- FUN FEATURES
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History has a funny way of changing over the years.
Take, for instance, Pope Pius XII.
Immediately following World War II, the Pope was hailed by the Jewish community for his help against Nazis throughout World War II. A renowned Israeli orchestra even came to the Vatican to serenade him in honor of his work.
But, starting in 1963, opinions about Pius XII began to change dramatically. A series of publications, including a famous play and renowned book, help shed doubt on the Pope’s actions during World War II.
Instead of being a hero, many now came to question why, at the very least, the Pope had not forcefully and continuously admonished Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, and some even began to suspect that Pope Pius XII may have knowingly turned a blind eye to the Holocaust.
For decades, that suspicion surrounding Pope Pius XII has hung over his legacy, and has engendered many within the Jewish community with a good bit of animosity towards the religious leader.
Rabbi Eric Silver of Temple Beth David in Cheshire counts himself among those who cast a very critical eye towards Pope Pius XII. It was hard to ignore the fact that, seemingly for years, the Pope refused to intervene on behalf of Jews being annihilated all across Europe.
It painted the man as, at best, indifferent to such profound suffering.
So, when Silver was given the opportunity to journey to Rome and be a part of a team researching the possible canonization of Pope Pius XII, he agreed to volunteer in service. He didn’t know if his visit, or his research, would make a difference, but he promised to be “open minded.”
What he learned would change him forever.
“It really helped me grow tremendously by this,” said Silver, who recently returned to the Vatican and met with Pope Benedict XVI. “Somehow, I have been fortunate enough to be in a position to bring out the truth and, for that, I am immensely grateful.”
For five days in September of 2008, Silver joined a group of individuals researching the viability of Pope Pius XII’s canonization Since then, Silver has remained a leading voice in trying to reconstruct the legacy of the Pope in the eyes of the world and Jewish community.
It is work that has earned him praise throughout the Catholic community, including from Pope Benedict XVI, who thanked Silver personally for his efforts earlier this year.
“Lies don’t need much fertilization to grow, but you many times need to dig for the truth,” explained Silver. “When you dig, the truth about Pope Pius XII comes out.”
The research into the Pope, according to Silver, revealed that, while 80 percent or more of the Jewish population in Europe was wiped out by Nazi forces during World War II, 80 percent of Jews in Italy were saved. Much of that can be directly attributed to Pius XII’s actions, Silver explained, as he coordinated efforts to hide and protect Jewish families in churches and Vatican-owned areas throughout Rome and surrounding cities. In fact, it is estimated that Pope Pius XII may have been responsible for saving more than 850,000 Jews during the war.
“That is more than any other one individual,” stated Silver.
While Pius XII is routinely criticized for not admonishing Hitler or the Nazis during the conflict, Silver and his team found that the Pope had spoken out against elements in the Third Reich on 40 different occasions.
But, Silver also concluded that there was good reason for Pope Pius XII to tone down his direct criticism of Hitler and the Nazis.
“The Nazis had a gun pointed at the Pope’s apartment and search lights were kept on all night, shining in the window,” said Silver. “So, you wanted the Pope to denounce them, considering that?
While Nazi troops did respect Vatican territory, Silver argues that such respect only went so far, and that a false step or two by the Pope might have prompted swift action.
In fact, the research conducted by the team Silver was on uncovered documents showing that Pius XII had already planned for his eventual detention by the Nazis, and had set up a plan of abdication, so that someone would take his place immediately following his apprehension.
Also, Silver argues that strong and continuous denunciation of Hitler and the Nazis may have put Jews in Italy in even more danger. In Holland at the time, Dutch bishops read a declaration denouncing the Nazis and the next day 40,000 Jews were rounded up and deported to Auschwitz. Those sent to the concentration camp included Anne Frank.
“It was a warning that, if you make such a declaration, this is what will happen,” said Silver.
After the war, Pius XII was hailed for his efforts, but things began to change in 1963 when Rolf Hochhuth produced his play called The Deputy, which indicted Pope Pius XII for not intervening on behalf of the Jewish community. It began a reexamination of the record and brought up strong criticisms of the Pope’s actions.
That negative view of Pius has existed for decades, and even prompted journalist John Cornwell to pen his controversial book, Hitler’s Pope, in 1999.
However, Silver contends that the Pius XII depicted in The Deputy was based less on history and more on a KGB plot to discredit the Pope, who was anti-communist.
“It was a KGB plot, and Hochhuth was a part of it,” said Silver. “It was typical KGB disinformation and, unfortunately, it caught on.”
As for Cornwell’s newer denunciation, Silver says that the journalist has been forced to retract many of the claims he made and explain away the cover of the book — a photograph that appears to show Pope Pius XII leaving a large building while a member of the SS salutes — which was distorted to create a negative look.
“The photo was taken 12 or so years before he was even Pope, and the person saluting is not an SS soldier, but the driver holding the door,” explained Silver.
A book detailing the group’s findings has been published and Silver has continued to champion Pope Pius XII.
“I believe he fulfilled his charge in the most noble and courageous way possible,” said Silver.
Yet, despite Silver’s new-found respect for Pope Pius XII, he knows that some in the Jewish community will be reluctant to change their opinion.
“It is very hard to admit when you have been wrong,” said Silver. “I know I can admit I was wrong, but, for some, it is very difficult.”
“I tell people not to take my word for it, but to research it themselves,” Silver continued. “I believe he was a very holy man, asking himself and his God, ‘What can I do to fulfill my charge in the most effective manner?’ and that charge was to save lives. Had he done it any other way, he would have lost his effectiveness and Jews would have been killed at an accelerated rate.”