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Half a million people filled and surrounded St. Peter’s Square to witness the coronation of Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) on this date in 1939. Within four months, he would sign a concordat with Adolf Hitler to protect the Church from Nazi oversight and to withdraw the Church from German politics. For the next six years, as Europe’s Jews were methodically destroyed, Pius XII was largely silent in the face of constant pleas for the Vatican to protect Jews in Catholic countries and to condemn Nazism. For example, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, in October 1941, “the Assistant Chief of the U.S. delegation to the Vatican, Harold Tittman, asked the Pope to condemn the atrocities. The response came that the Holy See wanted to remain ‘neutral,’ and that condemning the atrocities would have a negative influence on Catholics in German-held lands . . . . In late August 1942, after more than 200,000 Ukrainian Jews had been killed, Ukrainian Metropolitan Andrej Septyckyj wrote a long letter to the Pope, referring to the German government as a regime of terror and corruption, more diabolical than that of the Bolsheviks. The Pope replied by quoting verses from Psalms and advising Septyckyj to ‘bear adversity with serene patience.’ ” Even in condemning the death camps, Pius XII failed to mention Jews as the primary victims, or to mention them at all. The pope did intervene behind the scenes to save several thousand Jews in the course of the war — but in a letter dated November 20, 1946, he ordered Jewish babies baptized by Catholics during the Holocaust not to be returned to their families.
“To live without risk is to risk not living.” --Pope Pius XII
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.