Wartime pope Pius XII knew more about the Holocaust than was previously thought, researchers have claimed.

– Pontiff personally read key September 1942 US report: historians

German national weekly newspaper Die Zeit claimed April 23 that Pope Eugenio Pacelli personally read a September 1942 report from then-US ambassador to the Vatican, Myron Charles Taylor, detailing the “liquidation” of the Warsaw Ghetto and the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in Nazi concentration camps.

Then-US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had personally given the order to Taylor to inform the pope of those crimes and the mass executions in eastern Poland and the occupied Russian territories, as well as to seek a formal protest from the pontiff.

The text of Taylor’s report – sent to then-Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione – has been known since 1965.

Only now, however – with the March opening of the Vatican archives of Pius XII – has it been possible to have the certainty that Pope Pacelli was personally aware of it.

Scholars have known for a long time “that the Pope became personally aware of an important matter on September 27, 1942, but not exactly what it was about”, Church historian Hubert Wolf explained in Die Zeit.

“The Pope knew the worst. The question is: did he believe it?”, asked the scholar, who has been toiling in the Vatican archives on and off these past two months amid the coronavirus restrictions.

“I suspect: Yes. Because in his Christmas address only two months later he complained that hundreds of thousands of people were being put to death simply because of their ethnic origin”.

– A Vatican cover-up?

Not only has Wolf and his team now shown that Pius XII read Taylor’s September 1942 report, but also the historian said he has uncovered evidence that the Pacelli Curia withheld information about the Shoah.

According to the researchers, the US asked the Vatican to confirm the Jewish reports of horror.

Although the Vatican was aware of the extermination of Jews from its own sources – principally in the person of then-Archbishop of Lemberg (Lviv), Andrey Sheptytsky – the Holy See apparently decided not to pass that information along to Washington.

Vatican Secretary of State official (and later cardinal) Angelo Dell’Acqua, furthermore, reportedly drafted a note to the effect that it was “necessary to be sure” that the reports about the mass murders “[were] true, because exaggerations are easily made even among the Jews”.

– Still too early to pass judgment

Despite his team’s new findings on Pope Pius XII’s knowledge of the Holocaust, historian Wolf was reluctant in Die Zeit to come to a definitive verdict on the behaviour of the pontiff.

Not least of all because of Pope Pacelli’s “undisputed” shows of support for the Jews, such as when he “opened churches, monasteries and the Vatican” to shelter them, the historian said.

The extent of the help Pius XII extended to the Jews – as well as the mystery of his alleged ambivalence towards Nazi crimes – will only be known after the painstaking analysis of the documents the Vatican has now made available to scholars, Wolf recalled.

“It will take years before everything has been worked through”, the historian warned, adding that only at the end of that process would he want to risk a full judgment on Pius XII.

More stories on Novena on anti-Semitism and the Church:

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“Decisive” moment for Church and history as Vatican opens archives on controversial WWII Pope Pius XII

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.