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News, Science & Research

From within the Vatican walls: Brown professor unveils insights into the history of the pope during the Holocaust

Researcher and historian David Kertzer accessed Vatican archives opened earlier this year, published findings surrounding the Papacy during World War II

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2020

David Kertzer ’69 uncovered previously unknown documents detailing conversations between Pope Pius XII and other Vatican officials during his visit to the archives this spring.

On the morning of March 2, a group of researchers gathered outside of a gate in Vatican City. They were waiting to view the archives of Pope Pius XII a collection of millions of documents, which had been sealed since the end of his pontificate in 1958 and have only now been opened to scholars under the current Pope Francis. Among the group was David Kertzer ’69, professor of social science, anthropology and Italian studies, who has studied Italy’s religious and political history for over four decades. 

Previously, the Vatican sanctioned the release of 12 volumes of documents relating to Pope Pius XII. The move to open the entirety of the documents is the culmination of over 50 years of public pressure to investigate Pope Pius XII’s actions during WWII, as well as a part of Pope Francis’ greater efforts to increase transparency at the Vatican. 

From the newly opened Vatican archives, Kertzer has found evidence revealing a clearer picture of the motivations behind Pope Pius XII’s silence and the controversial role of the Vatican after WWII. 

An unconventional trip to the Vatican 

Kertzer is one of a select group of outsiders permitted inside the Vatican walls for research. But stepping foot into the Vatican and perusing its archives involves numerous restrictions, which Kertzer has experienced during his visits, including his most recent trip to the newly opened archives from March 2 to March 6. 

His scholar identification would be checked by a pair of Swiss guardsmen standing on duty inside the Sant’Anna Gate, the entry point from Italy into Vatican City. 

After entering, he passed a second gate and walked into an open courtyard. Two main buildings for Kertzer’s research stood on either end: the Apostolic Archive, formerly known as the Secret Archive, and the Archive for the Secretary of State for the Vatican at the Apostolic Palace. 

The Apostolic Archive limits entry to 60 researchers at one time. Once inside, researchers can only request three documents in the morning and two in the afternoon. Cameras, usually permitted in other state archives, are not allowed, and requesting copies costs a fee of around $9.50 for the first page and additional fees for subsequent pages. Due to these restrictions, researchers often spend months transcribing documents of interest, Kertzer said. 

Still, Kertzer remembers a “certain thrill” in handling documents from the 19th century that have not been seen in over 100 years, such as a letter he came across, handwritten by a former chancellor of the Austrian empire. 

Certain clues on the paper can also be particularly informative, such as an official stamp signifying that the pope has read a document, Kertzer noted. 

Despite planning to spend four months examining the vast amount of information available, Kertzer would only have access to the archives for five days. 

On March 6, Kertzer’s visit was cut short by the announcement that the Vatican archives would close due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Italy. Having returned to the U.S. right before the travel ban to Europe began, Kertzer continued research remotely in collaboration with his colleague in Rome, Roberto Benedetti, who was able to access the archives when they reopened in June. 

Uncovering the role of the Vatican in the Holocaust, the kidnapping of Finaly children 

A war-time pope, Pius XII has been embroiled in controversy for never publicly condemning the persecution of Jews by the fascist German regime. 

During Nazi Germany’s occupation of Rome between 1943 and 1944, thousands of Jews were rounded up and placed in a holding area not far from the Vatican; many of them were transported to the concentration camp in Auschwitz and murdered over several months.

Newly unearthed documents from the archives confirm that the pope was aware of the atrocities committed and considered sending a statement requesting German authorities end the genocide of Jews in Italy. But, the pope ultimately decided against speaking out, heeding the advice of Angelo Dell’Acqua, his advisor on Jewish matters and later cardinal vicar of Rome, who critiqued the proposal and denounced the Jews, according to Kertzer. 

“What those documents reveal is the pervasive anti-semitism around the pope, and part of the reasons why he decided to stay silent,” Kertzer said. 

Kertzer translated and detailed these documents of correspondence in an article for The Atlantic and in an updated publication in the Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations journal.

His research “proves that the Holocaust did not curtail use of traditional antisemitic slurs (by the Vatican), even after it was well known at the Vatican that Europe’s Jews were being or had been murdered,” Kevin Madigan, professor of ecclesiastical history at Harvard, wrote in an email to The Herald. Formerly published volumes from the archives had also been “scrubbed” of sensitive and antisimetic passages and documents.

The archives also shed new light on the highly publicized case of Robert and Gérald Finaly — two young Jewish orphans in France who were taken in by a local Catholic woman after their parents were sent to Auschwitz. In the aftermath of WWII, a movement began to locate Jewish children who had been hidden and return them to their surviving relatives, Kertzer said. 

One such instance was the Finalys’ aunt, who requested the return of the boys but was refused on the grounds that the boys had been secretly baptized. According to traditional Church doctrine, Jewish children who are baptized with or without the family’s consent may not come back to their Jewish families, Kertzer said. Over a period of eight years, the boys were kept hidden by an underground network of nuns and monks before being returned. 

Documents from the newly opened Vatican archives show that the kidnapping of the boys disobeyed a series of court orders to return them and was initially actively supported by members of the Holy Office. 

“The pope and the Vatican played a central role in orchestrating the hiding of the children and keeping them from their family,” Kertzer said.

Along with the Finaly brothers, there is evidence of the pope’s active consultation in similar cases of baptized Jewish children. 

Impact of research

Kertzer’s findings may affect the decision to canonize Pope Pius XII as a saint, which is under discussion, Madigan wrote. But the case remains complicated: The pope is seen as a symbol for an era of the Catholic Church that conservatives would like to resurrect, he noted. 

One week after Kertzer’s article in the Atlantic, critiques began to appear questioning the validity of Kertzer’s conclusions, including in an article in the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano

This is “an illustration of the fact that in the Vatican, there isn’t a lot of tolerance for questioning the official narrative of the heroism of Pope Pius XII,” Kertzer said. “I have to learn to have a fairly thick skin as a scholar. … The kinds of attacks that you get, if you get involved in this history, can sometimes be quite personal.”

Kevin Spicer, professor of history at Stonehill College, reverend and editor of Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, said Kertzer’s article underwent the peer review process for the academic journal and was deemed sound and supported by the documentation.

But documents are “always seen through the eyes of the historian,” Spicer added. “That’s where people come into conflict over this topic.”

The opening of the Vatican archives has the potential to provide researchers with a fuller picture of the Vatican’s actions in Rome and Europe through its representatives, he said. 

“Speaking as a priest, … understanding the past better and having a picture that we can agree upon of what took place by looking at historical documents carefully will help (Jewish-Christian relations) move forward in the future,” Spicer said. 

Emerging from the archives and looking ahead 

Though Kertzer found his most “explosive” documents during his week at the Vatican, much of the valuable information for his research came from sources other than the archives, Kertzer said. 

For example, he drew findings from the police files written by spies that Benito Mussolini, the former prime minister of Italy and leader of the Fascist party, had planted in the Vatican. He also looked to the daily reports ambassadors of various countries who lived in the Vatican wrote, detailing their conversations with those in the Holy Office. 

These outside resources carry more personal information, such as insights into the pope’s personality and his personal interactions, that “would never be included in the Vatican Archives,” Kertzer said. Such details can provide “richness about what’s going on behind the scenes of the Vatican.”

But much remains to be discovered about the history encompassing this time period. Kertzer plans to publish his full findings from the new Vatican archives in a sequel to his book, “The Pope and Mussolini,” which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, The Herald previously reported. His new book will focus on the relationship of Pope Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler during WWII.

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