Open Vatican Archives for the Sake of Holocaust Survivors

  • June 19, 2013

During an international conference of Vatican and Jewish interfaith leaders held in Paris in 2011, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) asked for a special conference to discuss opening the Vatican's Secret World War II archives for humanitarian purposes: for the sake of aging Holocaust survivors and their families.

ADL Interfaith Director Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg told Vatican officials there were rising concerns among Jewish and Catholic scholars and leading world Holocaust institutions about the unclear status of the archives, millions of records which document the activities of Pope Pius XII and his administration during the Holocaust.

"We are now at a serious juncture regarding the secret archives and the debate over Pope Pius XII's actions regarding the Jewish people during the Holocaust. At stake are the rights of Holocaust survivors and their families to finally learn, before their deaths, the ultimate fate of their loved ones, who were lost during the Shoah. At stake is truth and historical accuracy." He said scholars believe the closed Vatican records may contain names of heretofore unknown victims or those who may have been rescued unbeknownst to their families. Rabbi Greenberg specifically asked for the release of all relevant archives for the "killing years" and immediate post war period – 1939-1947 to be opened for study by independent historians.

Yet the Vatican's Holocaust-era archives remain closed.

The issue was raised again during the first official meeting between Pope Francis and Jewish leaders on June 24, 2013 in Rome.

Echoing ADL's request, Pope Francis was asked to make available the Vatican's Archives for the war years - 1939 to 1946 - "for the sake of Holocaust survivors who have the right, before they die, to find out if the archives contain information about what happened to missing loved ones."

ADL's original request two years ago came during a three-day conference known as the ILC, (International Liaison Committee) the official bi-annual conference held between the Vatican's Commission of Religious Relations with Jews (CRRJ) and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), a coalition of Jewish organizations of which ADL is a charter member. The Vatican was represented by CRRJ President, Cardinal Kurt Koch; vice president, Bishop Brian Farrell; and Secretary Father Norbert Hofmann, as well as several other Cardinals involved in interreligious dialogue. Representing ADL were Rabbi Greenberg and Martin L. Budd, Chairman of ADL's Outreach and Interfaith Committee. The meeting commemorated the 40th anniversary of the ILC.

Shortly thereafter, New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan echoed ADL's call for action at a public meeting at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Cardinal Dolan acknowledged that both Catholic and Jewish scholars are frustrated over the Vatican's decades-long delay in opening its closed Holocaust archives.

"Whatever is needed to complete this project — even in phases, rather than only as a whole — I suggest must be explored," Dolan said. He acknowledged that the historical record was still unclear on what Pope Pius XII did or failed to do to save Jews in the Holocaust or protest the mass slaughter. He said that more study was needed.

Cardinal Dolan thus joined his predecessor, the late New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor, and Chicago's late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, both of whom had publicly called for the Vatican archives to be opened for study by independent scholars more than a decade ago. Indeed, Cardinal O'Connor had indicated he had the support of Pope John Paul II in making his statement.

But the status quo continues, at the expense of Holocaust survivors who deserve to know the truth about the horrific events of their past.

In 2007, Vatican archives officials told a group of Jewish leaders that the documents would be made available within five years. But the Vatican seems no closer today to opening the archives. ADL has expressed concern over the Vatican's failure to date to provide a reliable timetable for access to scholars and Holocaust institutions. This has become of greater concern recently as those who are pushing for Pope Pius XII to be declared a saint have been releasing to the media out-of-context Vatican documents in an effort to bolster claims that did all he could possibly do to save Jews during the Holocaust. When Pius XII was declared "blessed" by Pope Benedict in 2010 the official Vatican announcement explained that he should be seen as "a model of eminent Christian life."

While ADL fully recognizes that the process of sainthood is an internal matter for the Church, the issue of what Pius XII did or did not do to help save Jews during the Holocaust is a profound question that must be resolved. To proceed on the process toward sainthood without having all of the facts would be premature when so much is not known about the historical truth of the Vatican's actions during the war. And by invoking the Holocaust, Pius supporters make it an issue for the Jewish people - and historical truth.

ADL has consistently stated that no conclusions should be made about Pius XII's actions during the Holocaust until all relevant archives for the "killing years" and immediate post war period – 1939-1947 – are opened and studied by independent historians.

These materials would include materials known as the Vatican's Secret Archives, the archives of European Bishops Conferences, and the archives of Papal Nuncios (ambassadors) from around the world working under the administration of Pope Pius XII. These church records have special significance for Holocaust survivors and their families.

The Vatican's argument that it must wait until all the millions of records of Pope Pius XII's entire papacy, which lasted until 1957, are catalogued is questionable. What the Vatican needs to do, and can do, is release the secret archives concerning Pius XII for the years 1939-1947, something that a Vatican official promised to the Jewish community 12 years ago. Our understanding is the war years have already been catalogued and there is no legitimate rule preventing them from being made public. Indeed, Pope John Paul II released a cache of these documents in 2003.

Pope Francis has already said he believes the archives should be opened and fully investigated.

"They should open them and clarify everything," he wrote in his book 2010 "On Heaven and Earth when he was Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. "Then it can be seen if they could have done something, to what extent it could have been done, and if we were wrong in something we will be able to say: 'We were wrong in this.' We do not have to be afraid of that. The objective has to be the truth.'"

For the sake of Holocaust survivors and their families, for the sake of historical truth, and for the sake of Catholic-Jewish relations, the secret Vatican archives of Pope Pius XII must be opened now.

ILC Discusses Terrorism and Extremism

Besides discussing the crucial need to open the Vatican's Holocaust-era archives, delegates ILC conference reviewed ILC's history, discussed bio-medical issues, the need to educate both communities about the necessity of interfaith cooperation - particularly the next generation of Jewish and Catholic leaders, and rising violence by extremists being conducted in the name of religion.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory and Rabbi Greenberg co-chaired a panel on the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East. Participants discussed the growing concern of Jews and Catholics over the rise in violence and terrorism in the name of God, particularly the killings of Christians in the Middle East region. The conference met as a Catholic government minister in Pakistan was assassinated, apparently by Islamic extremists, the latest in a series of killings of Christians including Iraq and Egypt.

ILC participants helped plant a tree in memory of Ilan Halimi, a French Jew killed by an anti-Semitic gang in 2006, and visited the Drancy internment camp, from which French Jews were transferred to death camps by the Nazis.

Rabbi Greenberg worked with Bishop Murphy, Bishop Farrell and Father Hofmann to draft the ILC's Joint Communiqué, which denounced persecution and violence against religious minorities and expressed support for pro-democracy movements across North Africa and the Middle East.

The document stated: "In many parts of the world, minorities, especially religious minorities, are discriminated against, threatened by unjust restrictions of their religious liberty, and even subjected to persecution and murder," the document declared. "Speakers expressed a profound sadness at repeated instances of violence or terrorism "in the name of God", including the increased attacks against Christians, and calls for the destruction of the State of Israel. The conference deplores every act of violence perpetrated in the name of religion as a complete corruption of the very nature of a genuine relationship with God."

ILC delegates rejected attempts to expand the ILC conference into a tri-faith meeting that would include a world Muslim organization. A majority of delegates emphasized the importance of keeping the focus of the ILC on bilateral Catholic-Jewish relations, as the dialogue is still at the "beginning of the beginning" as Cardinal Walter Kasper, past President of the Vatican Commission, has stated. In fact, the 1970 ILC Memorandum of Understanding, which governs the ILC meetings, does not mandate the inclusion of Muslims.

Interfaith experts noted that while Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in the one God of Abraham, neither Jews nor Christians share sacred texts with Islam as Jews and Christians do, and Mohammed, while profoundly influenced by Judaism and Christianity, did not start out as a Jew or a Christian, while Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Apostles were all Jews, thus creating a distinctive relationship between Judaism and Christianity.