Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pius XII saved 200,000 Jews after the 1938 Pogrom? No.

I was more than a little surprised when google updates on Pius began arriving in my email this afternoon.  My surprised turned to something quite different when I began reading the lead article "Hitler's Pope saved thousands of Jewish lives". 

Frankly, the article is a collection of half-baked assertions, backed with no credible documentation - or if there is documentation, I am curious why it has not been revealed in a more scholarly manner with direct quotes from the text. 

I find it amazing that it was even published - but I guess sensationalism sells.  This version of the article comes from the online edition of the UK Telegraph. 

I hope Pave The Way is prepared to qualify the article or withdraw Hesemann's claims.  And Simon Caldwell, the journalist who wrote this piece, should have at least consulted scholars who have an expertise in the field.

My comments are in red type.

'Hitler's Pope' saved thousands of Jewish lives"

Pope Pius XII, the controversial wartime pontiff, may have saved thousands of Jews by secretly securing visas so they could escape Nazi Germany, a historian has claimed.

By Simon Caldwell

Published: 10:00PM BST 06 Jul 2010

Pope Pius XII: The claim was made by Dr Michael Hesemann, an academic carrying out research in the Vatican Archives for the Pave the Way Foundation, a US-based interfaith group.

Pope Pius, who was labelled “Hitler’s Pope” because of his silence during the Holocaust, may have arranged the exodus of about 200,000 Jews from Germany just three weeks after Kristallnacht, when thousands of Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

Jewish Population statistics:

1933 Jews in Germany c566,000

Jews in Austria c192,000.

Jewish Population change between 1933-1939 – due to emigration:

Germany c282,000;

Austria (only after the Anchluss in March 1938) c117,000.

Total Jewish population change in the Greater German Reich 1933-1939:

Decrease of c399,000

Factors to include: 1935 Nuremberg Laws defined a “full” Jew as a person with four “full” Jewish grandparents; a person with three “full” Jewish grandparents; a “mixed race person” (mischlinge) a person with at least one “full” Jewish parent. Religious practice was irrelevant. Jewish converts to Christianity were regarded as racial Jews. Christians of Jewish descent were regarded as racial Jews. The Nuremberg Laws were applied to Austria after the Anchluss. Some Jews returned to Germany between 1934 and 1938 when it appeared the regime had “settled” the “Jewish question”.

Austrian Jewish population figures 1938:

Number of Jews according to Jewish communal census (did not include Jews who had converted to Christianity) 181,778

Number of Jews according to Himmler’s statistics using the Nuremberg Laws: 220,000

Estimated number of Catholics of Jewish descent in Greater German Reich 1938 – estimated at around 180,000 – figures compiled by the Raphaelsverein (German Catholic assistance for Non-Aryans)

Jewish men and boys arrested in the wake of the Pogrom 8/9 November 1938

Approximately 30,000.  Most were released with several weeks and months usually on condition that they left the Reich.

Emigration in the aftermath of the Pogrom 8/9 November 1938

Germany – 36,000

Austria – 77,000

Jewish Population 1939

Germany: c202,000

Austria: c57,000

The claim was made by Dr Michael Hesemann, a German historian carrying out research in the Vatican archives for the Pave the Way Foundation, a US-based inter-faith group.

He said that Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli – the future Pius XII – wrote to Catholic archbishops around the world to urge them to apply for visas for “non-Aryan Catholics” and Jewish converts to Christianity who wanted to leave Germany.

It would be helpful to know more about these documents. They sound very much like two documents that are found in Volume 6 of Actes et Documents du Sainte Siege relatifs a la Seconde Guerre Mondiale. These documents have been available since 1972.

ADSS 6, pp 48-49: 9 January 1939: Cardinal Pacelli wrote in the name of Pope Pius XI asking for assistance for the formation of assistance committees to help non-Aryan Catholics.

ADSS 6, pp 49-50: 30 November 1938: Cardinal Pacelli wrote in the name of Pope Pius XI to the Nuncios in Ireland, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Costa Rica, the Apostolic Delegates in the USA, Australia, Lebanon, Egypt, French Indo-China, Belgian Congo and Turkey, asking them to do all they can to help converted Jews forced to leave Germany and Italy.

Based on the population statistics the figure 200,000 seems improbable in part because the total number of Jews who left Germany and Austria in November-December 1938 (and probably before the last pre-war census conducted in May 1939) amounted to c113,000. Even if these were all non-Aryan Christians, the figure falls well below 200,000.

Elliot Hershberg, the chairman of the Pave the Way Foundation, said:“ We believe that many Jews who were successful in leaving Europe may not have had any idea that their visas and travel documents were obtained through these Vatican efforts.

This is still far too vague. If the claim is true, why has it not been mentioned before? It seems very strange to me that no historical specialist has found anything connected with Hesemann’s claim.  And there are more than a few of them working in the ASV in Rome.  Hubert Wolf makes no mention of anything along these lines in his recent book Pope and Devil (2010). 

“Everything we have found thus far seems to indicate the known negative perception of Pope Pius XII is wrong.”

Pius XII was criticised for failing to denounce explicitly the Holocaust, the Nazi regime or to excommunicate Hitler.

Dr Hesemann says that additional evidence suggests that the visas would have been given to ordinary Jews desperate to escape persecution.

What and where is the "additional evidence"?

“The fact that this letter speaks of 'converted Jews’ and 'non-Aryan’ Catholics indeed seems to be a cover,” said Dr Hesemann.

The language of “converted Jews” and “non-Aryan” is perfectly consistent with records from many sources (such as the Akten Deutsche Bischöfe über die Lage der Kirche) and the language of ADSS. The Vatican used the legal terminology employed by the German government when dealing with Reich agencies or German Catholic groups. Reich Jews also used the language of “non-Aryan” when referring to themselves. The legal formula was used by the Prioress of Cologne Carmel to explain why one of the nuns - Edith Stein - did not vote in the 1938 plebiscite – she was no longer a citizen of the Reich according to the Nuremberg Laws.

“You couldn’t be sure that Nazi agents wouldn’t learn about this initiative,” he said.

This statement makes no historical sense.  The “Nazi agents” actively encouraged Jewish emigration until 1941. It was Reich policy!

“Pacelli had to make sure they didn’t misuse it for their propaganda, that they could not claim that the Church is an ally of the Jews.”

Again, this statement does not make sense. Pius XI and Pacelli were pilloried in sections of the Nazi media as “Jew-lovers”.

The appeal from Cardinal Pacelli, then the Vatican’s Secretary of State, was dated Nov 30, 1938 – 20 days after Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass”.

ADSS 6, pp 49-50: 30 November 1938 - see reference above.  This has been well known for over 35 years.

The appeal came from the Pope, Pius XI. Pacelli was acting on instructions given by the Pope. And while there is no evidence to suggest that Pacelli would have opposed the instructions, it must be kept clear that the order did not originate with him.

Cardinal Pacelli was able to ask for the visas because the 1933 concordat he signed with the Nazis specifically provided protection for Jews who converted to Christianity.

This is news to me. Please show me where this occurs in the Concordat. I have re-read the text and I find no mention of Jews, converted or not.

Dr Ed Kessler, the director of the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, said: “It is clear that Pius XII facilitated the saving of Roman Jews.”

Something of a red herring in this article. What is the connection?

In December, Pope Benedict XVI placed Pius one step closer to sainthood when he declared him “Venerable”, meaning that the Church believes he lived a life of “heroic virtue”.

Two miracles are needed to canonise him as a saint and the Vatican is investigating at least one apparently inexplicable healing.

Some Jewish groups want the process frozen until the Vatican is ready to open its secret wartime archives in 2014. As do more than a few Catholic and other historians!

Sir Martin Gilbert, a British historian and the world’s leading expert on the Holocaust, has said that Pope Pius XII should be considered as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority. Sir Martin is entitled to his opinion, but his views on this matter are not shared by most mainstream historians.


This is not history; this is polemic and propaganda.  It has no place in any discussion on Pius XII.  It disturbs me greatly that such inaccurate and misleading material is posted.


  1. Thank you for dissecting this, Paul. I concur with your assessment. This news release (and article) are yet another attempt to mislead. I also pointed this out elsewhere (, and it's not the first time Mr. Hesemann does this ( You have already mentioned the interesting debate with the Pave the Way folks in Galus Australis here where I have challenged him and Gary Krupp.

    What I find most troubling is the—largely successful—effort to mislead the public. This Pave the Way article is now being plastered all across the web in a myriad Catholic or pro-Catholic sites, more interested in papal apologia than historical truth. The pattern is always the same: they present something as a new, explosive discovery that seems to portray Pope Pius XII as a great defender and savior of Jews. To the layman, particularly if they are Catholic and thus predisposed to revere the memory of a pope, this "sounds" great. But the layman does not have knowledge of the historical context to be able to ascertain what these "discoveries" mean. Pave the Way makes it seem like a "non-Aryan Catholic" actually refers to Jews, with disregard to the reality that the term referred to converted Jews, which to the church were Catholics but to the Nazis were still Jews. I applaud your effort to remove the veil from these statements so people can see them for what they are: an attempt to mislead.

    Gabriel Wilensky

    Six Million Crucifixions:
    How Christian Teachings About Jews Paved the Road to the Holocaust
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  2. Hello--

    I have a question concerning this sentence:

    Based on the population statistics the figure 200,000 seems improbable in part because the total number of Jews who left Germany and Austria in November-December 1938 (and probably before the last pre-war census conducted in May 1939) amounted to c113,000. Even if these were all non-Aryan Christians, the figure falls well below 200,000.

    Are you saying that you think the 200,000 figure is wrong because it is too high? If the Pope had said 113,000 Jews had been saved would your view that the statement would be arguably correct?

    I don't think so, but I am beginning to blog on the matter of the Pope's statements and would value your comment very much.

  3. Dear Irvin, I believe the figure Hesemann constructed - 200,000 - is wrong for all the reasons I outlined above. He provides no data to support the claim. Pope Pius XII never made any statement at any time about any Jews who were saved, rescued or escaped, either before, during or after the war. So to answer your question, the figure is simply not supported by any evidence. Pope Pius XI ordered Pacelli to instruct the nuncios and apostolic delegates to get busy and do what they could to save Jews - converted or not - in the wake of the pogrom of November 1938. It was a late start, but better than nothing. To be fair to Pacelli and Pius XI they could not be expected to have imagined the Holocaust. But, it is essential to keep to the documentary record when looking, in this case the pre-war history, for what Cardinal Pacelli did and did not do. Hesemann has made statements that are simply not supported by the documentary evidence. And this evidence has been available in the public domain for over 35 years.

  4. Dr. O'Shea--

    Thank you for your clarification. I don't agree that the references to Jewish converts and non-Aryan Catholics should be read as applying to all Jews. The language seems plain on its face.

    It may be that Pius believed that he could not help the larger group of just plain Jews, so he tried to do what he could for this group of people at risk. But I think that is different from saying that Pacelli turned his attention to the entire population of German Jews.

    The telex is important to me because I am currently writing a piece about the decree (implicit in the Decree of Heroic Virtues, I think)that Pius has exhibited the virtue of charity to a heroic degree. The question whether Pius exhibited charity towards the Jews of Europe, and whether he did all he could, is one way of describing a central issue in the Pius Debates.

    I would like to clarify this for the Jewish community--that from the RCC point of view, this issue is closed. I am also interested in whether and to what degree the Decree itself and the Pope's comments in connection with the Decree were tainted by the Hesemann-Krupp infocloud.

    Thanks again for responding,.

  5. You know for sure that according to Caldwell, (, Hesemann, a researcher for Pave the Way Foundation said: “The fact that this letter speaks of ‘converted Jews’ and ‘non-Aryan’ Catholics indeed seems to be a cover,”, A clue that Cardinal Pacelli was not referring to Jewish converts, said Dr Hesemann, came in a part of the letter in which he asks Church leaders to provide for the “spiritual welfare” of the refugees and to “protect their religious cult, customs and traditions” – which distinguished them from Catholics, he also argues.
    I didn’t notice you discussed the argument on your Blog.

    Anyway, what is your say?

    Thanks in advance
    Menahem Macina

  6. Dear Menahem,

    Thank you for your comments. It is difficult to cover every aspect of a document in one post. Nonetheless, the point you raise is valid and relevant.

    My reading of the documents cited by Hesemann and my understanding of how the Vatican worked in the months before the outbreak of the war, leads me to think that Pacelli's comment regarding the spiritual welfare of the Jewish refugees, converted or not, pointed to a consistent concern for the welfare of all refugees.

    Throughout ADSS there are many documents where papal agencies and diplomats request permission for priests to minister to non-Aryan Catholics (Volume 6 passim, Vol 8.843).

    I disagree with the claim that the language of "converted Jews" and "non-Aryan Catholics" is a "cover". A "cover" for what? The Vatican used the same language as the governments with which it did business. It is also to keep in mind that the documents cited above in my post were, of necessity, brief. The context surrounding the appeal to the bishops for help was a blanket request to help any and all Jews - converted or not - in what ever way they could.

    Hesemann is correct to assert that this is what the text could mean, and it probably did; but his primary concern is to show that Pacelli attempted to secure 200,000 visas for Jews. The document supports claims about providing religious support; it does not support explicit claims of securing several hundred thousand visas. My beef with Hesemann lies in his mishandling of documents and asserting things they cannot support.



    1. Did you receive the following message ?
      To Paul O’Shea (05.02.15)
      Very useful Blog. I just discover it, as I discover your say about the inflated and apologetic literature which is growing on Pius XII matters (especially G. Krupp).
      I wrote myself a lot of pieces about the question, but - sorry - in French, since it is my mother tongue.
      I'm very much interested to enter in a constructive dialogue with you on the subject.
      Here is a place where you can read some of my articles (but again, sorry, mainly in French language):
      I would be honoured to have an answer from you (
      Yours faithfully.
      M. R. Macina
      Update 06.02.15
      I intend to translate in French some of your posts in order to make your research known to a French speaking audience. It would help if you chose yourself the texts.
      I notice that there is no post on your Blog since the end of 2014. Is there any problem ?
      I have some questions about the project whom I alluded to avove. Il would help me if I could get your mailing address, or a virtual place where we could exchange directly and shortly.
      M. R. Macina


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