Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Campagna Files revisited

A few weeks ago a colleague sent me a copy of an email that had been sent by a director of a New York organisation.  I will refrain from naming my colleague or the director and the organisation because I am still waiting for a reply to my request to discuss the issue that follows.


In mid-2009 Gary Krupp, founder of Pave The Way, invited me to read through the 2,300 pages of documentation from material from the archives of the Catholic diocese of Campagna in southern Italy related to the internment camp of the same name that existed in the town from 1940 until its dissolution after the Italian armistice in September 1943.  Krupp had come to the conclusion that the documents demonstrated that Pius XII was active in efforts to assist and rescue interned Jews.


I was asked to read and review the material and then write a report of what I found.  I did this and the report was published on the website of The Anti-Defamation League as well as on Pave The Way's website.  My conclusions were different to those publicised on Pave The Way. 


I have posted the report under the "pages" heading.


In May 2012 a colleague received an email from a New York organisation disputing claims made in my article.  There have been a number of conversations, but the original author has not contacted me.  I am not interested in escalating the disagreement, but I am concerned at a particular claim that I only made reference to fifteen documents.  How this person reached such a conclusion is beyond me.  I read every page of the Campagna files - it took nearly three months - and made notes throughout.  The article itself contains 78 specific footnote references to documents out of a total of 89.


A young graduate student from Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, who has studied Italian internment camps, in particular, Fossoli, has written her own commentary on the article.  I am grateful for Alexis taking the time and effort to write.  I will leave it to the reader to make up their own minds.



Alexis Herr
Commentary on “Campagna: The Camp, the Bishop and the Archives”


Paul O’Shea’s article “Campagna: The Camp, the Bishop and the Archives” scrutinizes efforts made by Giovanni Palatucci (Franciscan bishop of Campagna in southern Italy) to assist Jews interned from 1940 – September 1943 in Campagna and asks how Palatucci’s work reflected upon Pope Pius XII. Palatucci attempted to help the Jewish interns where he could, which included communicating with foreign consuls, ambassadors, medical professionals, and police on their behalf. He kept the Vatican and other bishops appraised of his actions and requested whatever help they could provide. Palatucci’s correspondence with these various agencies and persons comprises a wealth of information of over 2,300 pages found in a monastery in Avellino.  The New York based Pave the Way Foundation announced the discovery of these documents and made them available on their website as “proof” that Pope Pius XII worked diligently to save Jews from Nazi tyranny. O’Shea’s examination of these documents wisely arrives at a different and more sound conclusion: “The letters tell us that the Pope not only knew of the suffering of Italian and foreign Jews, but that on at least two occasions, he acted to help alleviate their conditions. What they do not show is any pattern of action to help rescue Jews” (3).

Understanding the motivation behind Palatucci and other religious leaders’ decision to help Jews presents a challenge to historians. Scholars often try to use the actions of individuals such as priests or nuns as indicative of a wider Vatican plan to save Jews. Such minimal and polarized approaches fail to render any useful or historically verified conclusions without making erroneous concessions. The documents used for O’Shea’s article show one instance of a Bishop helping Jews and the Vatican providing financial assistance. The fact that this aid occurred prior to German occupation means that it was not in attempt to rescue Jews, and instead to help them.

Historical context proves a crucial tool when evaluating whether or not Bishop Palatucci’s assistance and the money the Vatican gave to the camp constitute “rescue.” O’Shea points out in his analysis that the camp functioned prior to Nazi occupation of the region and as such Jews interned in Campagna were not in immediate danger of deportation and annihilation.  Their internment signaled Fascist support of Nazi aims and compliance with the 1940 Fascist decree to intern Jews in Italy. Therefore, the assistance Palatucci provided during this period does not constitute rescue, as food, medical assistance, and the like, did not save Jews from Auschwitz. One could argue, however, that Palatucci’s efforts to secure visas for Jewish interns functioned as rescue. O’Shea’s article does not elaborate on whether or not Palatucci’s correspondence actually secured immigration opportunities. Further scrutiny of this point would benefit our understanding of Palatucci’s work with Jewish interns prior to German occupation.

Some scholars argue that religious leaders helped Jews out of a desire to convert them to Catholicism and therefore they view Catholic assistance as anti-Jewish. O’Shea’s examination of the vast fund of documents, however, did not alight any plan conspired between the Pope and the Bishop to convert the Campagna Jews.  O’Shea found a few references in the Campagna documents that mentioned Jews considering conversion, which may speak to Catholic proselytizing from Palatucci, but the documents themselves do not reveal an intentional plan to lure Jews in with aid and then manipulate their conversion. O’Shea posits during this period (prior to the September 1943 German occupation) that the “assistance for the Jews came primarily from the local bishop who needed no reminder from Rome to ‘do good and avoid evil’” (20). He arrives at the conclusion that the Vatican gave money to assist Jews at the camp and Palatucci worked to assist them as well out of a desire to “do good.”

A lesser historian might manipulate and misread these actions by the Vatican and Palatucci as grounds for evidence of a long-term plan by the Vatican to save Jews. Using the same evidence, Palatucci and the Vatican’s operations could also be interpreted as a Church stance against Fascism and/or Nazism. To do so, however, would be to ignore the numerous other instances of priests and the Vatican acting counter intuitive to such a claim. History is full of examples of priests and bishops behaving good and bad. To simplify the Vatican’s policy towards Jews during World War II to Palatucci’s and the Vatican’s assistance to Jews in Campagna would not only be simplistic, it would be ignorant. O’Shea and I clearly agree on this point. Using sound and fair judgment, O’Shea does not ignore the assistance Palatucci and the Vatican provided the Jews in Campagna. And, he does not claim that this assistance should be deemed rescue.

Italian religious leaders who attempted to rescue or assist Jews during the German occupation faced many dangers and at times lost their lives in the pursuit of helping others. Stories of nuns and priests hiding Jews and escorting them to safety through the Alps dominate the scholarship of Italian wartime history. Don Giovanni Tavasci, for example, helped shuttle those targeted for internment through the Italian-Swiss Alps prior to his arrest and subsequent internment at the deportation camp Fossoli di Carpi in northern Italy. Along with Tavasci, nine other priests’ decision to uphold Christian values in the face of adversity landed them in Fossoli di Carpi. Palatucci and the Vatican’s choice to provide aid to Jews in Campagna prior to occupation did not incur the same threat as the actions of those who assisted Jews post-September 1943. Palatucci’s actions focused on helping, not saving Jews.

The Campagna documents intersect with two explosive themes of Italian Holocaust history: the so-called “brava gente”, or benevolent Italians, and the debate surrounding Pope Pius XII.  For the past ten years, scholars have endeavored to correct the misinterpretation that all Italians tried to rescue and save Jews during the Holocaust. Stories of priests and nuns helping Jews weigh heavily in the “brava gente” dialogue and often contribute to the boisterous debate over historical interpretations of Pope Pius XII. Overall, there is a tendency amongst scholars and the general public to congratulate individual actions of resistance and rescue as representative of Italians and the Church as a whole. The impulse to point to the actions of one individual as reflective of the Vatican is irresponsible and does little to advance Holocaust scholarship. O’Shea conclusion is therefore important because it provides a clear reading of the available source material. In this instance, the facts show that Vatican and Palatucci did something and that something was not rescue. 





Alexis Herr

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