Her latest book, Père Marie-Benoît and Jewish Rescue: How a French priest together with Jewish friends saved thousands during the Holocaust, is a biography of an extraordinary man whose fundamental human goodness combined with his Catholic faith empowered him to work to save the lives of Jews in southern France and later, in Italy.
Much has been written about Père Marie-Benoît and I will not re-tell the story here. What is of great interest to me is the relationship between Padre Maria Benedetto, as he was known in Italy, and the Vatican over his rescue work. Zuccotti paints the picture of a man who was sure of his mission to save lives, who would do whatever was necessary and who, I believe, was prepared to give his own life in the process if events turned that way.
Padre Benedetto ruffled more than a few feathers in the Vatican where, quite understandably, some officials were worried that the big French friar could cause considerable harm and damage to the efforts at keeping the Vatican and the Pope studiously "neutral" throughout the war, especially during the German occupation of Rome - September 1943 to June 1944.
Padre Benedetto had an audience with Pope Pius XII on 16 July 1943. The documents submitted to the pope are recorded in ADSS, 9.264. According to Padre Benedetto the pope listened keenly to his report and gave his blessing for future rescue work.
Later in 1943, after the Germans had occupied Rome, Padre Benedetto worked hard to obtain endorsement from the German embassy to the Holy See for a proposal to secure documents for refugees, all of whom were Jews. (ADSS 9.412) To the relief of man officials in the Vatican this plan came to nothing. Even Padre Benedetto is supposed to have recognised that the idea was probably not the best one. (ADSS 9.415)
In early 1944 Padre Benedetto along with members of Delasem, the Italian Jewish charitable agency working with Jewish refugees, now, of course, underground, tried to secure Vatican help in accessing funds coming from the United States. Cardinal Maglione refused. (ADSS 10.103). Zuccotti comments that British Foreign Office documents indicate
that at this same time a Vatican bank was extending credit in the amount of five million lire to Ambassador [sic] Osborne to assist escaped Allied prisoners of war in Rome on a British guarantee of future repayment. Cardinal Maglione, second only to the pope in power and influence at the Vatican, was unwilling to extend this same service to the Jews". (page 175, referring to Owen Cadwick, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War, page 295)
After the war there was some confusion over the provision of funds for Jewish rescue in Rome. In February 1961 Pius XII's private secretary, Jesuit Robert Leiber, claimed in
Civilta Cattolica that the pope had helped provide twenty-five million lire to Padre Benedetto and Delasem.
Delasem leaders Lelio Vittorio Valobra, Renzo Levi and Settimio Sorani
were quick to deny these claims. In a letter to the editor published in the Italian Jewish weekly Israel on June 8, they explained that Padre Benedetto not only received just one million lire from Delasem in Genoa rather than the five million claimed by Father Leiber, but he also never received 25 million lire from the pope, or anything remotely close to it. They pointed out that a large part of the money distributed by Delasem, and by Padre Benedetto to Jewish refugees in Rome came instead from Roman non-Jews who were willing to lend lire on the promise of being repaid in dollars guaranteed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, as noted earlier. (page 179)
Padre Benedetto refuted Leiber's claim simply and concisely:
In an effort to be gracious to Father Leiber, padre Benedetto then explained that he had reported to Riberi in January 1945 that Delasem had distributed twenty-five million lire in Rome during the war and that Father Leiber must have seen the report and misunderstood the provenance of those funds. In his same letter to the editor, Padre Benedetto stated clearly that the money distributed by Delasem during the German occupation of Rome “had not been given by the Vatican”. He then added unambiguously “I and the true heads of Delasem did not receive any sum from the Vatican” during the occupation. On the contrary, he recalled, toward the end of September 1943 he and a small group of Roman Jewish leaders had gone to Monsignor Riberi (who was not yet involved with the Pontifical Commission for Refugee Assistance, which was founded in March 1944) to ask for a Vatican loan. “I still remember Monsignor Riberi’s precise answer”, he wrote. ‘The Vatican does not make loans; if it has it, it gives it’, and we left with nothing”. (page 180)
The only goods provided directly from the Vatican were 300 kilograms of flour sometime before the Germans left, and a donation of clothes after May 1944. (page 181)
Several years later Padre Benedetto was asked to comment on the activities of Pius XII for the Jews during the war. Zuccotti's description of the friar's reply is pithy.
As Père Marie-Benoît described it in 1964, the statistics in the list “speak of and manifest everything that was done in Rome under Pius XII in favour of the Jews.” He did not say that it was done by or because of Pius XII, Nor did he say that it was done with no input from Pius XII. He simply declared that it was done during the papacy of Pius XII. (page 222)
In the next post I will look at the dispute between Padre Benedetto and the editors of ADSS over claims of what support the Vatican did or did not provide to Jewish rescue efforts during the German occupation of Rome.