DR. JOHAN ICKX, A HISTORIAN AND AN ARCHIVIST FROM VATICAN, debunks the myth about the pope Pius XII’s and Bl. Stepinac’s “silence” on persecutions of the Jews during Second World War

The 2800 demands of Jews, baptized or not, directly addressed to Pope Pius XII, and preserved, are most surprising considering the modest possibilities of communication in wartime circumstances the danger of omnipresent Nazi oppressive apparatus

The news about Pope Francis’ gesture from the March 2020. – when he opened Vatican’s archives from the era of, unjustly called, “controversial” pope Pius XI – went around the world in just a few days. But in the torrent of news reports only the few researchers of historical themes were brave enough to point out that Pope Francis’ gesture is a sign that Catholic Church is not afraid of its past and that such moves show that Church is still the last remaining fortress of cultural and intellectual openness. The archives of Pius XII were opened eight years before a standard archivist protocols, which determine the lapse of time of at least 70 years from the death of the creator of the archival material (Pius XII died in 1958). We did not have to wait for a long time to see first fruits of Church’s culture of openness. In the latest issue of Glas Koncila, a Croatian Catholic weekly from Zagreb, Vatican historian Dr. Johan Ickx presents his discoveries about Pius XII’s efforts in saving the Jews during Second World War. This interview came around Ferbruary 10th, the feast day of bl. Alojzije Stepinac, a widely celebrated Christian martyr from the times of Yugoslavian communist dictatorship. Therefore, dr. Ickx spoke about some controversies from Croatian history, providing historical evidence that Stepinac, as archbishop of Zagreb, was an active part of Pius XII’s humanitarian network, and that no historical document from the Vatican’s archives could undermine the importance of his role during tough times of Second World War.

Dr. Ickx, it seems appropriate that at the beginning of this conversation we give a chronological picture of the efforts of pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church in saving of the Jews during the WWII. When did the first efforts of Pius XII begin? Did the Vatican continued to provide help for the Jewish refugees even after the end of WWII?

The efforts of the Pope’s magisterium to alert all Catholics towards a defense and protection of the Jews and their communities started already during the First World War (1914-1918).

My recent book deals, among other things, with the activity that took place from 1939 and I don’t go beyond 1945. It is important to note that before 1941 it was rather rare that Jews who had received Catholic baptism would be deported, but then once the racial laws changed in Germany, sympathizing nations and occupied territories, the persecution struck also that group of Jewish descent. The new laws stated that it was no longer religion to makes the difference but the racial component up to the third degree of kinship. All of the sudden also Catholic Jews of Jewish descent are at risk. This was the case for Ines Stame, a Roman Catholic, married to an Aryan, who in November 1943, a month after the raid in the ghetto of Rome, wrote to Pius XII in a state of shock, fearing that her family could end up in the same way because her mother, who died fifty years earlier, was Jewish and therefore she and her family had also been classified as such. The documents preserved in the Historical Archives testify of the tireless efforts made by the staff of Pius XII until the last day of the war even when the pressure on deportations increases. The Holy See did not once stop acting to prevent the tragic fate of any human being. In the historiography on Pius XII, this concept of charity towards humanity has been and is often presented and applied in a theoretical and empty sense, creating and atmosphere or even suggesting an indifference from the Pontiff, who would have been looking helplessly and uninterested to all what happened under his very window of the Apostolic Palace. The care and aid, be it at the individual level as well as to the thousands of people in all nations and the organization of protection in Rome itself contradicts this picture. 

Who were the actors involved in those humanitarian efforts? Which institutions at the Vatican were involved in saving the Jews? How did even Vatican managed to find out who were the people in need, considering the modest possibilities of communication in wartime circumstances, and also, considering the danger of omnipresent Nazi oppressive apparatus?

So far, the intimate thoughts and opinions of pope were released to the public on incomplete and often spurious data i.e. second or third hand information.  The words exchanged in the offices, thanks to direct access to documents, notes and original comments by the protagonists, finally give back to the actors something of their real face and emotional and psychological profile. „The Bureau“, as I called it in the book consists of the Pope, Cardinal Secretary of State Luigi Maglione, Secretary Msgr. Domenico Tardini and the desk-officers of the Secretary of State. They are constantly on daily basis in contact with the nuncios and Apostolic Delegates in the entire world and with archbishops and bishops and also with governmental representatives, diplomats and public institutions.  This network served, aside to the normal diplomatic relations, to create lifelines through all of Europe.

One come to notice along the hundreds of thousands of documents that it was constant and active concern of the Holy See to find, through the 24 hours activity of an office in the Secretariat of State, ways and spaces sometimes even unthinkable, in order to save as many human lives as possible. The main problem for Pope Pius XII and his top diplomats was that such industrious and hazard activity had to correspond necessarily to the diplomatic impartiality and diplomatic prudence of the Holy See. This constant tension permitted to generate the false impression that Pius XII and the Vatican were on the side of the Germans. Pope Pacelli did not remain silent, in many circumstances, be it in the diplomatic Verbal Notes or he attacked Hitler, the persecution strategy and ideology of the Nazi’s. It is striking that similarly, after the First World War, the French and Belgians unjustly accused Benedict XV of having been a friend and ally of the Germans.

The 2800 demands of Jews, baptized or not, directly addressed to Pope Pius XII, and preserved, are -as you suggest very well in your question- most surprising considering the modest possibilities of communication in wartime circumstances the danger of omnipresent Nazi oppressive apparatus. One cannot proof it but it could be presumably the case that hundreds of requests never reached the Vatican…  The demands for help reached the Vatican or by ordinary post or by transmission through the network.

How did the Vatican’s military and formally political neutrality in the WWII, something that most of the critics of Pius XII. like to point out, affected the Vatican’s rescue efforts in Nazi occupied Europe?

Pope Pacelli did not remain silent, in many circumstances, be it in the diplomatic Verbal Notes or he attacked Hitler, the persecution strategy and ideology of the Nazi’s. It is striking that similarly, after the First World War, the French and Belgians unjustly accused Benedict XV of having been a friend and ally of the Germans

Your question takes us to talk about the so-called “silence of Pius XII”. On this topic it will be necessary to distinguish two things. A “verbal silence” does not correspond to the facts: for instance Pius XII, shortly after League of Nations (which was led by the English, the Americans and the Soviets and the National French Committee), spoke clearly and without halftone on the deportations. He did it separately, yes, because the pope has chosen not to let himself to be seduced by the English and American diplomacy and to be put in front of the wagon of allied nations, because he wanted to save at any price, just like its predecessor Benedict XV during the First World War did, the impartiality of the Holy See. But he spoke on the radio Christmas Eve 1942 (radio was at the time the most powerful communication vehicle!), even citing the words of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (captatio benevolentia for his Jewish brothers and it sounded as horror in the ears of the Nazis) „numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: ‘Our inheritance is turned to aliens: our house to strangers. And he continued by saying the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.” The archives make us understand what was the global impact of that Christmas message. One must be deaf and blind not to catch a glimpse of its subtlety and understand it.

We must especially consider Pius XII’s “Political silence” – that is to say his public non-interventionist attitude – as a strategic choice. On the other hand “Silence is golden”, and it was during the war a part of a counter-offensive against a totalitarian enemy. Not wanting to compromise nobody’s life or actions or even aid workers themselves, a strict circumspection was mandatory. It seems, according to the stories and chronicles in my book, that to this period, between 1939 and 1945, this attitude was well understood by the majority of the Jews. Otherwise, how do you explain why they continued to knock on his door and thank him? In short, it was a question of political silence, as a political tactic, yes, but not a verbal silence. We should thus distinguish very accurately the type of silence. Pope Pacelli did not talk about certain things with his collaborators to save human lives, so as not to endanger those who were part of those corridors because they could be discovered and hindered. On this we should stop for a moment and reflect on how we could live in those years, with evil that chased the collaborators of good. For this the Pope of the time closed himself in a prudent active silence, and the recently available “Ebrei-files” explain a great part it. I believe that this can be summed up in the phrase of Francesco da Sales found in a diary of Mons. Andrea Cassulo , a wartime Nunzio in Bucharest: “Good does not make noise and noise does not produce the good”. This was the paradigm of all the Pope’s collaborators.

Except his “silence”, the critics of Pius XII often go a step further, stating that he was a “Nazi pope”. This myth was proclaimed by the Soviet Union and in Block of states under its influence, but it seems that somehow it managed to survive even amongst the schoolars from the West. To whom such a thing suits today?
The Nazi-Pope, Hitler’s Pope, the Pope of the Germans… Similar characteristics were ascribed to Benedict XV after First Word War. In the case of Pius XII it is all product of a well-orchestrated mediatic farce after the War. How will we explain, if not, the hundreds of thanking letters and telegrams immediately after the War? How will we explain the regular correspondence of the Pope and his nuncios or apostolic delegates with the Rabbi’s all over Europe and America? Over more, in my recent book, I tell the story of the deep friendship and mutual understanding on the ideological level between President Roosevelt and Pope Pius XII, that dated from the years before the war and became solid as never before at its beginning, with the mutual intention to withstand together the forces of evil. Now the myth flourishes, years after the war, as you well indicate, in the West. The Soviet regime’s target was only to diminish the moral influence of the Catholic Church and the Pope of Rome. It will take time now to unravel all the different ideological and political parts in the world that aimed to make prospers from the myth.

In your book “Pius XII. and the Jews” you do not give only numbers of people saved, you present the destines of the people with names and surenames. Have you come across some examples of efforts in saving of the Jews by Church in Croatia? Do you have any insights about the stance of archbishop of Zagreb Alojzije Stepinac?

The list of all the “Ebrei-files” contains circa 2800 cases, related to a total of about 4800 people. There certainly are more cases related to the safety line over Zagreb than the one I mentioned in the book. For instance, the case of Dr. Lasdislao Bodnar from Zagreb, ‘non-Arian’ baptized in 1919, asking in 1941 for emigration to South-America with recommendation of Msgr. Stepinac. The cases show the exiting link between “Bureau” in Rome and the committee in Zagreb existed.

Many of Stepinac’s critics, who will probably come across this interview, are certainly ardently interested if some documents point out some controversy about Stepinac. Have you come across any document that incriminates archbishop Stepinac as an actor in difficult times of Second World War?

Not at all. And probably no one will, given that even the joint Orthodox-Catholic commission on Stepinac concluded some years ago that there were some divergences in the interpretation of the facts and the documents, but until now – as far as I know – no document à charge was found. However, thanks to the opening of all the archives of the Holy See, time will only permit to have a clearer view on this topic.

Should projects, such as the research of Stepinac’s role during WWII in Croatia from the perspective of Vatican documents, be the projects of national interest of modern Croatia? Should Republic of Croatia give material (in forms of scholarships, for example) and institutional support to the historians that are interested in researching archives of Pius XII. and documents related to the Stepinac role?

The recent study of Esther Gitman, “Alojzije Stepinac: Pillar of Human Rights, indicates already a missing link in the Stepinac research: just as for Pius XII the “Pacelli-list” changes radically the view on this Pope, the same can be said with the Gitman’s study on Stepinac. But also a recent work of Massimiliano Valente on the Ostpolitik of the Vatican with Yugoslavia indicates that also the study of the aftermath of the war will be a challenge for the historians from Croatia.  Only in our Historical Archives we have the files on his nomination (ASR,,AA.EE.SS., Pio XII, Yugoslavia 6 and 7) and a consistent number of archival files (about 31) related to him. Recently ambassador Neven Pelicaric did surprising discoveries in some archives of the Vatican. This shows that a more organized and constant study of the archives in the different dicasteries of the Vatican could give certainly still many new material.

The news about the opening of the archive of Pius XII. went around the world. But he coronavirus pandemic prevented many researchers in accessing the archives? Is digitalization of these sources one of possible solution? And to whom it will be available after the documents from the era of Pius XII. are in digital form?

The digitalization of the documents of the Historical Archive for the pontificate of Pius XII is still ongoing.  All the documents relating to the first half of hte Pontificate, that is from 1939 to ’48, have already been digitized and can also be consulted by the different researchers. Thanks to the digital system, all researchers have access to all the material at disposal and all have access at the same time in the same manner. The post-1948 digitalized material is continuously growing: of about 36 countries the series are completed until the year 1958, for the other archival series it is gradually added.

Can the newly opened archives give some new insights about the role of Pius XII. and archbishop Stepinac in facing the new totalitarianism – Communism? Have you come across, in some of your other research works, to the knowledge of Pius XII stance toward Tito’s communist Yugoslavia?

“Silence is golden”, and it was during the war a part of a counter-offensive against a totalitarian enemy. Not wanting to compromise nobody’s life or actions or even aid workers themselves, a strict circumspection was mandatory

Not so much toward Tito’s communist Yugoslavia but rather towards Soviet-Moscow directly. It regards another element that fitted in the construction on the myth on Pius XII: his so-called complete closing towards the Soviets and unwillingness to deal with them. Together with Hungarian colleagues, we recently published a book that contains the reports on the secret missions of Hungarian Jesuits that were acted for Pius XII. It regards an intensive correspondence dated in 1946 and 1947, which was detected a few years ago in Budapest, and which now finds confirmation by the documents just opened from the archives of the Holy See. They testify of the secret travels by some Jesuits between Rome and Budapest, and at the time traveling was certainly not easy. The Pope’s goal was to open a dialogue with the Soviets to find a possible modus vivendi, key concept of the later famous Ostpolitik of Cardinal Augostino Casaroli. It is clear that for Pius XII the fate of individual people stood primary to any ideology.

And for the end of conversation, a question that is often presented as impossible to answer. Could have Pius XII, and in case of Croatia archbishop Alojzije Stepinac,  done more for the saving of the Jews and all other peoples prosecuted by Nazi-fascist regimes? Or we will in years to come find out that not only Schindler’s list of saved Jews existed during the Second World War, but also a list of Pius XII, and a list of Alojzije Stepinac?

I showed that a Pacelli-list exists and, if I do not mistake, Esther Gitman’s book revealed recently something similar for Stepinac. I hope more researches from Croatia will soon come to the Archives. However, as far as I am concerned, “if’s” do not fit in History.

Dr. Johan Ickx (1962) is the Director of the Historical Archives of the Section for Relations with States of the Vatican Secretariat of State. He studied religious sciences, theology and philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven. At the Pontificial Gregorian University he earned his doctorate in Church history. Except his research on various themes from the history of the Catholic Church, he was an official of several departments of Roman Curia. Amongst his many historiographical works, he published a book on Eugenio Pacelli’s engagement as a Vatican’s “foreign minister” in Belgium during the First World War. In his recent book, “Pius XII and the Jews” (Milan, Rizzoli, 2021), dr. Ickx reconstructs Pius XII’s wartime efforts in saving thousands of persecuted Jews, who were marked for destruction in concentration camps by Nazi ideology.