Pope Pius XII and the Chief Rabbi of Rome

Pope Pius XII cannot win with certain kinds of people. No matter how many people he saved, someone will always say, “So, nu, only 850,000 Jews? Why didn’t he save two million Jews?” Even if the Pope had saved two million, someone would say, “Nu, only two million? Why not four million?”

If the mighty European nations couldn’t stop Hitler, how could the Pope? Maybe, just maybe, given the limitations of his office, he ended up saving more Jews than he would have had he made a public protest against Hitler …

Who can presume to have God-like power and adjudicate this matter once and for all? I know that I sure can’t, but the many Jewish witnesses I mentioned above saw firsthand what the Pope did; I think many folks may not like the quiet way the Pope got things done, but it is quite possible that he did the best he could given the circumstances he had to deal with.

The study of Jewish history is anything but boring. Here’s a little known fact: The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Yisrael Zolli, converted to Catholicism because of the Pope’s efforts in saving Jewish lives.

In a statement of thanks, Zolli said, “What the Vatican did will be indelibly and eternally engraved in our hearts. . . . Priests and even high prelates did things that will forever be an honor to Catholicism.”[1] Although Zolli said he converted for “theological reasons,” it is generally believed that he did so out of gratitude for what the Pope did for his people. Rather than encouraging a massive conversion on the part of Jews to Catholicism, Zolli preferred to state that his conversion was a personal one based on his rethinking of Catholic theology and teachings and his personal friendship with Pope Pius XII, a man  whose personal integrity he deeply respected and admired.

Lapide writes: “When Zolli accepted baptism in 1945 and adopted Pius’s Christian name of Eugene, most Roman Jews were convinced that his conversion was an act of gratitude for wartime succor to Jewish refugees and, repeated denials not withstanding, many are still of his opinion. Thus, Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz wrote in the summer issue, 1964, of Conservative Judaism: ‘Many Jews were persuaded to convert after the war, as a sign of gratitude, to that institution which had saved their lives.’ “[2]

On April 28, 1935, four years before the War even started, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (who later became Pope Pius XII) gave a speech that aroused the attention of the world press. Speaking to an audience of 250,000 pilgrims in Lourdes, France, the future Pius XII stated that the Nazis “are in reality only miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel. It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.”[3] It was talks like this, in addition to private remarks and numerous notes of protest that Pacelli sent to Berlin in his capacity as Vatican Secretary of State, that earned him a reputation as an enemy of the Nazi party.

The Germans were likewise displeased with the reigning pontiff, Pius XI, who showed himself to be a unrelenting opponent of the new German “ideals”—even writing an entire encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), to condemn them. When Pius XI died in 1939, the Nazis abhorred the prospect that Pacelli might be elected his successor.

Dr. Joseph Lichten, a Polish Jew who served as a diplomat and later an official of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, writes: “Pacelli had obviously established his position clearly, for the Fascist governments of both Italy and Germany spoke out vigorously against the possibility of his election to succeed Pius XI in March of 1939, though the cardinal secretary of state had served as papal nuncio in Germany from 1917 to 1929. . . . The day after his election, the Berlin Morgenpost said: ‘The election of cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor.’ “[4]

Former Israeli diplomat and now Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Pinchas Lapide states that Pius XI “had good reason to make Pacelli the architect of his anti-Nazi policy. Of the forty-four speeches which the Nuncio Pacelli had made on German soil between 1917 and 1929, at least forty contained attacks on Nazism or condemnations of Hitler’s doctrines. . . . Pacelli, who never met the Führer, called it ‘neo-Paganism.’ “[5]

[1] American Jewish Yearbook 1944-1945, 233.

[2] Pinchas E. Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews (New York: Hawthorn, 1967), 133

[3] [Robert Graham, S.J., ed., Pius XII and the Holocaust (New Rochelle, New York: Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, 1988), 106.]

[4] Joseph Lichten, “A Question of Moral Judgment: Pius XII and the Jews,” in Graham, 107.

[5] Pinchas E. Lapide, op. cit., 118.