Saturday, April 3, 2010

Pinchas Lapide and Rubbery Figures

In his book “The Last Three Popes and the Jews” (1967), Pinchas Lapide claimed that Pius XII was responsible for saving the lives of 860,000 Jews. I remember the first time I read Lapide’s book and the sense of amazement that Pius had been so active in saving Jewish lives. In the 20 years or so since I first read “The Last Three Popes” I have done a lot of work in studying, researching, teaching and writing about the Holocaust. While I did not give Lapide much, if any thought, in my studies, occasionally I wondered “Where did he get the numbers from?” It has only been in the last few months when I decided to launch the blog that I considered it was time to have a proper look at Lapide’s claim that has been used as one of the major arguments to support the thesis that Pope Pius XII was the greatest rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust.

But first, a couple of myths need to be dispelled. On a number of historically uncritical websites, blogs and in more than a few books, Lapide is described as a diplomat and a rabbi. As far as I can tell from the few sites that have detailed information about Lapide he never received smicha (rabbinical ordination), and was in diplomatic service from 1951 to 1962 holding several relatively minor roles in Milan, Rio and Jerusalem.

I have yet to find any source that claims Lapide was an historian. He held degrees in languages, biblical studies and political science. His great passion was interfaith dialogue between Judaism and Christianity.

Who was Lapide?

Pinchas Lapide was born in Vienna, Austria on 28 November 1922. After the Anchluss in March 1938 and a short term of imprisonment in a concentration camp near the Czech border, Lapide managed to make his way into Poland and from there to Britain before arriving in Palestine on the last ship to reach the Mandate in 1940 where he worked on a kibbutz near Haifa. He enlisted in the British Eighth Army in 1941 and eventually served in Italy as part of the Jewish Brigade. At war’s end he served as a liaison officer between the Americans and Russians in Vienna.

Remaining in Vienna after demobilisation in 1945, Lapide studied languages for a year at Vienna University. In 1947 he returned to Palestine and studied under Martin Buber as well as pursuing his now growing interest in early Jewish-Christian history. He fought in the Israeli wars of Independence after which he resumed studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1951 Lapide entered the Israeli diplomatic service and worked in Milan where he met Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. During this time he met and married Ruth Rosenblatt (1929- ) with whom he shared a common interest in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Lapide was involved in the Israeli government’s preparation for the visit of Paul VI to Israel in 1964. At the same time he was Deputy Director of the National Press Office in Israel. Lapide’s commitment to study did not wane. He pursued studies in languages, medieval history and political science alongside his passion, early Jewish-Christian history. He was proficient in Italian, Russian, French, German, Hebrew and English. In 1967 he wrote his most famous work Rom und die Juden, translated as “The Last Three Popes and the Jews”.

In 1969 Lapide and his family moved from Israel to Cologne, Germany. He studied at the Martin Buber Institute for Jewish Studies and completed a PhD on the subject of Hebrew usage in Christian religious communities in the land of Israel. From 1971 Lapide was resident in Frankfurt am Main. For the rest of his life, Pinchas Lapide worked for reconciliation between Jews and Christians. He was honoured for his work by the Federal Republic of Germany in 1993 with the Great Federal Cross of Merit; and his adopted city, Frankfurt, which struck a medal in his name. Lapide died on 23 October 1997.

Lapide’s published works cover topics around the areas of early Jewish-Christian history. His studies at tertiary levels were in the areas of languages, biblical studies, medieval history and political science.

Lapide and Interfaith Dialogue, History and Popes.

It is reasonably clear that Pinchas Lapide was passionate about Jewish-Christian dialogue in a time when such dialogue was just emerging. “The Last Three Popes” was published just two years after Nostrae Aetate and well before the major dialogues between the Judaism and Christianity were part of the regular pattern of religious life for either tradition. I suggest that Lapide’s non-critical examination of the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust comes from his eagerness to promote good relations between the official Church and, understandably, sceptical Jewish communities. The book demonstrates a basic knowledge of the history of Jewish-Christian relations in the first half of the 20th century, but does not seem to grasp the complexities that characterised Catholic responses and reactions to Fascism, Communism and Democracy.

Lapide does not explain, in a satisfactory or reliable way, how he reached the figure of 860,000 rescued Jews in his discussion of Pius XII. On pages 214 and 215 of “The Last Three Popes” (Souvenir, London) Lapide wrote:

"The Catholic Church, under the pontificate of Pius XII was instrumental in saving at least 700,000 but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands"

Estimating that 1.3 million of Europe’s pre-war Jewish population survived, Lapide then subtracted numbers based on what he said were “reasonable claims” of rescue made by Protestant Christians, Communists, agnostics and other non-Jews. Jose Maria Sanchez, author of “Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy” (CUA Press 2002) and arguably one of the most conservatively balanced writers on Pius, wrote:

Lapide gives no documentation for this figure or his exact calculations. It should be noted that Lapide does not say that Pius saved the Jews, only that the saving occurred “under the pontificate of Pius XII.” The undocumented calculation and suggestive wording have been ignored by Pius’ defenders. Their uncritical acceptance of Lapide’s statistics and statements has weakened their arguments. (Sanchez, 140)

Ronald Rychlak, William Doino, David Dalin and Margherita Marchione are among writers who consistently use Lapide’s figure to support their arguments.

In summary, the figure of 860,000 is a creation of Pinchas Lapide and nothing else. It has no basis in historical fact.

Most Holocaust historians such as Raul Hilberg, Yehuda Bauer, Lucy Dawidowicz, Martin Gilbert, David Bankier, Michael Berenbaum and Saul Friedlander, support the thesis that the number of dead lie between Raul Hilberg’s 5.1 million and Wolfgang Benz’s outer limit of 6.2 million. The reason for the discrepancy lies in the lack of verifiable data. The Germans kept lists for many of the killing sites, but some of the lists contain estimates, and it was not uncommon for these to be inflated in order to impress superiors in Berlin.

Lucy Dawidowicz is regarded as having created a reliable summary in her book “The War Against the Jews” (1986): of a European pre-war population estimated at 8.861 million, approximately 5.933 were murdered – c67%. The surviving number – 2.983 million are accounted through migration either pre-war or after war began, depending on location; Soviet Jews in European Russia who fled eastwards after June 1941; Jews hidden in occupied territories either by non-Jews or with other Jews in places such as forests and partisan groups; survivors of camps and ghettoes. The number of Jews rescued by Catholics will never be known with accuracy because of the variables related to the reality of rescue.

Lapide also mentioned that in 1958 there were calls to plant a forest of 860,000 trees in memory of the Jews saved by Catholics during the Holocaust. This “throw away” line has entered the mythology of some “canonise-him-now” groups, who believe that such a forest exists. Recent emails to friends in Israel have discovered no forest. It has never existed, and most likely, never will.


  1. Paul:

    Thank you for your research. What do you think of Ion Mihai Pacepa's claims about the KGB involvement in writing the play, The Deputy?

    As you probably know he is said to be "the highest-ranking intelligence official ever to have defected from the former Eastern Bloc."

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    I think the maxim "If it looks too good to be true, it probably is" best sums up the story of Ion Mihai Pacepa. The story, and that is what I regard it as, has no external corroboration from anyone or any organisation. I find it hard to believe that the Pope would warrant such attention from the secret police agencies of the USSR and Soviet Bloc. Sure Pius was the most vocal anti-communist crusader, but as far as the communist regimes were concerned he was a toothless tiger. And then why bother with a discreditting campaign of Pius XII when his successor, John XXIII was busy upsetting hard-line communists by making positive noises towards the Soviets and their allies. And what benefit would these detractors hope to gain? It makes no sense. Communist regimes regularly re-wrote history according ideological trends, so why would they go to the effort to fund and sustain a program of defamation around Pius XII. So, unless corroborative evidence is produced - hard copy verefied and contextualised by historians etc - I think Pacepa has the stuff for a good novel, but not much else.

  3. Dr. O'Shea do you agree with Kevin Magidan that Lapide was motived by political exigency?
    "Lapide was in the 1960s an Israeli consul in Milan and was attempting, at the time he made his inflated estimates, to secure Vatican recognition for the state of Israel..."


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