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An emerging picture of the pope in the Holocaust

One of the persistent mysteries about the murder of of some six million Jews in the Holocaust is what Pope Pius XII (pictured here), who occupied the throne of St. Peter from 1939 to 1958, knew about it. And what, if anything, he did about it.

Pope-pius-xiiOne reason such questions have remained unanswered is that, until recently, the Vatican has kept secret most of the archives that might provide those answers. But just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to infect the world, the Vatican opened up those archives to scholars.

As this Religion News Service story notes, however, the opening of those records "lasted a week before the coronavirus shut the Vatican archives down again."

And yet, based on what people identified as reputable scholars found in that week, they have begun to draw some initial conclusions, the story says -- conclusions that must, of course, be verified by additional research once such research is possible again.

The RNS story says that in the week of open archives, documents emerged "that reflect badly on the pontiff accused of silence during the Holocaust, according to published reports."

In a bit more detail, the RNS story says that "German researchers found that the pope, who never directly criticized the Nazi slaughter of Jews, knew from his own sources about Berlin’s death campaign early on. But he kept this from the U.S. government after an aide argued that Jews and Ukrainians — his main sources — could not be trusted because they lied and exaggerated, according to the researchers.

"The researchers also discovered the Vatican hid these and other sensitive documents presumably to protect Pius’ image, a finding that will embarrass the Roman Catholic Church still struggling with its covering up of the clerical sexual abuse crisis."

Again, these early conclusions look bad for that pope and the church at that time, but no one should draw any final conclusions until scholars have had a chance to get through all of the archives that have remained secret until recently. And that may take years.

Something else needs to be kept in perspective about all of this, too: Lots of other people and governments either did nothing or next to nothing to save Jews from Hitler's death machine and some even encouraged the slaughter.

Beyond that, there's this: In the face of what was a clear death sentence against Jews in Europe, some individuals not only objected to the goals of Hitler's "Final Solution," they did something about it. They rescued Jews from death. That's the subject of the book I wrote with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

So the full story of the Holocaust is complex, though it is overwhelmingly a story of death, destruction and bigotry.

How the essential outlines of that story might change once the Vatican archives have been reviewed in depth is unknown, but I'm glad at least a start has been made on that project.

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The Most Rev. Michel Aupetit, archbishop of Paris, has written this lovely column about the ongoing restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral and why it's important. "Let Notre Dame remain faithful to its mission," he writes, "or she will lose her soul. May it always be the mysterious temple of the presence of the Lord, inviting each of us on pilgrimage."