The chief rabbi of Rome sharply criticized the Vatican on Tuesday for its handling of the long-awaited opening of its archives on the controversial papacy of Pius XII, who kept silent during the slaughter of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said that rather than waiting for researchers to study the archives and reach their conclusions, the Vatican selectively published documents on its website in an effort to convince the public that Pius was on the side of the Jews.
“After saying that years of study would be needed, now the answers emerge on the first day like a rabbit from a magician’s hat,” he told the Italian news agency ANSA. “Please, let the historians get to work.”
At issue is whether Pius should be remembered for quietly hiding 4,000 Jews from the Nazis in convents and churches — knowing that denouncing Adolf Hitler would make their plight worse — or must be condemned for not speaking out as Jews were gassed in death camps.
The archives, which took 14 years to prepare and include 2 million documents, could help settle that question.
Pius was pope from 1939 until his death in 1958. A pope’s archives are usually kept sealed for 70 years after he dies, but Pope Francis sped up their publication, announcing, “The church isn’t afraid of history.”
As historians gathered in Rome over the weekend, ready to get in line Monday to view the archives for the first time, Vatican officials suggested the church had nothing to hide about Pius’ motives.
He “emerges as a great champion of humanity, a man deeply concerned about the fate of humankind during those terrible years, somebody who was very sensitive and concerned about those who were being persecuted, somebody who was also the object of the hatred of Nazis and fascism,” said Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states.
On Monday, Vatican archivist Johan Ickx published screen shots of two documents and described a list found in the archives of 4,000 people, including baptized Italians of Jewish ancestry, but also some practicing Jews, who had asked the pope to be saved from Nazi roundups.
“The documents show the effort made to respond to the appeals for saving by the persecuted and needy whose lives were in danger,” Ickx wrote, adding the documents show how other states were reluctant to take in Jews.
That drew the ire of the rabbi.
“This sensationalism is highly suspicious, with files that are ready and easy conclusions laid out on a tray,” he said.
Historians have not treated Pius kindly. John Cornwell, the British author of the 1999 book “Hitler’s Pope,” believes Pius made it clear to Hitler he would not speak out against the Holocaust.
Before he become pope and took the name Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli served as the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany from 1917 to 1929, witnessing the rise of Nazism before he became secretary of state in Rome.