ROME – Newly discovered correspondence suggests that Pope Pius XII. from the Second World War he had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were being gassed daily in German-occupied Poland. The dossier undermines the Holy See’s argument that it could not verify diplomatic reports of Nazi atrocities in order to condemn them.
Documentation from the Vatican archives, published this weekend in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, is likely to fuel further debate about Pio’s legacy and his now-stalled beatification campaign. Historians have long been divided over Pius’ record, with supporters insisting he used quiet diplomacy to save Jewish lives, while critics say he remained silent as the Holocaust raged.
The Corriere reproduces a letter from a German Jesuit priest to Pio’s secretary dated December 14, 1942, which is included in a forthcoming book on the newly opened files of Pio’s pontificate by Giovanni Coca, researcher and archivist at the Vatican Apostolic Archives.
Coco told the Corriere that the letter is significant because it represents detailed correspondence about the Nazi extermination of Jews, including in ovens, from an informed church source in Germany who was part of the Catholic anti-Hitler resistance, who was able to obtain otherwise secret information. Vatican.
A letter from the priest, Reverend Lothar Koenig, to Pio’s secretary, the German Jesuit, Reverend Robert Leiber, is dated December 14, 1942. The letter is written in German and addresses Leiber as “Dear Friend”. and goes on to report that the Nazis killed up to 6,000 Jews and Poles a day from Rav Ruska, a town in pre-war Poland now in Ukraine, and transported them to the Belzec extermination camp.
According to the Belzec Memorial, which was opened in 2004, a total of 500,000 Jews perished in the camp. The memorial’s website states that as many as 3,500 Jews from Rava Russia were sent to Belzec earlier in 1942, and that the town’s Jewish ghetto was liquidated from December 7 to 11. “About 3,000 to 5,000 people were shot on the spot and 2,000 to 5,000 people were taken to Bełżec,” the website says.
The date of Koenig’s letter is significant because it suggests that correspondence from a trusted fellow Jesuit arrived in Pius’s office in the days after the ghetto was emptied and after Pius had received numerous diplomatic notes and visits from various foreign government envoys in August 1942 with reports that Poland was up to 1 million Jews killed so far.
Although it is not certain that Pius saw the letter, Leiber was Pius’s chief aide and served the Pope when he was the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany during the 1920s, suggesting a close working relationship, especially on matters related to Germany.
According to “The Pope at War,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist David Kertzer, the top secretariat of civil servant Monsignor Domenico Tardini told the British envoy to the Vatican in mid-December that the Pope could not talk about Nazi atrocities because the Vatican was unable to verify the information.
“The novelty and importance of this document comes from this fact: that the Holocaust is now certain that Pius XII. received accurate and detailed reports from the German Catholic Church about the crimes committed against the Jews,” quoted Coco Corriere. as they say.
However, Coco noted that Koenig also urged the Holy See not to release what he was revealing, fearing for his own life and the lives of the resistance sources who provided the information. Pio’s supporters have long insisted that he was unable to speak out forcefully against the Nazis for fear of reprisals.
In a phone interview on Saturday, Kertzer said the letter could be significant because it could mark the first revelation of a reference to Jews being gassed in the ovens in a letter he said Pius would surely have pointed out. Kertzer said historians are eagerly awaiting Coco’s book because, as Vatican archivist, Coco had access to a trove of Pio’s personal files that had not yet been indexed and made available to scholars when the Vatican opened Pio’s archives in March 2020.
“When we started working there, it wasn’t a secret — although it took a while to figure out — what kinds of documents were missing,” Kertzer said, noting that documents from the Vatican office in Washington during the war years had still not been cataloged.
Pius’s legacy and revelation of newly opened Vatican archives, are due to be discussed at a major conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University next month, which is notable for its cross-spectrum participant list and sponsorship. It is supported by, among others, the Vatican, the Israeli Holocaust research institute Yad Vashem, the American Holocaust Memorial, as well as the Israeli and American embassies.
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will open the October 9-11 meeting, which will be attended by scholars including Kertzer, Coco and Johan Ickx, archivist of the Vatican Secretariat of State, whose own book on the archives, “Pius XII. and the Jews” published in 2021, praised the efforts of Pius and the Vatican to care for Jews and people fleeing war.
Coco stated that Koenig’s letter was actually found in the Vatican Secretariat of State Archives and was only handed over to the main Vatican Apostolic Archives in 2019 because the Secretariat’s state papers were disorganized and scattered, with some of Pio’s documents stored in plastic containers. attic storage space where heat and humidity damaged them.