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Moral Cowardice and the Third Reich: The Legacy of Pius XII

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Of late it's been a tough time for those working to prevent genocide. Darfur has been off the world's radar screen for months. Then there's the poor Armenians. It wasn't enough that 1.5 million were murdered in a genocide perpetrated by the Ottomon Turks during the First World War. Turns out that for the sake of appeasing Turkey and its increasingly militant Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Obama is prepared to allow others to rewrite history and deny there was ever a genocide in the first place.

Breaking his campaign promise of January, 2008, where he said that he "stood with the Armenian American community in calling for Turkey's acknowledgment of the Armenian Genocide" and that "as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide [which is] not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence," President Obama changed his tune last week. After the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a resolution that declares the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, the Obama Administration urged the committee not to pass the measure. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to stop the resolution where it stands for fear of angering Turkey.

Then there was the curious story in the New York Times about Gary Krupp. A Jewish medical machinery salesman from Long Island who has no formal training in history but who has emerged as "the Vatican's most outspoken Jewish ally in a heated debate at the crux of tensions between Roman Catholic and Jewish leaders and historians: whether Pope Pius XII, the pontiff during World War II, did as much as he could have to save Jews from the Holocaust."

Having already been knighted by John Paul II for medical services to the Church, Krupp has now set up a foundation whose purpose it is to whitewash the sins of the man labeled by John Cornwell as 'Hitler's Pope.' The Times' article quoted leading Vatican officials as saying that if not for Krupp it would be extremely difficult for the Church to move forward with its plans to declare Pius XII a saint.

Now, it's not difficult to understand why the Catholic Church would seek a court Jew to help them clean up Pius. And it's not particularly difficult to understand why a Jewish businessman, ignorant of history, would be willing to perform the role and take pictures with Pope Benedict at Castel Gandolfo. What is perplexing is how the mighty Catholic Church would have to fall back on a Long Island nobody to help them canonize a man who served as Pope for almost twenty years.

Could it be desperation?

Pius was, of course, the man who, as Cardinal Secretary of State, became the first statesman, in 1933, to sign an agreement with the man he called "the illustrious Hitler," sending him a letter expressing his confidence in his leadership. His concordat with Hitler forced the Catholic Centre Party into dissolution, not only removing the last obstacle to Hitler's goal of absolute power in Germany but also destroying any further resistance by Germany's Catholic bishops to the Nazis.

He was the Pope who famously refused, amid unmistakable evidence of thousands of Jews being shipped to slaughter in Nazi concentration camps, to ever speak out against the holocaust. This followed Pius' successful efforts to prevent the publication of an encyclical commissioned by his dying predecessor to condemn Nazi Antisemitism. This is also the Pope who sent Hitler birthday greetings every single year and who refused to excommunicate Hitler or any other top Nazis who were on official Catholic rolls (to give this context, the singer Sinead O'Connor was excommunicated).

He ignored the pleas of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to denounce the Nazis. He later refused to endorse a joint declaration by Britain, U.S and Russia condemning mass murder of Europe's Jews, claiming that he simply could not condemn "particular" atrocities. The most he ever did was a single pronouncement during the war on the murder "of hundreds of thousands." By then, of course, there were millions, and he did not mention Hitler, Nazi Germany, or the Jews in the statement.

Most infamously, he was silent when the Germans rounded up Rome's Jews in October 1944 for slaughter. They were being processed for extermination in a military school a few hundred yards from his window in St. Peter's. An Italian princess, Enza Pignatelli, forced her way into the Pope's study and warned him about the imminent assault on the city's Jewish citizens. "You must act immediately," she cried. "The Germans are arresting the Jews and taking them away. Only you can stop them." The Pope assured her, "I will do all I can." He made no protest and nearly all were later gassed in Auschwitz. Curiously, amid the Pope's inability to find his voice to condemn the extermination of European Jewry, when the Catholic archbishop of Berlin issued a statement mourning Hitler's death, the Pope did not reprimand him.

Author John Cornwell unearths letters from Pius' early career in Germany which reveals a stubborn, even distasteful disposition toward Jews. While Papal nuncio in Germany, Pius refused to perform favors for the Jewish community on the flimsiest of grounds and describes the Munich chapter of the German Communist Party as being filthy and full of Jews. Pius refers derisively to "a group of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them" and he describes Communist leader Max Levien as a Jew, "pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive..." Perhaps this would explain why, in one of the greatest acts of mass-kidnapping in history, Pius, in 1946, instructed the French Church to refuse return of entire classes of Jewish children who were entrusted to the Church for safekeeping during the Holocaust if they had already been baptized.

Now, if, as the Church maintains, Pius is being falsely maligned by his critics as a pious fraud and moral coward who disgraced a great world religion, then why doesn't the Vatican fix the error by simply opening their archives on his pontificate that would reveal Pius's correspondence and actions during the war? It has thus far released a very select and carefully scrubbed collection of wartime documents that reveal next to nothing about the Church's interactions with the Third Reich.

There is a comical element to this debate, which would be more humorous if it weren't so tragic. It involves Pius' defenders arguing that Pius purposefully refrained from condemning the holocaust because the Jews would have fared even worse had the Pope spoken out.

Worse than the Holocaust? That's a good one.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder This World: The Values Network, and has just published "The Blessing of Enough." www.shmuley.com