ROME – Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, strongly defended Pope Pius XII’s wartime actions and said he had coordinated church efforts that saved the lives of many Jews.
Cardinal Bertone spoke Jan. 24 at the presentation of the Italian translation of the book “The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust,” by Martin Gilbert.
The cardinal said the book illustrated how people of many faiths, including Christians and Muslims, had risked their lives to save Jews from Nazi persecution and death in concentration camps.
He said the Catholic Church as an institution played a part in this effort, working under Pope Pius and following his directives. The church aided all during World War II, but specifically sought to defend and save persecuted Jews, he said.
“They were to be helped in any way possible. This is the premise on which every action of the pope and his aides was founded, as is demonstrated by the existing documentation,” Cardinal Bertone said.
“The story of Catholic ‘righteous’ therefore is entwined with the action of Pius XII,” he said. It is a story of understanding, dialogue and appreciation among Jews for the actions of the church and the pope, he said.
“But above all it is a story that removes any justification for the recurring accusations of papal ‘collaboration’ and Catholic anti-Semitism,” he said.
Lisa Palmieri-Billig, the Rome representative of the American Jewish Committee, also spoke at the book presentation. She said there was no question that the Vatican had helped save the lives of Jews, sometimes hiding them inside the Vatican itself.
She noted Pope Pius’ strongly worded Christmas appeal in 1942 on behalf of those persecuted by the Nazi regime on the basis of nationality or race.
Scholars are divided about why the pope did not make similar appeals later in the war; several Catholic experts have said the pope had legitimate fear of Nazi retribution against the church and the Jews.
Palmieri-Billig said the question may not be settled until secret archive material from that period is made available to scholars.
She said the strategic choices made by Pope Pius were once explained to her in this way by Jesuit Father Pierre Blet, a historian of the wartime period: The Vatican tried to help save as many lives as possible, including Jewish lives, but the first priority of Vatican diplomacy was to help the Allies win the war.
At that time, the fate of Jews did not exist as a separate question, Father Blet told her.