Hard as it may be to fathom today, Pope Pius XII was deeply admired in
his day and in the years following his pontificate. This admiration came
from all kinds of quarters. Graham Greene, the liberal Catholic writer,
described him as "a pope who many of us believe will rank among the
greatest." Moving testimonies on the part of prominent European Jews
(see afterword below) likewise indicate the esteem and love that so much
of the world had for him.
That began to change in 1963 with the Berlin premiere of the
left-wing German writer Rolf Hochhuth’s fictional play The Deputy,
which portrayed Pius XII as callous and indifferent in the face of
Jewish suffering under the Nazis. Within three years of that event books
critical of Pius began to appear, along with defenses by Jewish authors.
Those defenses, all but forgotten in the present environment, were
substantial. The Anti-Defamation League’s representative in Rome, Joseph
L. Lichten, wrote A Question of Judgment, a 1963 monograph in
defense of Pius XII against the fictional depiction of the Pope in The
Deputy. Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide, cited to this day by those who
defend the Pope, wrote in his Three Popes and the Jews (1967) that Pius
"was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many
as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands."
The Hungarian Jewish historian Jeno Levai, outraged by the unjust
attacks on Pius XII, wrote Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy: Pius XII
Did Not Remain Silent (English translation, 1968). Levai, who
steeped himself in archival materials of both Church and state, showed
that the papal nuncio and the bishops "intervened again and again on
the instructions of the pope," and that as a result of these labors
"in the autumn and winter of 1944 there was practically no Catholic
Church institution in Budapest where persecuted Jews did not find
In recent years the anti-Pius hysteria has reached a pitch that Jews
and non-Jews alike could scarcely have imagined in 1958, the year of the
Pope’s death. The most celebrated example, of course, has been
ex-seminarian John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope, which
makes Pius XII out to be a supporter of National Socialism who did
little or nothing to stop Adolf Hitler’s terrible campaign against the
Enter Rabbi David Dalin. Rabbi Dalin, who vigorously dissents from
the anti-Pius orthodoxy, suggests in his new book The Myth of
Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis that
the great pontiff in fact deserves to be recognized as a "righteous
Gentile" for his efforts to rescue Jews from the fate that awaited them
at Nazi hands.
"As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pius XII,
it would be both historically just and morally appropriate for Yad
Vashem to posthumously recognize and honor Pius XII as one of the
‘righteous among the nations.’"
As Rabbi Dalin shows, the Catholic Church, under direct orders from
Pius XII, went to great lengths to shelter and protect Jews throughout
Europe. The Myth of Hitler’s Pope is filled with examples of
heroism throughout the European continent, and case after case of
rescuers and rescued alike honoring Pope Pius XII for his defiance of
the Nazis. Particularly moving is the book’s discussion of Pius’ efforts
on behalf of Slovakian Jews; Rabbi Dalin contends that 20,000 Jews
escaped deportation as a direct result of the Pope’s intervention.
Rabbi Dalin devotes considerable attention to the Nazi roundup of
Jews in Rome, which has been the source of much controversy in the Pius
XII debate. Michael Tagliacozzo, the leading authority on that terrible
event (and himself a survivor of the roundup), says Pius XII "was the
only one who intervened to impede the deportation of Jews on October 16,
1943, and he did very much to hide and save thousands of us." Archival
evidence, he says, proves that it was the protests and actions of Pius
XII that were responsible for rescuing 80 percent of Rome’s Jews. At the
Pope’s behest, Jews were hidden all over the city, in churches,
monasteries, and wherever room for them could be found.
Rabbi Dalin points out that neither Cornwell nor Susan Zuccotti,
another Pius XII critic, mentions the sheltering of three thousand Jews
at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s own summer residence.
"Yet at no other site in Nazi-occupied Europe were as many Jews
saved and sheltered for as long a period as at Castel Gandolfo during
the Nazi occupation of Rome."
Kosher food was served to the Jews sheltered there. Jewish children
were even born in the Pope’s private apartments.
When in the summer of 1944 a group of Roman Jews came to thank the
Pope for the protection he had extended to them, Pius replied:
"For centuries, Jews have been unjustly treated and despised. It is
time they were treated with justice and humanity. God wills it and the
Church wills it. Saint Paul tells us that the Jews are our brothers.
They should also be welcomed as our friends."
Rabbi Dalin also notes that prominent Catholics who were honored for
their efforts on behalf of the Jews have pointed to Pope Pius XII as the
inspiration behind their actions. The future Popes John XXIII and Paul
VI, while still Cardinals Roncalli and Montini, respectively, received
high praise for their efforts to shelter and rescue Jews. In both cases,
the future pontiffs shrugged that they were just following the orders of
Pope Pius XII. Cardinal Pietro Palazzini, who hid many Italian Jews for
several months in 1943 and 1944, was honored by Yad Vashem in 1985 as a
"righteous Gentile." Cardinal Palazzini emphasized that "the merit is
entirely Pius XII’s, who ordered us to do whatever we could to save the
Jews from persecution."
It was partly because of his sympathy for the Jews and his opposition
to National Socialism that Pius was in fact strongly disliked by the
Nazis; Hitler’s regime actually lobbied against the election of Pacelli
to replace Pius XI as pope. Pacelli was referred to as Pius XI’s
"Jew-loving" cardinal. Rabbi Dalin points out that "of the forty-four
speeches Pacelli gave in Germany as papal nuncio between 1917 and 1929,
forty denounced some aspect of the emerging Nazi ideology."
As Cardinal Pacelli he had played a central role in the drafting of
Mit Brennender Sorge, Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical condemning
Nazism. His inaugural encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (1939), made
clear the incompatibility of National Socialism with the Catholic faith.
The New York Times headline read, "Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty
Violators, Racism." Allied aircraft even dropped some 88,000 copies of
the Pope’s document over Germany in order to undermine the Nazi
government. The abortive Nazi plan to kidnap Pius XII is also rather
difficult to square with the "Hitler’s Pope" myth.
Now if what Rabbi Dalin says in this book is true and Pope Pius XII
was in fact a great friend of the Jews, how do we account for the
ceaseless attacks on the wartime pontiff? Let Rabbi Dalin answer that
Very few of the many recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust
are actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust. The liberal bestselling
attacks on the pope and the Catholic Church are really an intra-Catholic
argument about the direction of the Church today. The Holocaust is
simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against
traditional Catholics in their attempt to bash the papacy and thereby to
smash traditional Catholic teaching….
"The 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."
Rabbi Dalin has performed an extraordinary service on behalf of Pope
Pius XII and for the Catholic Church in general. The severity of the
attacks that await him can only be imagined. He deserves Catholics’
support, and their gratitude.
Imagine if this book, in which a rabbi defends Pope Pius XII, became
a national bestseller. The mainstream media, which has gone out of its
way to showcase condemnations of this great pope while ignoring cogent
and persuasive defenses, would be left gasping in shock, scarcely
knowing how to react. What a glorious sight that would be. If you’re
like me, you’re already out the door to buy a copy and help make it
A sample of the Jewish testimonies included in The Myth of Hitler’s
We share in the grief of humanity [at the death of Pius XII]….
When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi
terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims. The life of
our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral
truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of
~ Golda Meir
No keener rebuke has come to Nazism than from Pope Pius XI and his
successor, Pope Pius XII.
~ Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary of
In the most difficult hours of which we Jews of Romania have passed
through, the generous assistance of the Holy See…was decisive and
salutary. It is not easy for us to find the right words to express the
warmth and consolation we experienced because of the concern of the
supreme pontiff, who offered a large sum to relieve the sufferings of
deported Jews…. The Jews of Romania will never forget these facts of
~ Rabbi Alexander Safran, chief rabbi of Romania
The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness and his
illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion,
which form the very foundation of true civilization, are doing for our
unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our
history, which is living proof of Divine Providence in this world.
~ Rabbi Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi of Israel
I told [Pope Pius XII] that my first duty was to thank him, and
through him the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Jewish public for
all they had done in the various countries to rescue Jews…. We are
deeply grateful to the Catholic Church.
~ Moshe Sharett (who later became Israel’s first foreign minister and
second prime minister)
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
[email] holds a bachelor’s
degree in history from Harvard and his Ph.D. from Columbia. His books
How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free
The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy,
and the New York Times (and LRC) bestseller
The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History. A longer
version of this review will appear in
Mass magazine, of which Thomas Woods is associate editor.