Pius XII should be seen as a hero
By GABRIEL MARTINEZ
Your neighbor takes your family hostage. You've learned he is going to rob a bank, but he warns you that if you call the police, your family will die.
What do you do?
You call the bank, alert them, and ask them to keep your name secret. You offer your van to help. But if you are humble, you don't go to the newspapers saying what a big hero you are.
This is the situation of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. He knew what was going on with the Jews. He arranged for and encouraged their rescue, saving as many Jewish lives as he could. But he could not yell condemnations to the four winds. He had a family to take care of: the millions of Catholics in Europe — and the Jews themselves.
His predecessor, Pope Pius XI, had published the encyclical "Mit brennender Sorge" ("With Burning Anxiety") in 1937, condemning the evil of the Nazi regime. It was secretly published in German and read from all the pulpits of Germany. The consequences were frightening, as the Nazis imprisoned priests, persecuted lay Catholics and stepped up their hostility against the Jews.
The Nazis eventually proved that jails could seem pleasant compared to genocide. Although many deny it, many Catholics all over Europe helped the Jews, following orders from the pope. Was Pius XII to hinder their saving work and endanger his own Church by noisily condemning Hitler? Research leaves no doubt that wherever the Catholic hierarchy protested officially against the Nazis, the unintended result was that a greater proportion of Jews was killed. It is one thing to be a martyr. It is very different to play hero and send millions to martyrdom.
Would the horrible beast that was Hitler have spared a single Jewish life because of a papal condemnation? Nazis responded to criticism with torture and bloodshed. All that a condemnation would have earned Pius XII was the applause of those who comfortably read the paper in their homes. This was clear in the pope's lifetime, so he never had to officially defend himself.
The pope did what he had to do: He made it clear that Nazism was anti-Christian and worked quietly to save as many Jewish lives as he could.
A new book has come out on this old topic, interpreting the pope's (prudent) silence as complicity. Even readers who are not sympathetic to the Catholic Church are exposing it for what it is: a pile of lies. It takes a bit of the truth, mixes it with a lot of imagination, spices it with dramatic language and presents it as the whole truth. Notre Dame is used to this kind of journalism. We are used to incendiary rhetoric, based on very little evidence. There are some journalists, of course, who carefully research facts and expose alarming realities. But all too often, bad journalists (purposefully?) ignore the evidence that would disprove their agenda and make accusations with little logic and less honesty.
What about Pius XII?
Fact: The Chief Rabbi of Rome was at least as well informed — and indignant — as the pope about the plight of the Jews. Doubtlessly, Israel Zolli heard the Pope's "silence." Doubtlessly, whatever Catholic complicity there was, he was aware of it. So what did he do after the war while trials for crimes against humanity were going on?
He exposed the pope for what he was — a Nazi-phile, right? Wrong. The most important Jew in Rome became Catholic. He embraced the religion that, supposedly, was out to get him. He did not do this out of fear — the Nazi terror is long dead; he can be a Jew now. He did it out of conviction in the Catholic faith and out of admiration for the love shown to his people by Catholics during the war. Moreover, when he converted, Israel Zolli became Eugenio Zolli, in honor of Pope Pius XII, who had been baptized Eugenio Pacelli.
For years, the Holy See was flooded with the gratitude of the Jewish community for the pope and the bishops acting under his command. When Pius XII died, Golda Meir, prime minister of Israel, said that "when fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the Pope was raised for its victims." It took a theater play by a former Hitlerian Youth to start the process of defamation against Pius XII — to those Jews the play was an evident lie.
Is Eugenio Zolli's conversion surprising? Well, it is from our point of view because we have heard all the accusations. But it was not surprising for a Jew who had seen many of his brothers and sisters saved by the generosity and the boldness of one of the most courageous and slandered popes of this century — Pope Pius XII.
Gabriel Xavier Martínez is a graduate student in economics. His column appears every other Thursday.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Thursday, October 28, 1999