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"Distorted Shorthand"

A leading British historian, Sir Martin Gilbert, who is Jewish, weighs in on the Yad Vashem description of Pope Pius XII’s war-time role, calling it "distorted shorthand"

By Edward Pentin

Sir Martin Gilbert is Winston Churchill’s official biographer, and a leading historian of the modern world. He is also the author of the recently published The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, a book which documents the action of the Church and Pope Pius XII in rescuing Jews from Nazi persecution. An Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and a Distinguished Fellow of Hillsdale College, Michigan, he is the author of 72 books. He was knighted in 1995 for his service to British history and international relations. He spoke recently with Edward Pentin.

You recently wrote The Righteous. What were your motives for writing it?

Sir Martin Gilbert: I’d been working for many years on the Holocaust, and I was interested in how many non-Jews, how many Christians, saved Jewish lives, or risked their own lives or lost their own lives to save Jewish lives. So I always wanted to write it up. I’d collected material over the years, and I felt it was a neglected aspect of the story. Many Jewish people felt they had no friends, and many Christian people were unaware of what tremendous efforts had been made right across Europe in every Christian community.

You have a Jewish background yourself. Are you a practicing Jew?

Gilbert: Yes.

How much research did you carry out on this subject? Over what period?

Gilbert: Well, I started collecting the material for my main work, which is The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, which was published in 1987. But I began working on that in the late sixties, so whenever I found something related to the righteous, I would set it aside in separate boxes and so on. And then, when I decided to write the book as a book, I worked in a number of archives, some private - one very remarkable one, for example, in Palm Springs, California - where documents were collected by someone who made it his life’s work to try to provide his own funds to take the righteous Gentiles from central and eastern Europe -- they were of course under considerable communist oppression -- to have them recognized and taken to the ceremonies there. So he had a substantial archive. And then, in New York, there was an organisation called the Hidden Child. They were interested in children who were hidden by Christian families. They had an enormous archive, again ranging across the whole of Europe. Then, in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem had a special department for the righteous. They collected 20,000 files of information provided by people who themselves had been saved. I did what I do quite a lot in my books: went through correspondence, tracked people down, met and talked with people. There are also 4,000, perhaps 5,000 memoirs of survivors, and you very seldom read one of those who didn’t have one story, and often many more, of Christians who saved that particular memoir writer.

The Vatican is understandably very interested in your conclusions about Pope Pius XII and his role in trying to save Jews during the Holocaust. What precisely were your conclusions about his role?

Gilbert: There are two aspects really to that: one is his personal role, and the other is his influence on Catholics throughout Europe. I’ve looked into that, though I’ve never published a book on that subject. There is a chapter on Italy in The Righteous and, more importantly, chapters on farms in Poland and Hungary. Hungary is a good example where the papal nuncio there, Angelo Rotta, organised the whole diplomatic corps into providing protective documents for Jews, many of which were Vatican documents.

One of the things I have dealt with at some length is the question of the post-Christmas message of December 1942. This has been criticized by historians for not mentioning Jews and not being outspoken enough, but in fact the people responsible for the Mass murder -- what is called the Reich Security main office in Berlin -- after the post- Christmas message, sent out a warning to all their representatives throughout Europe, warning that the Pope’s message was going to make it more difficult for him. The actual words of the message are: "In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialists and the New European Order. Here [i.e., in his post-Christmas message] he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice to the Jews and makes himself a mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals." That’s rather strong. If the people who had to work in Catholic or Christian countries and deport Jews regarded the Pope’s Christmas message of December ’42 as impeding their work, then that must say something about his impact. And then of course, there’s the whole story of German occupation of central and northern Italy in 1943, after the collapse of Mussolini, who himself had refused to participate in the deportation of the Jews. The Italian occupation led to a direct confrontation in Rome and there were about 6,000 Jews in Rome at that time and an attempt was made on 15th October in the evening to round them all up. Thanks to the instructions given by the Pope to the Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione to protest to the German ambassador in the Vatican, von Weizsacker, the Pope really took a very courageous decision to protest in a way. At the same time, while instructing the Cardinal Secretary of State to protest to the Germans, the Pope gave instructions to the Vatican itself to be open to Rome’s Jews, so that monasteries throughout Rome were either hiding places or gave them false identification papers. Actually, a larger percentage of Rome’s Jews were saved than the Jews of any other city in which deportations took place. The Germans had listed some 5,700 for deportation and of those more than 4,700 were given shelter. I believe the figure from the Vatican itself was 477 who were actually given sanctuary within the confines of the Vatican.

And that was purely due to the Pope’s intervention?

Gilbert: Right. And I’ve gone through all the reports of the British ambassador to the Vatican, Sir D’Arcy Osborne. He reported on the meeting between Maglione and Weizsacker and he says Vatican intervention seems to have been effective in saving numbers of these unfortunate people. And he [Pius XII] really was saving them because of the thousands who were deported only 10 survived. So the 4,700 really were saved as a result of this direct papal and Vatican intervention. And there are many more examples; some have been put together into a book by David Dalin [The Myth of Hitler"s Pope] which is really in answer to John Cornwell’s book [Hitler’s Pope]. But it’s much more of a debate among historians, the question of what actually happened. One I found was the Italian police chief in Fiume who was the nephew of a bishop. He and his uncle saved some 5,000 Jews from deportation. Pius took a direct part in sending money to the bishop to help save and support the Jewish refugees in Fiume. He also sent large sums of money to Father Benoit of Marseilles, saved several thousand French Jews by smuggling them across the border to either neutral Spain or neutral Switzerland. So these are all examples. David Dalin’s work is probably the most important single book.

Some argue a problem is the Vatican’s unwillingness to open its archives after 1939.

Gilbert: It’s a great pity the Vatican won’t open the archives. They say it’s a logistical question, but a real effort should be made to open them. Here for example is one letter which is published - and they have published documents which are worth looking at and they should publish everything. Because here’s a letter that he wrote to the Slovak government 7th April 1943 and it’s outspoken and unambiguous and it’s urging the Slovak government not to deport Jews. And it doesn’t make distinctions because it’s absolutely clear.

What do you make of books such as Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell? Is it simply bad history, or the wrong methodology?

Gilbert: This question of how and why it became controversial goes back to Hochhuth’s play; and there’s always been a search for people to blame-- always been, you know, anti-Catholic feeling. When I was a Jewish schoolboy in 1944-1945 in England, I remember the Catholic schoolboys feeling as non-mainstream as the Jewish schoolboys. Society was against them, they weren’t considered to be part of the mainstream, there’s always been that feeling. The other thing I’d like to stress: Pius has also become very controversial because of the question of canonizing him. There are those who decided that it is offensive to Jews. It seems to me, as a Jewish writer, that is an internal Catholic question. It would be quite wrong for a Jewish person or non-Catholic, as it’s such an internal Catholic matter, [to involve themselves in] the whole thing of what constitutes a canonization, and what constitutes the qualities of sainthood. That is very much an internal Catholic matter and not one for a Jewish person to involve themselves in.

What is your opinion about the recent controversy at the Yad Vashem museum and the museum director’s decision to retain an offensive caption on Pius XII? (In mid April, Archbishop Antonio Franco, the papal nuncio in Jerusalem, threatened to boycott the annual Holocaust Memorial Day state ceremony at Yad Vashem, but in the end attended the event. He was offended by an exhibited photograph of Pope Pius XII bearing the caption "Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest.")

Gilbert: I could understand that caption 10 or 15 years ago, but in the light of the material we’ve been discussing, it’s just too much of a distorted shorthand. I’ve got a text of the caption here - I went especially to see it about three or four months ago. And it says even when reports of the Jews being murdered reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the allied declaration condemning the extermination of Jews and when the Jews were deported to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. Well, each statement in that is incorrect. He did abstain from signing the allied declaration, but did sign a declaration of his own which the Nazis found deeply offensive - I mentioned earlier what they wrote about it. And that the Pope did not intervene when Jews were deported to Auschwitz, that’s just totally false.

Do you think the Holy See is right to make a point of this?

Gilbert: It’s all very unfortunate. I went to a great effort while I was there recently to go and see the caption and to make sure it was what it said. I raised it with the people there but also it’s part of the perception, it’s very hard to work against such perceptions. John Cornwell describes Pius with the phrase, "the most dangerous cleric in modern history." In a way, why should Yad Vashem not be satisfied with their caption which is factually wrong but nevertheless part of a general perception. Another reason why I think the opening of the archives would be a tremendous benefit - and I can’t stress it too much - is that Dalin puts together 30 or 40 truthful dated documents showing Pius intervening in the most positive way. So it would just be important to see what else he was doing. I mentioned Slovakia, Hungary, Italy of course, and then you have the French Catholic bishops playing a major role. Did he support them? Did he encourage them? Did he initiate their action? All these things will be made clear.

So you’re very hopeful opening the archives would go a long way to clearing his name?

Gilbert: Yes, I mean archives are not simple things. You can’t just open an archive and say ah, here’s the truth, here’s the smoking gun or whatever. It would take four or five years to go through them thoroughly and put them really into context. I think the time has come to do it now, and the Vatican shouldn’t be afraid if they find one or two things in the archive which are jarring, let’s say. That’s the nature of archives. Pius, too, must have had bad days! It’s just a pity the caption couldn’t have been changed to something neutral or something positive.

There’s a tremendous effort being made. Sister [Margherita] Marchione has been making a great effort to have that caption changed. Yad Vashem issued a statement which I’ve got here saying it’s inconceivable to use diplomatic pressure on an issue of historical research. You know, I’d say it was inaccurate historical research.

What can you do? It’s extraordinary to me. What I’ve long suggested, the Vatican or someone like Sister Marchione, should get that department of Yad Vashem where I worked - the Department of the Righteous - to open a file on Pius, a file to look into the extent to which he did help Jews. That would create quite a different mood, atmosphere. The emphasis would then be on the positive. Material could be selected and then at some point the caption could be changed.

The chairman of Yad Vashem wrote to the nuncio saying they would be pleased to examine any new documentation that may come to light on this issue.

Gilbert: That’s very good. That’s the answer then, to build from what is a very unfortunate dispute -- it’s very unedifying and doesn’t help anybody -- and look at new evidence and so on. The bottom line is that it’s terribly unfortunate that a question of history has become a matter of contemporary dispute.

Sursa: www.InsideTheVatican.com

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