Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 112 (April 2001): 52-55.
Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy. By Susan Zuccotti. Yale University Press. 408 pp. $29.95.
Reviewed by Kevin M. Doyle
The story of Occupied Rome has never dovetailed well with the portrait of Pius XII as indifferent to the fate of European Jews. Between ten thousand and twelve thousand Jews resided in Rome as the Nazis took over the city in September 1943. When initially the Nazis extorted gold from the city’s Jews, the Vatican quietly pledged its gold to the Jewish community as backup. And when the Germans commenced a roundup on October 16, the Church responded swiftly. Catholic institutions became sanctuaries. More than four thousand Jews found refuge in scores of religious houses, several external Vatican properties, and Vatican City itself. The Cardinal Secretary of State summoned the German ambassador and begged that he intervene for the Jews. An Austrian bishop stationed in Rome delivered a second protest. The Vatican followed up with intercessions on behalf of some individual detainees.
Tragedy was not wholly averted. The SS ultimately deported to their death almost two thousand Roman Jews. That, however, was but a quarter of the number Berlin originally demanded. In August 1944, Anne O’Hare McCormack, a Pulitzer Prize–winning New Yorker, reported from Liberated Rome. Pius now enjoyed an “enhanced” position because during the Nazi occupation he had made “hiding someone ‘on the run’ the thing to do” and had given Jews “first priority.” The thing to do.
Almost sixty years later, it’s quite a trick to deprive Pius of credit at least for the Roman rescue and the Church’s heroics elsewhere in Italy, where 85 percent of the Jews survived the war. As Pope, he was, after all, Rome’s bishop and Italy’s primate. Yet Susan Zuccotti, author of Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, attempts this feat right before our very eyes. Throughout the book, she presents evidence of papal action on behalf of the Jews, only to twist it into an example of Pius XII’s callous disregard. Let’s sample three of Zuccotti’s interpretive contortions.
On October 25, while thousands of sheltered Jews trembled with fear, the Vatican distributed placards to Rome’s religious institutions declaring that, even under martial law, they were immune from being searched. Wouldn’t this bespeak papal support for sanctuary? Not by Zuccotti’s lights. “That placard . . . was distributed . . . regardless of whether [an institution was] harboring illegal fugitives.” Thus, argues Zuccotti, its intent was “to affirm and protect the special prerogatives of the Church rather than to protect fugitives.” Ah, yes, instead rescue houses—and rescue houses only—should have received big “No Jews Hidden Here” signs!
Many miles to the north, Bishop Giuseppe Nicolini of Assisi told a priest that he had a letter from the Vatican requesting help for endangered Jews. Zuccotti insists, however, that the prelate bluffed just to motivate his subordinates. Otherwise, he would have preserved the dangerous paper to someday exculpate Pius. But, as Owen Chadwick demonstrated in Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, the Holy See bordered on the paranoid when it came to German interception of incriminating documents, and so there is a readily available explanation for why such documents have not survived. That explanation, moreover, is consistent with another set of facts: that Jewish organizations and publications around the world had already begun praising the Pope for his diplomatic interventions.
An Alsatian cleric named Calliste Lopinot ministered for three years at Ferramonti internment camp where he compassionately aided and zealously advocated for Jew and non–Jew alike. The Vatican gave Lopinot money to help feed 494 Jews interned after a shipwreck. A papal nuncio later contributed additional funds for Lopinot’s humanitarian work. Lopi not’s very assignment to the camp came from the Vatican, where Lopinot had been working. Yet Zuccotti claims that in helping Jews he had “act[ed] on his own” and that “the Vatican cannot claim credit for his dedication, vision, and personal initiative.” Lopinot apparently disagreed, for after the war he accompanied a group of freed internees to thank Pius for his solicitude.
Zuccotti’s relentless spin contrasts starkly with the narrative power that rendered her earlier The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival a fine work. It also cheats the reader. After reading about how the Vatican pressured refugees to leave Vatican properties after SS raids, one is all ready to be outraged, until finding that at the end Zuccotti acknowledges that “departing guests could be, and were, referred to convents and monasteries.” No cause for outrage here, except at Zuccotti’s peculiar presentation.
Finally, though, it is Zuccotti’s omissions of evidence, rather than her manipulations of it, that make Under His Very Windows a scandal.
According to Zuccotti, Pius XII’s inaugural encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, issued within weeks of war’s outbreak, was not “confrontational” and “never mentioned Jews.” It merely “made a valuable statement.” Those interested can read it for themselves (www.newadvent.org/ docs/p12sp.htm), but it is clear that Zuccotti’s claim underestimates how it was received at the time. The French, for example, dropped copies of the encyclical on German troops, and the New York Times gave it a three–column, above–the–fold headline: POPE CONDEMNS DICTATORS, TREATY VIOLATORS, RACISM; URGES RESTORING OF POLAND. The encyclical declared “Catholic Solidarity” with those non–Catholics united with the Church either “in love for the person of Christ or belief in God” (emphasis added).
Zuccotti depicts Marie Benoit, an extraordinary Capuchin priest and rescuer, as an independent agent never “encouraged” by the Vatican. Yet Father Benoit’s account of his meeting with Pius to discuss imperiled French Jews describes the Pope as receptive and even solicitous. Zuccotti’s book mentions the meeting fleetingly but ignores Benoit’s favorable account of it.
Similarly, Zuccotti overlooks Pius’ own documented and apparently favorable consideration of a Jewish family’s request for convent quarters before the mid–October roundup. She likewise overlooks the postwar testimony of Paolo Cardinal Dezza and Monsignor J. Patrick Carroll–Abbing, rescuers who publicly and specifically contradicted the notion of Pius as an absentee moral leader. The author even ignores Vatican Radio’s pioneering 1940 reports on German abuse of Polish Jews and Gentiles, and its 1942 broadcast of the French bishops’ protest over Jewish deportations. Surely such media helped make rescue the thing to do.
Much of the evidence Zuccotti omits can be found in works or archives she cites. This suggests either a lack of diligence or research clouded by preconceived judgments, neither of which supports her claim to be the bearer of “the terrible truth” and her labeling of dissenting commentary and testimony as “profoundly inaccurate,” “rather deceptiv[e],” and “replete with egregious mistakes and distortions.”
The debate over Pius XII currently enjoys little check or balance, in part because Pope Sins sells better than Pope Saves. I am a liberal Catholic, but many of my fellows believe that a discredited Pius is a step toward a toothless papacy, and so suspend their critical faculties for the sake of their liberalism. The blasphemous enormity of the Holocaust makes it tempting to blame Pius, because it is tempting to blame everyone who was in power while the killing went on. Nonetheless, one suspects that in twenty years Pius will fare far better in the High Court of History than Susan Zuccotti will in the High Court of Historiography.
Kevin M. Doyle is a lawyer for poor capital defendants and death row inmates
in New York.