Jewish representatives have thanked the Vatican for opening its archives of wartime Pope Pius XII to allay suspicions that he turned a blind eye to the Holocaust.
Catholic leaders said they would open the vault to scrutiny on Monday but suggested this week that the paperwork would show that the controversial pontiff – dubbed ‘Hitler’s Pope’ – actually worked to save Jews behind the scenes.
Pius headed the Catholic Church for two decades beginning in 1939, and Jewish leaders have long accused him of staying quiet as millions of Jews were killed, but this week Vatican officials said there was “no smoking gun” to be found.
In 2010, Pope Francis co-authored a book with his friend, an Argentinian rabbi, in which they said it was “reasonable” that the Vatican should open its archives to let Holocaust researchers pore over thousands of closed files.
In 2016 Francis defended Pius as a “great defender of Jews” and the late British Holocaust historian Sir Martin Gilbert also defended the wartime pontiff for saving 4,700 Jews in Rome and giving 477 refuge in the Vatican. Gilbert even argued that Pius should be included in Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations.
This week the World Jewish Congress (WJC) said that opening the archives was the Vatican “demonstrating a commitment to learning and airing the truth, as well as to the significance of Holocaust memory”.
On 17 March 1942, the WJC says it gave the Vatican a detailed memo describing “brutal evidence of the Nazis’ plan to liquidate the Jews,” after the papal representative in Switzerland had asked for it.
“We never heard what happened to this,” said WJC president Ronald Lauder. “But we do know what happened to the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. With the opening of the archives, we may finally learn the truth about what the Vatican knew.”
He added that years of interfaith work meant that the Vatican “has become a friend and ally to the Jewish people,” describing the opening of the archives as “a pivotal moment in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations”.
Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives, said paperwork from the Second World War period stretched to millions of pages divided into 121 sections listed by topic.
The archival research area can host a maximum of 60 scholars at a time and viewing dates are booked up until the end of the year, he said, adding that among them were researchers from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
“We will not pass judgment for now,” he said. “We will leave that to scholars. The material is there. It is diversified. We will leave each person to draw their own conclusions but we have no fear. The good (that Pius did) was so great that it will dwarf the few shadows.”