Small World

Jewish World Review April 17, 2000 / 12 Nissan, 5760

Pope's Healing Touch
Helps Mideast Some…

By Richard Z. Chesnoff -- ONLY THE MALEVOLENT could have remained unmoved by Pope John Paul's heartfelt prayer of contrition at Judaism's holiest shrine, the Western Wall.

No, the Holy Father didn't specifically apologize for the Vatican's inexcusable silence during the Holocaust. Let's be realistic; even an obtuse condemnation of a predecessor Pope is impossible under the byzantine constraints of Vatican politics.

But in issuing his mea culpa for church sins committed against Jews and in carrying out his pilgrimage to the Holy Land — possibly the last trip of his papacy — the Polish-born Pope has done more to advance the reconciliation of Catholics and Jews, and of Catholics and those of other faiths, than any other Pope in history.

Yet many of history's most painful questions remain unanswered. Why did Pope Pius XII refuse to unequivocally condemn the Holocaust — or the slaughter of Catholics by the Nazis, for that matter? Why did he never call on church clergy to extend a helping hand to Jews? What role did the Vatican play in helping Nazi fugitives escape from Europe after the war? And what, if any, role did the Vatican play in harboring stolen assets?

The answers to all these questions lie in the Vatican archives. Problem is, few states guard their secrets more closely than the Holy See. Unlike the U.S. and other nations that declassify most documents after 50 years, the Vatican invokes a 75-year rule. Even then, the church assiduously selects what it makes available to outsiders — including the ecumenical scholars the Vatican itself recently appointed to research the war period.

The result has been a heavy cloud over the role of the Vatican and its wartime vicar. The cloud has only grown heavier in recent years as other nations have released their once-confidential intelligence reports.

Witness Catholic John Cornwell's scourging biography, "Hitler's Pope." And in the research for my own book on the theft of Jewish assets, "Pack of Thieves," hitherto secret documents discovered in the U.S., Argentina, France and other countries make it clear that Pius XII had his own agenda.

Consider a recently decoded report from Harold Tittman, the American envoy to the Holy See, who indicates in June 1942 that Pius believes the Nazis will probably defeat the Allies. This insight into the Vatican view of Nazi power — combined with Pius' obsessive fear of Soviet Communism — lends new understanding to his wartime silence.

It also adds a new dimension to the Vatican's participatory role in the postwar "Rat-line," the odorous underground railroad that smuggled "anti-Communist" Nazis from Europe to Latin America along with loot plundered from European Jews and other victims of Nazism.

A recent Argentine government report, for example, confirms the Holy See's hand in seeking Latin American visas for Croatia's Ustashe Nazis, who played a major role in exterminating tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews and gypsies. The report confirms that senior Vatican personalities pressed for the postwar escape of an "important retinue of followers and looted assets." Included: almost $50 million in gold, much of it plundered from Yugoslav Jews, and part of as much as $250 million in Ustashe booty believed stashed for "safekeeping" in the Vatican treasury at the end of the war.

The Vatican owes it to history and to Pope John Paul to release all relevant documents. Truth, like compassion, must know no fear. Only then can we learn and close this chapter.

JWR contributor and veteran journalist Richard Z. Chesnoff is a senior correspondent at US News And World Report and a columnist at the NY Daily News. His latest book is Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews and Committed the Greatest Theft in History.


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