Heroes, Spies, Nazis and the Pope: A True Story That Reads Like a Spy Novel

Heroes, Spies, Nazis and the Pope: A True Story That Reads Like a Spy Novel March 6, 2013

“A false prophet of Lucifer.”

That’s how Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli – later to become Pope Pius XII – described Adolf Hitler in a 1935 open letter to the bishop of Cologne, Germany. In fact, Pacelli condemned the Nazis and anti-Semitism in 40 of 44 speeches he gave while serving as Cardinal Secretary of State of the Holy See. His constant denunciations of the increasingly repressive and brutal German government led Hitler to brand the Cardinal as “a Jew lover in the Vatican.”

These facts may come as a surprise to people who are only familiar with stories from recent decades stating that Pope Pius XII was anti-Semitic, a Nazi sympathizer, and “Hitler’s Pope,” as one biography called him.

Author Gordon Thomas dispels those allegations in his well-documented, meticulously-researched book, “The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan to Save Jews from the Nazis.

Thomas explained to me on Christopher Closeup that he is not a Catholic himself and his books usually focus on the world of spies and secret intelligence. But twelve years ago, during a conversation with a former Director General of Mossad, Israel’s covert operations and counterterrorism agency, Thomas was told he could find a great story in the Pope’s saving the Jews of Rome during World War Two.

He thought it sounded interesting, but didn’t pursue the idea too actively until he was researching a different book and came across a 1943 letter to Pope Pius XII by Chaim Weizmann, who would later become the first President of Israel. The letter thanked the Holy See for all it did to help the Jewish people.

With assistance from researchers in Israel, Rome, the Vatican, the United States and the United Kingdom, where Thomas lives, he unearthed a true story that reads like a spy novel.

One of Cardinal Pacelli’s first rescue operations was initiated in 1938 immediately after Kristallnacht, the night that the Nazis destroyed the homes, businesses and synagogues of Jews throughout Germany. Every German cardinal, explained Thomas, received a coded message from Pacelli to “get their priests to reach Jews and give them travel documents from the Vatican [so] they appeared to be people going on pilgrimages. He opened up the whole system to bring them down to Italy and then put them on boats to sail off to America and places like that.”

In other words, the forged documents from the Vatican stated that the Jews were actually Catholics. The “system” included monasteries, convents and safehouses where the Jews could stay until they were ready to move again. Some Jews who remained were given baptismal certificates to cover their true identities.

Thomas writes in his book, “It would not be until 2001 that the figure of successful visa applicants would be revealed to be 200,000 who had left Germany in the weeks following Kristallnacht. None suspected the role Pacelli had played in gaining their freedom.”

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Pacelli had already been elected Pope and chosen the name Pius XII to honor his predecessor. Pius now issued orders to the cardinals to hide Poland’s Jews in whatever shelters they could. A coded message was also sent to the Vatican nuncio in Istanbul telling him “to prepare thousands of baptismal certificates to give to Jews which will allow them passage through Turkey to the Holy Land.”

As the Third Reich grew in power and World War Two expanded, Pope Pius XII’s secret work continued. For that reason, Pius no longer overtly denounced Hitler. Thomas explained to me that the Pope asked himself, “If I speak out now, what will happen? More Jews and Catholics will be killed. It’s best to stay silent and work behind the scenes.”

Though the Vatican officially remained neutral in the war, Pius didn’t remain completely silent. He ordered Vatican radio and the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, to report evidence of Nazi atrocities against Jews in Germany. He made a statement on Vatican radio that “any man who makes a distinction between Jews and other men is unfaithful to God.”

Pope Pius XII also instructed his bishops in Germany to protest a new law requiring children of mixed Catholic/Jewish marriages to wear the Star of David on their clothing. Thomas writes, “The Nazi response was to seize convents, Catholic hospitals, and other church property throughout Germany; Catholic organizations were closed down and religious images removed from schools.”

When the war and persecution of Jews eventually moved to the streets of Rome, Pius was ready once again, putting an Irish priest, Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, in charge of a network of priests, nuns and other Catholics who helped the Jews in Rome’s ghetto and allied prisoners of war find safety or safe passage.

Due to the Vatican’s neutrality in the war, Pius was able to open up the Vatican so Jews could live there. Thomas said, “There are pictures in the book showing that. They were sleeping and being fed in the Vatican. He ordered the gardens of the Vatican to be opened for Jewish children to play in…The other thing which is so telling to me is that the Pope said to O’Flaherty, ‘You know, the Jews don’t quite eat our food. So what I want to do is find a kosher butcher somewhere and bring him to Rome.’ And the Vatican had a little farm at the time; it still has it in the outskirts. The butcher would do the ritual killing so that people will have proper food. He then said, ‘I want every seminary and monastery and convent to have special rooms set aside for Jews to pray. We must totally understand [them]’…All this is documented.”

Pope Pius became such a thorn in Hitler’s side that the Fuhrer actually developed a plot to kidnap the pontiff. Thomas said, “Hitler wanted the Pope to be brought to Germany to be held there and used as a bargaining tool with the Americans and the British. If they would let Hitler join forces with them, they could all attack Stalin. Hitler sent for General Wolff, who was the SS leader in Italy, and said, ‘Organize this plot for me…You’re going to go to Rome and capture the Vatican, empty it of everything – its records, its papers, its pictures – I want everything. Then I want [the Pope] brought here.’ Wolff, for all his evils – and he’s a pretty evil man – said [to himself], ‘This is madness.'”

As intriguing as all this sounds, it only scratches the surface of what’s covered in “The Pope’s Jews,” which also includes stories of a traitorous bishop, a Vatican insider who sold false stories to the press, and the many Jewish people who were helped by the Vatican’s network. If all goes according to plan, the story will eventually be turned into a movie. Among the film’s technical advisers will be Gary Krupp, a Jewish man who co-founded the Pave the Way Foundation to promote positive relations between Christians and Jews – and who himself has worked tirelessly to ensure that Pius’ true wartime efforts are better known.

Regarding the big question – whether Pope Pius XII should have done more to publicly condemn Hitler during World War Two – Thomas believes that the Pope made the best decisions he could in light of his desire to save as many people as possible. He said, “I think on the whole, the Pope did very well. I’m satisfied with the response I’ve had that this book has at least made people think about what the Pope really did. He was an extraordinary man.”

Or as Golda Meir, Israel’s foreign minister, told the United Nations in a 1958 eulogy for Pope Pius XII, “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the words of Pope Pius XII were raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out with great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.”

To listen to the full interview with Gordon Thomas, click on the podcast link:
Christopher Closeup podcast – Guest: Gordon Thomas

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