When Mordechai Lewy, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, praised the role of Pope Pius XII in saving Jews during World War II, he managed to upset a lot of people -- hardly surprising, given the way an entire academic industry has been built on the idea that Pius XII failed to raise his voice against the Holocaust. 

But Levy never actually contradicted that criticism during his remarks during a ceremony on Thursday night to honor Fr Gaetano Piccinini, a Catholic priest in Nazi-occupied Rome whose surviving family members received on his behalf a 'Righteous among the Nations' award from the Yad Vashem Institute. 

Catholic convents and monasteries opened their doors to save Jews in the days following a Nazi sweep of Rome's Jewish ghetto on 16 October 1943, said Lewy. "There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on," he said, adding that "it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true".

He said the fact that the Vatican couldn’t stop the deportation of Jews from Rome’s ghetto "only increased the will, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own sites as refuges for the Jews." That is why, he added, "the train that left on October 18 1943 was the only one that the Nazis managed to organize from Rome to Auschwitz."

That was a guarded, diplomatic way of saying that Pius XII had himself ordered Rome's Catholic communities to do what they could to help Jews facing deportation -- which of course they did, saving thousands. In his book-length interview last year, Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI said that "no one did more" than Pius to save Jews.

Lewy was careful later to clarify that his remarks referred to direct actions to save Jews, not to the question of whether Pope Pius XII should have spoken out against the Holocaust -- a question hotly debated for years. "This refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him," Lewy told Reuters.

But too late. The storm had broken. Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, called Lewy’s comments "morally wrong" because Lewy had "disgracefully conflated the praiseworthy actions of elements in the Catholic Church to rescue Jews with the glaring failure of Pope Pius to do so" -- which implied that Pius XII had not rescued Jews, when he plainly did. 

Equally depressing was Dr Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and researcher of Nazi war crimes, who spoke of his fear that “what he said will be used by those with other agendas" -- which implies that truth should be suppressed in case it is misused.

But most depressing of all was the way Lewy pandered to these reactions, hastily backtracking on Sunday -- whether on his own initiative or on orders is not clear. His comments were "embedded in a larger historical context", he said, adding: "Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature."

Personal historical judgement ....?

Comments

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Rory Connor | 6/29/2011 - 3:06pm
Frank Gibbons  links to a 2001 article by Jewish historian Rabbi David G Dalin. In his book ''The Myth of Hitler's Pope'', published in 2005,  Rabbi Dalin states that the ''myth'' had three sources:

Stalinist propaganda during the Cold War (1940s and 50s)
The ''New Left'' in the 1960s
''Liberal'' Catholics after the Vatican Council who saw Pius X11 as the hero of ''reactionary'' Catholics and demonised him as a way of demonising them.
Regarding the latter Rabbi Dalin states that:
''anti-papal polemics of ex-seminarians like Garry Wills and John Cornwell (author of Hitler's Pope), of ex-priests like James Carroll, and or other lapsed or angry liberal Catholics exploit the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to foster their own political agenda of forcing changes on the Catholic Church today.''
Rory Connor
Dublin, Ireland
ofer barsadeh | 6/28/2011 - 5:47am
ambassador lewy (not levy - at elast get the man's name right) did not praise the pope!
he most certainly did not say nor hint in any way - diplomatically or otherwise - that pius12 ordered the saving of jews.
he objectivel­y said that jews were saved by the church and by clergy, and there is some chance that pius 12 knew about this. all this is a moot point. it cant be proven one way or the other - possibly not even after the vatican releases whatever records it sees fit to release.
Lewy has time and again also said that pius was silent on the holocaust. he remained silent even though american diplomats pleaded with him to speak up. (the response was that the nazis may make it worse for the jews. worse! get it. how much worse i dunno)
for this silence his being beatified may raise questions, but none that can be addressed by the State of Israel, for which beatificat­ion is an internal vatican matter. the catholic church can define as a saint whomever they wish, and certainly worse people than pius12 have achieved this questionab­le status. if the church wishes to demean the term, so be it. latin is their language and they can use it as they wish.”
what is a problem for Israe is pius12's antisemitism (well documented eg. the first mention of the term "concentration camp" is in reference to palestinians in 1948 - a term he refused to use between '39 and '44) and his vigorous hate of the jewish state (which he defined, a communist microbe).
it is true, however, that the backtracking was out of place: lewy is ISRAEL's ambassador and not that of the jewish people in the diaspora.
Crystal Watson | 6/27/2011 - 9:58pm
Frank,

Thanks for the link. What I have read so far about Pius is very unflattering.   I admit, though, it is hard to look back at even such recent history and decide exactly what people's motives were. I guess what especially bothers me about Pius is that he's being made a saint despite the fact that he did so little officially to help against such a terrible situation - I think one should expect more of saints.  I agree with the Catholic theologians and historians who wrote to B16 last year asking Pius not be made a saint .... http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/2010/02/18/theologians-historians-urge-benedict-to-slow-pius-xii-saint-process/
Frank Gibbons | 6/27/2011 - 9:11pm
Crystal,

There is so much literature out there that counters the usual canards about Pius XII.  Why don't you look into it and give him a fair hearing.  Conversely, a lot of the "scholarship" that condemns Pius has been refuted. John Cornwall, author of "Hitler's Pope" was eventually forced to admit that he was unfair in his attacks on Pius -“I would now argue,” he says, “in the light of the debates and evidence following ‘Hitler's Pope', that Pius XII had so little scope of action that it is impossible to judge the motives for his silence during the war, while Rome was under the heel of Mussolini and later occupied by the Germans."  Now this is from a man who still harbors an intense animosity towards the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Please read this defense of Pius XII by Rabbi David Dalin:

http://www.catholicleague.org/pius/dalinframe.htm

You fail to mention that Alois Hudal was ostracized by both Pius XI and Pius XII.


Peace.
Crystal Watson | 6/27/2011 - 7:12pm
So much Pius could have done to help, but didn't, despite many entreties - he spoke not one official word against what was happening.  While we're thanking the Italian people for helping, let's also mention guys like Bishop Hudal, who helped Nazis like Eichman escape justice ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alois_Hudal
WILLIAM ATKINSON | 6/27/2011 - 1:37pm
"ACTIONS ARE ALWAYS MORE POWERFUL THAN WORDS"  So we percieve that all the words Jesus spoke became powerful by his actions, especially on the cross.   Pius XII was such a man, giving power to his church by his actions and silent words of love, by actions that brought saving lives to many during his tenure as leader of christians largest church.