Vatican Archives Opened; Letters From Jews Revealed

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Pope Pius XII is set in front of a letter sent to the Vatican from a Jew

On April 24, 1940, Arthur Pick typed out a letter in crisp black ink and sent it to the Vatican. In the letter, which can now be read on the Vatican library website, he requested help from the pope in securing permission for both him and his wife, Pauline, to flee Italy and enter Brazil. While they were both of the Catholic faith, both had Jewish fathers and were classified as mixed race under Italian law. In his letter (translated from Italian), he writes, “Thanks to the goodness of Reverend Monsignor [Maino], I have been given the attached recommendation to which I permit myself to join my deep and devoted prayer in order that Your Excellency may benevolently care to extend to me and my wife His help to make it possible for us to immigrate to Brazil.” 

After no response, Pick typed out another letter, in blue ink, referring to his prior correspondence. Again, he emphasized his need for visas, explaining that while he and his wife are both devout Catholics, their half-Jewish status puts them in danger. He mentioned his skills, explaining that he was a gardener and tractor driver and had additional experience in electrical work. In subsequent correspondence, Pick included an additional recommendation letter from Reverend Monsignor Maino

On August 31, 1940, Pick sent yet another letter, this time in scribbled handwriting. It opened (translated from Italian), “I beg you to take into consideration my letter from today and I permit myself to mention that I have already sent you up until now two letters of recommendation from Monsignor Maino and I am still waiting for a kind and favorable response.”

These letters are a few of the thousands recently disentombed from Vatican archives and shared with the general public. In 2020, this collection was made available to scholars, but only in June did the Vatican add a new series, entitled Ebrei,” or “Jews,” to their publicly accessible online database. 

Anyone with a computer can now access the 170 files and nearly 40,000 volumes containing letters that Jews wrote to Pope Pius XII (the correspondence dates from 1939 to 1948) during World War II asking for help. Letters consisting of requests for visas and asylum, information about deported family members and release from detention centers can all be found in the database. In an article published to Vatican News, the Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher writes, “Making the digitized version of the entire ‘Ebrei’ series available on the internet will allow the descendants of those who asked for help to find traces of their loved ones from any part of the world. At the same time, it will allow scholars and anyone interested to freely examine this special archival heritage from a distance.” 

The conversation surrounding the Vatican’s exact role during the Holocaust has a long and volatile history. Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and historian David Kertzer, who has spent a large part of the last 25 years writing books on the history of the Vatican related to World War II based on archival material, says this is not the first time the Vatican has released previously undisclosed documents. Starting in 1963, the Vatican began releasing an 11-volume collection of the pontiff’s wartime documents after a German play titled The Deputy, about the Vatican’s silence during the Holocaust, led to intense criticism from the general public. When it comes to deciding to release documents, the Vatican operates differently than other archival systems. 

“Generally state archives and other kinds of archives have a rule that a certain number of years have to pass before they’ll open the material,” says Kertzer. “But the Vatican doesn’t work that way.” Previously unopened archives are divided by papacy and when they are released, everything in the papacy is released at once. The current pope decides when to open these documents. 

When the Vatican does decide to release archival documents, it is usually reserved solely for historians and scholars who need to to apply for access. Kertzer noted that the Vatican is most likely releasing it to the general public to take control of the narrative surrounding Pius XII. In June of this year, Kertzer released his new book titled, The Pope At War, about Pope Pius XII and his actions during World War II. This book takes a critical look at the actions the pope did and didn’t take during the war. 

 “The new book came out in Italy at the end of May a couple of weeks before it came out in the United States. It immediately provoked a strong attack from the Vatican.” The Vatican hopes that these archives from World War II will put Pius XII in a more positive light and show that he did all he could to save Jews.  

The Vatican’s heroic narrative has been the main cause for criticism over the years. Its official line and that of many conservatives within the church is that the pope’s silence during the Holocaust actually helped save many lives, says Kertzer. If Pius XII had spoken out, it would have resulted in more Jewish deaths; by staying silent, he was able to work behind the scenes to save them.  

“What’s known and can’t be denied is that the pope never denounced the Nazis,” Kertzer contends. “In trying to justify the racial laws in Italy, the fascist regime made heavy use of the church.” Prior to the facist takeover, Italy did not have many antisemitic laws or measures. The facist regime justified these new racial laws by comparing it to the time when the pope had rule over the papal states and Jews were barred from certain professions and social circles. 

Still, there is much to garner from the thousands of pages of newly released evidence. A noteworthy discovery is that a majority of the pleas are in fact from Catholics, not Jews. They are baptized Jews or descendents of Jews who ultimately identify as Catholic. Even so, they are being affected by the country’s racial laws and potential deportation and extermination due to their Jewish status. 

“What I see in these [archives] is the Vatican can be involved in the selection of who should live and who should die. Who should be persecuted, who shouldn’t?” says Kertzer, noting that the archives include hundreds and hundreds of copies of baptismal certificates . “That’s the most common document you’ll find, as people are trying to escape persecution by showing they’re not really Jewish, they’re Catholic.” 

One of these stories comes from Hareld Maresch in a letter written on January 9, 1940. He was an Austrian actor, writer and director who at the time was residing in Marseille, France. His professional history included radio broadcasting in Vienna, propaganda broadcasting in Paris and theater in Prague. In these documents, Maresch requested help in obtaining a Brazilian immigration visa and travel documents to facilitate his transit through Portugal and Spain. He also requested an exit visa from France. 

Another document comes from Clara Heger in a letter dated December 12,1940. Heger and her 19-year-old daughter resided in Milan, Italy, and her husband was in a concentration camp. In this letter, she requests assistance in releasing her husband and getting visas for her family to join her sister in Brazil. Her sister’s husband is Aryan and her sister has been baptized in the Cathlolic faith for 26 years. She pleads for help from the Vatican as her Jewish status prohibits her from getting the visas. In the letter (translated from German), she states, “Now it is my only and greatest wish to get my family to Brazil and to get my husband out of the concentration camp and I ask you sincerely to help me achieve this.” She includes her sister’s contact information to strengthen her case. 

In terms of what history is still hidden, there is no definite way of knowing. Kertzer notes that when he met with the head of the main archives of the Vatican a number of years ago, the man explained that they don’t make sensitive personnel files available to researchers. Additionally, Kertzter adds that Pope Pius XII was a very cautious man, careful of what got put down in writing. If he thought it was compromising, it would not be recorded. 

“It’s not a question of whether sensitive documents have been put in some secret place that we don’t get to see them. Some things just probably were never written down.” 

In the case of Arthur Pick, his fate is unclear. He ended his last letter on August 31, 1940, with expressions of gratitude, signing off with “devatissima,” or “very devoted,” before mailing it to the Vatican in the hope that it would secure his freedom from those who wanted him dead.

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2 thoughts on “Vatican Archives Opened; Letters From Jews Revealed

  1. William Morris says:

    So, how many appeals were there? And how many were given relief?? Did Pius XII bother to help anyone? How many Jewish Jews were helped? How many Catholic Jews? How many Catholics?

    This “information” seems to amount to a lot of grief, and no information.

  2. Laehmaggiegarfield says:

    As a child I knew Pope Pius XI had failed to be a true man of God. I knew he abhorred Jews and was going to let the Nazis take care of the matter for him. He lived a long time after the war and it was under his watch that the Catholic Church began to fall out of favor with the faithful.

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