Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An interview with David Cymet "History vs Apologetics"

This article featured in the latest Jewish Week.  David Cymet's book is creating interest in historical circles.  I have just started reading it and my initial impression is that while there is a sense of creating a wholistic framework which needs to be established to place the subject matter within its appropriate historical context/s, this book is, in many ways, a literature review of the last half-century of material on Pius XII, the Holocaust and the role of the Catholic Church. A quick look at the notes and bibliography show an almost exclusive reliance on secondary sources, which does cause some worry especially given the relative ease of accessing so much archival material, including the Vatican files up to 1939.  I will not comment on the substance of the interview until I have read the book, but I am intrigued by the response made to the first question about "whitewashing" the Church's role  during the Shoah.  Having read my way through ADSS that is not an impression I gained of the Vatican leadership during the war.

Making Sense Of Pius’ Wartime Record

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Steve Lipman, Staff Writer

The role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust — and of Pope Pius XII, its wartime leader — has remained a subject of controversy for nearly a half century, since Rolf Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy,” accused Pius of indifference to Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. The latest voice in this discussion is Davidt Cymet, a Mexico-born educator who spent eight years researching “History vs. Apologetics” (Lexington Books), an exhaustive study of the Church and Pius XII during World War II.

Q: Libraries are full of books about the actions of Pius XII — and the Catholic Church — during the Holocaust. What new information or perspective do you bring to the discussion?

A: The large literature on the role the Church played in the Holocaust is fragmented. Authors deal with specific episodes, often with no visible connection between them. Without the knowledge of that vast literature, one cannot begin to understand and evaluate the role of the Church during that period, particularly as long as the Church continues to block free access to its archives and maintains a selective tight control over them.
The role played by defenders of the Church in the Shoah is the equivalent to that of the Holocaust deniers. Although these defenders are not necessarily interested in denying the Holocaust per se, their main agenda is to whitewash the Church and its leaders of any responsibility in the Shoah.
Much of my time was spent to acquire critical mastery of that literature. A unifying background and perspective  ... linking the particular episodes in a logical coherent and historically valid account within the framework of their contemporary general background ... has been badly missing.

Why is the Vatican’s behavior seven decades ago still relevant to the Jewish community?

After the Cain murder of European Jewry, the Church had some explaining to do ... but it took more than 50 years for the Vatican to recognize its moral obligation to examine its past. It was only after Pius XII’s 1958 death that important changes in the Catholic attitude towards the Jewish people began; the Vatican II Council produced Nostra Aetate (1965) in which the so-called “exoneration” of the Jewish people of the crime of deicide took place. Nevertheless, the first three drafts of Nostra Aetate included the Christian doctrine of the ultimate conversion of the Jewish people to the Christian faith.

Pope John Paul II ... who had personally witnessed the horror of the Holocaust in Poland ... put the question on the agenda for the first time in 1987. He delegated Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president of the Holy See Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, to produce an official document on the question of Christian responsibility for the Shoah. “We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah” rejected any connection between millennial Church anti-Semitism and Nazi anti-Semitism and denied the formidable role played by German Catholicism in the rise of Hitler to power.

The fact that the Church failed to acknowledge the historic role it played in the Shoah ... is not to be taken lightly. It means that not having found fault with its past actions and policies, the Church may continue to consider them a valid model to follow in the future.

The pope’s critics say he turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities against the Jews. His defenders say he quietly had the Church save untold Jewish lives. Saint or sinner — what’s your take on Pius XII?

On September 1933 ... Vatican Secretary of State Eugene Pacelli [the future Pius XII] agreed to provide a written promise not to interfere in “German internal affairs”  ... the persecution of the Jews ... in exchange for a verbal promise to exclude Jewish converts to Catholicism (non-Aryan Catholics) from these actions. The Church adhered scrupulously afterwards to its promise of not interfering with the persecution of the Jews; during the war Pius XII did not mention the Jews even once. Allegations of how much the Church did to save Jews have no factual basis. To the contrary, available evidence and testimonies ... prove the callous indifference of the Church.

Is continued Jewish interest in the Vatican’s wartime record — and Jewish opposition to Pius’ canonization — harming Jewish-Catholic relations?

Jews have no part in the polemic if Pius XII deserves or does not deserve to be canonized. That is a matter for the Church and its believers to investigate and decide by themselves. What does, however, concern Jews, is the legitimate question on the role played by the Church and its highest authorities in the attempt led by Third Reich to annihilate the Jewish people. It is a tragic error to think that the truth as such will harm Jewish-Catholic relations and assume that good relations can be built perpetuating deception and make-believe.


  1. from the publisher's description of the book:
    "At the ratification of the Concordat in Rome, a commitment not to interfere with the Nazis' "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Question" was traded for a verbal promise from Berlin to exclude the baptized converts"...

    I'm very puzzled by the reference to the 'Final Solution'...
    Does Cymet argue that in 1933 the Church knew about the final solution and agreed...

  2. Dear Domenico,

    It may be worth quoting the complete paragraph from the publisher's "blurb":

    "Set within the context of the political and ideological developments of the time, History vs Apologetics examines the role played by the Catholic Church in the rise and consolidation of the Third Reich and in particular with regards to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Distanced in the beginning, the Catholic church and the Nazi party drew closer as Hitler's popularity increased. At the ratification of the Concordat in Rome, a commitment no to interfere with the Nazi's "Final Solution" to the "Jewish Question" was traded for a verbal promise from Berlin to exclude the baptised converts. While the Nazi government violated the Concordat at every turn, the Church kept zealously its promise. Pope Pius XII never mentioned the persecuted Jews by name and denied any knowledge of the annihilation of the Jews. Even after the war, Pius XII refused to condemn anti-Semitism and Germany's role in the Holocaust. Instead, the Vatican engaged in the protection of genocide perpetrators and assisted in their mass escape".

    The sentence linking the Concordat (1933) with "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" (1941) is extremely dangerous and I am surprised to find it expressed as baldly as this. You are quite right to be concerned.

    The question of the "verbal agreement" for the baptised Jews is also problematic. I have only come across the written exchange as presented through the Vatican archives and published in the documents of the British Foreign Office for 1933 (the Klee-Pacelli exchange references) and in an article in The New York Times.

    To suggest that the Nazis envisioned a "Final Solution" that involved the murder of all Jews in 1933 is not supported by any historical record.

    I hope the writer of the "blurb" has realised the error and potential danger of penning such inflammatory words.

    And there is no way the Catholic Church would have ever agreed to such a thing then or now.

  3. Thanks for the reply.
    I take the opportunity to ask if you know something about this memorandum accompanying the ratification of the Concordat:

    That not baptised Jews were a topic of the negotiation until the last days is confirmed by other sources?
    The articles from the Palestine Post are brief but detailed (there is a double confirm from Rome and from Berlin): what might be the sources?

  4. Dear Domenico,

    Thanks for the link to the Palestine Post. It has clarified an aspect of the Reichskonkordat negotiations.

    The basis of the article lies in the telegram sent from the German embassy to the Holy See to Berlin on 12.09.1933 by the charge d'affaires, Eugene Klee. Klee recounted a meeting with Cardinal Pacelli who had presented a memorandum which included reference to Catholics of Jewish descent who had been dismissed as a result of the imposition of the Aryan Clause in April 1933.

    Klee refused to accept the memo on the grounds that it fell outside the paramaters of the Concordat. Pacelli agreed with the diplomatic correctness of this and asked if a seperate memo would be acceptable. Klee reminded Pacelli that Vatican interference in the internal matters of the Reich would not be tolerated.

    Pacelli eventually persuaded Klee to accept a "note" on the grounds that the pope was acting out of purely religious motives and that the Holy See did not intend to involve itself in the internal affairs of the German Reich.

    This raises the question of the position of the Jews - baptised or not - in Germany. The Reichskonkordat allowed the Church to engage in work directly related to Catholics. Under canon law and by virtue of centuries of Tradition, Jews who converted to Catholicism and accepted baptism were Catholics, not Jews and were accorded all the rights and responsibilities of being a Catholic. The Nazi world view that based its catagorisation of Jews bio-politics was foreign to the traditional Christian world view. In the world of diplomacy and nimble politics, the Vatican had no choice but to abide officially by the letter of the concordat and hope that Catholics in Germany would step in to help their Jewish neighbours. It was to prove a terribly sad chapter in the history of the Church in Germany and later, across Europe.

    The complete text can be found in Documents of German Foreign Policy, Series C, Volume 1, Number 425.

    You have also pointed out a mistake in my book! I had believed that the telegram to Berlin was effectively a private matter that was later leaked to the press. The New York Times made mention of it on 16.12.1933. While the differing dates do not change the substance of the content in my writing, it is good to know of clarifying and correcting details. Thanks!


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