.  Sister Pascalina, who assisted Pacelli for more than 30 years, continued that the Nuncio used to criticize the Germans who refused to recognize the evil that Hitler represented. (The memoires of Sister Pascalina Pio XII The pleasure of serving him – Milan: Rusconi, 1984).

Out of 44 official speeches that Pacelli made as Apostolic Nuncio in Germany between 1917 and 1929, 40 of them criticized Nazism and its leader Adolf Hitler.  Pacelli, who never met the Fuhrer, had described Nazism as ‘modern paganism’.

At that time, the Nazi media, lead by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, had nicknamed Pacelli as the Cardinal friend of Jews.

On the 28th April 1935, about 4 years before the Second World War began; Cardinal Pacelli made a speech that attracted the attention of the international media.  While he addressed a crowd of about quarter of a million pilgrims in Lourdes, he highly criticized the Nazi Leaders thus continuing to build his credentials as an anti-Nazist.

Even though the encyclical ‘Mit Brennender Sorge’ was published by Pope Piju XI, various scholars hold that its text,  continuously condemning Hitler’s actions in Germany, was planned, master-minded and probably written by Eugenio Pacelli.  It was then that the Nazis became aware that Eugenio Pacelli could be the  successor of Pope Ratti, a possibility they were all set to prevent.  A short while before, Pope Pius XI had published another encyclical’ ‘Divini Redemptoris’, which condemned Communism.

As Secretary of State of the ‘Holy See’, Pacelli wrote seventy letters of protests to the German Government on violations of the agreement signed in 1929 between the ‘Holy See’ and the German Government.

As Secretary of State he censored the actions of the Austrian Cardinal, Thedore Innitzer, who had encouraged the Austrian nation to accept  Adolf Hitler as their leader through the ‘anchluss’.  Pacelli called Innitzer to Rome for a meeting with Pius XI where he was strongly warned to abstain from endorsing Hitler’s politics. Innitzer later retracted what he had said.

The Pope and the Second World War

Following the death of Achille Ratti, Cardinal Pacelli was the automatic choice of the Cardinals who attended the Conclaves in March 1939.  In fact, he was elected in the first day of the Conclave.

When Eugenio Pacelli was elected Pope, the Nazi Government gave instructions to his Ambassador to the ‘Holy See’ not to congratulate the new Pope in writing and to be careful not to use warm words in the first meeting with him while congratulating him.

Pacelli became the leader of the Catholics just months before the German Invasion of Poland.  While he felt that the Nazis’ aggressive threats were going to lead to another great war, he still advocated a diplomatic solution. One cannot forget the memorable speech he made on the Vatican radio which began with the words:

The Venerable Pope Pius XII at the Vatican Radio

“Nothing is lost through peace.  Everything can be lost through war!”

How not to mention the heated meeting of March, 1940 between Pius XII and the Nazi Minister of Foreign Affairs, Joachim Von Ribbentrop?  It was reported that the Head of Nazi Diplomacy was arrogant with the Pope and left the meeting suddenly ahead of time and without saluting the Pope.

Pope Pius XII spoke against the Nazi regime in his Christmas message in 1942, as well as in his speech to the Cardinals on 2nd June 1943.

Hitler ordered the kidnapping and assassination of Pius XII

In 1943 there was a risk that Pope Pius XII could be deported to Germany after the Nazis were forced to capture the Vatican City State.  The Pope’s intention, in the event that he was captured, was to leave his resignation in a drawer in his studio, such that the Nazis would only have captured  Cardinal Pacelli and not Pope Pius XII.  The Cardinals, who were assigned to the various hierarchies of the Roman Curia, swore to the Pope that if he was taken prisoner, they were ready to follow him to Germany.  This was confirmed by Fr Paolo Dezza S.J., who was later created Cardinal.  Hitler assigned this barbaric act to General of SS, Karl Wolff.  This officer sent  the Fuhrer a plan executable within 6 weeks; however Hitler was disappointed as he had wanted it carried out within a few days.

The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano  reported that Hitler intended to assassinate Pius XII in revenge against the Italians who arrested his ally Benito Mussolini.

According to the reconstruction of the events, the plot was being planned at the Reich’s General Headquarters in Berlin at the end of July 1943. The Vatican newspaper says Hitler wanted to teach Italy a lesson by deporting or killing the King of Italy and the pope.

However, the head of the German intelligence service at the time, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, decided to scuttle the operation. He told an Italian general who spread the word in Rome that the Nazis wanted to kill the pope. After that, the plan was abandoned. 

Three years later, Admiral Canaris was executed for participating in Operation Walkyria, the failed plot to assassinate Hitler.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris

Bernard Wall, a renowned expert in Holy See affairs described in one of his reports how Eugenio Pacelli saved and helped a great number of Polish youths to flee from Poland to the United States   on the strenght of Holy See credentials of the ‘Holy See’.  Pope Pacelli is also known for the shelter he gave to Jews in 155 ecclesiastic establishments that were territory of ‘Santa Sede’.  During the Nazi occupation in Rome, approximately 5,000 Jews found sheltered in the Vatican.

During the war the number of ‘Palatine’ guards was raised from 400 to more than 4,000;  ten times more than normal.  Many of these were Jews and other refugees; had they not benefited from the Pope’s decision,  would have ended up deported to the concentration camps.  

Mons. Giuseppe Simonazzi  on 2nd February 1944 accompanied the Rector of the Rome Seminary, Mons. Roberto Ronca, in the meeting of various religious institutions with the Pope for Candlemas.  Simonazzi says that he heard Pope XII asking Ronca how many guests he had in his Seminary.  ‘Four hundred and two’ replied Ronca to the Pope.  ‘Please find more places’ was Pius XII’s reply.  In his seminary, Mons. Ronca gave political asylum to activists who were in favour of the king, other anti-fascists, as well as to a large number of Jews.

At that time of terror, the Vatican’s kitchen provided 100,000 plates of soup  every day for the refugees , amongst whom  were many Jews.

Another interesting case happened on 26th September 1943 when the Head of the ‘Gestapo’ in Rome, Herbert Kappler, forced the Jewish Community there to forward 55 kilograms of pure gold to the Germans in a matter of 36 hours.  If this was not done, 300 members of the Jewish Community in Rome were going to be taken hostages.  Even though the Pope offered the Rabbi of Rome to give him part of the gold requested through a donation from the ‘Santa Sede’, the Jewish Community in Rome managed to collect the gold and give it to Kappler in time.

On 21st July, 1944 prominent members of the ‘Jewish American Welfare Board’ wrote the following to Pope Pius XII: “We are extremely touched by the Christian example of love shown towards the Jewish Community in Rome by the Roman Catholic Church providing them with protection during the German occupation in Rome.”

The case of the Dutch Bishops

One event which prompted Pacelli to adopt prudence with regards to the Nazis happened in Holland in the summer of 1942. The leader of the Catholic Church and that of the Protestant Church in Holland sent a letter of protest to the Head of the SS in their country against the persecution of Jews.  They also declared that they would publicly condemn the Nazis actions.  The ‘Reich Kommissaar’ replied to them, warning them that if they keep on interfering the persecution  of the Jews would be accentuated.  To avoid further persecution, the Protestant Church, gave in and did not publish this public condemnation.  The Catholic Church was not of the same opinion!  The Dutch Bishops condemned the Nazis from their churches pulpits.  The reaction of the SS was ferocious.  On that day, apart apart from the Jews,  Catholics as well as  Jews converted to Catholicism, were targeted amongst them the Carmelitan nun Edith Stein, who  was later declared a saint by the Church.

The Conversion of Israel Zolli – Chief Rabbi of Rome

Immediately after the end of the Second World War, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, Head of the Jewish Council in the Eternal City converted to Roman Catholicism, and took the baptisimal name of Eugenio in honour of Papa Pacelli. The head  of the oldest jewish community in Europe had embraced Roman Catholicism!

Pope Pius XII's funeral cortege passing the Coliseum in Rome on the way to the Vatican

The reaction of the United States after his death

This is how the leaders and politicians in the United States expressed themselves when the death of the Pope Pius XII was announced.

Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman

  • The former American President Harry Truman said he was aggrieved when he received the news of Pacelli’s death, as he considered him the greatest statesman that the Vatican  produced in the last 200 years.

Former U.S. President Herbert Hoover

  • The former President Herbert Hoover declared that the world had lost a giant.  He said he was conscious of the great spiritual leadership of Pacelli.  “The world was much better with him, than without him.” Hoover stated.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles

  • The Secretary of State, Dulles, described the loss of Pacelli as a loss of spiritual leadership at the forefront of Christian civilization and who left a profound void.  Dulles followed by saying that Pope Pacelli had dedicated strong devotion for peace and justice in the world and was of great inspiration of continuous hope for humanity who lived in that era of great turbulence.

The reaction of the Hebrew world after his death

I would like to share with you contributions from  important personalities in the Hebrew world and which were published following the death of Pope Pius XII:

                                                                        Golda Meir

  • As soon as the news of Pope Pacelli’s death was broadcast, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Israel, Golda Meir, said the following in the telegram she sent to the Vatican: “We participate in the grief of humanity for the death of His Holiness Pope Pius XII”. Golda Meir also said: in the era of war and misunderstanding he persisted with his virtues for peace and charity.  When the fearful martyrdom had struck our nation, the Pope’s voice forthrightly defended the victims.  Life at that time was decorated by a voice that used to declare all the moral truths above all daily problems of that destructive confrontation.  We weep for the loss of this great servant of peace. “The voice of the Pope was raised to defend those victims”, therefore according to Golda Meir, who later on became Prime Minister of Israel, Eugenio Pacelli was not in silence in the Second World War.

  • During the morning of 9th October, 1958 the great Rabbi of Jerusalem – the highest Hebrew authority, Isaac Herzog, sent another telegram to the ‘Santa Sede’ that said the following:  “The death of Pius XII is a great loss for the freedom of the world.  Not only the Catholic world weeps and deplores his loss.  At this time of uncertainty, humanity can’t easily do without the example of their Spiritual Leaders.”  It was then that Herzog recalled the ‘audience’ that Pius XII gave him in 1946 were he asked for his intervention for children of those killed in the German camps during the genocide to be repatriated. Isaac Herzog was impressed by the great preparation of the Pope, with his great ideals and constant knowledge of his responsibility as a Pope.

  • In another message, the Rabbi Jacob Philip Rudin, who was the President of the ‘Central Conference of American Rabbis’ said: “The central conference of American Rabbis collectively join in profound sorrow with the millions of faithful of the Roman Catholic Church for the death of the Pope Pius XII.  His vast sympathy for all, his knowledgeable social vision and comprehension, made him a prophetic voice for justice in all the world.  May his memory be a blessing for the life of the Roman Catholic Church and for the rest of the world”.

  • The Head of Rabbis of London, Brodie, in a message sent to the Archbishop of Westminster wrote the following: “We, the Hebrew Community have particular reasons to be sorrowful for the death of this personality, that in every circumstance showed courage concrete concern for the victims of sufferance and for those persecuted by the Nazi regime.

Former Chief Rabbi of Rome, Elio Toaff

  • The Rabbi of the Hebrew Community in Rome, Elio Toaff – who managed to escape from the terror of the persecution of the Nazi concentration camp with the help of a priest from Le Marche – was grateful to Pope Pius XII: “More than anyone, we benefited from the goodness and generosity of this Pope (whom we weep) shown during the time of persecution and terror, when all hope seemed lost.”  Toaff does not speak about the silence of Pope Pacelli but of the concrete and efficient help given to the Hebrew Community by the Vatican during the era of terror and Nazism.

  • Israeli President Itzhak Ben-Zvi requested his Ambassador in Rome to forward his condolences to the Dean of the College of Cardinals, French Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, and told him: “In the name of all Jewish refugees, saved from Nazi death and torture through the intervention of Pius XII”…..Here one cannot help but notice the explicit reference for the ‘Santa Sede’s action and that of Pius XII in favour of the Jews.

  • On the 10th  of October 1958 the Editor of the Jewish-American Magazine ‘Jewish Newsletter’, William Zukermann, stressed that: “All classes of the Jewish population in the United States were grateful to Pope Pacelli as nobody helped Jews as much as he did in that hour of trial.”  Zukerman continued that the Pope’s action was a strong manifestation of humanity in the 20thCentury.  Zukermann held that to  every Jew of every nation getting in touch with the Vatican in that hour of trial had meant salvation.

  • A promenant author, Maurice Edelman, who was the President of the ‘Anglo Jewish Association’, a few months after the war declared with the members of the association he lead: “One intervention after the other of the Head of the Catholics in favour of the Jews during the Second World War were vital for the salvation of thousands of Jews in the Nazi extermination camps”.

  • The President of the Jewish Foundation in the United States ‘Pave the Way’ Gary Krupp, when he met Pope Benedict XVI two years ago after the Wednesday audience at Saint Peter, described Pacelli in this way:  “Pius XII is the man who saved most Jews in the history of humanity”.  Krupp continued “Our foundation travelled around the globe, interviewed many witnesses who experienced  Nazi brutality, persons who were also lucky to meet Pius XII himself.  They gave a beautiful testimony and they are all available in the website of our foundation.”

  • Don Gaetano Piccinini was a Catholic priest who lived in Nazi occupied Rome. He is remembered for saving the lives of countless Jews. He has been honored with the medal known as the “Righteous Among the Nations,” which is awarded by the Israeli Institute Yad Vashem for saving Jews during the Holocaust.

Don Gaetano Piccinini


  • Finally, I would like to end with a quotation from the book of ‘Lapide’, already mentioned before by Albert Einstein. “It was only the Catholic Church who fought against the Nazi politics where freedom was concerned. Till that time I was not interested in the church however today I feel great admiration for the Catholic Church for having the strength to fight for the spiritual truth and moral freedom.”


Once again I say that this article is not a biography of Eugenio Pacelli; in fact I had to leave many important topics out, like when he was given the title from the Romans of ‘Defensor Civitatis’ – Defender of the Roman City, and other subjects that this Pope covered in that particular era in history.

Times were not easy.  Even though, the motto which he used during his election “Opus Iustitae Pax”, meaning “Peace is the work of Justice” as well as how he replied to the Dean of the College of Cardinals in the Conclave while he was accepting the Canonic election as the Successor of St Peter with these words “Acceptem in Cruce’ it was clear how he would lead the church from his same prophetic words.

“His beatification case has  already been introduced and the Pope has already proclaimed the heroic virtues of Papa Pacelli which is crucial for his beatification.” H.E. Cardinal Jose’ Saraiva Martins’, CMF, 30.9.2011

The Venerable Pope Pius XII

The Venerable Pope Pius XII praying for Peace over the Romans - Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura July 19th, 1943

Former Chief Rabbi of Rome and Catholic Convert Israel Zolli

St. Edith Stein, Catholic Nun

“For me Pope Pius XII is probably the greatest pope of the contemporary era, because his pontificate will pass to history as an irreplaceable and historically  memorable  pontificate. Pius XII was a great pope.” H.E. Cardinal Jose’ Saraiva Martins’, CMF, 30.9.2011

With His Excellency Prince Filippo Pacelli: Pope Pius XII's great nephew

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