Pope Pius XII helped a group of 500 Jewish refugees escape death at the hands of the Nazis and made a touching public tribute to the Jewishness of the man seeking their deliverance, new research shows.
“This is not a liberal or conservative issue. This should be of interest to all people, anyone who wants to get a sincere, objective account of who Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, really was,” William Doino, Jr. told CNA on Jan. 9.
“I think the more and more you look into his life and character, you find these remarkable things.”
Doino, a writer for “Inside the Vatican” magazine, has assembled an extensive bibliography of works on the wartime Pope.
His latest research brings to light new information about Howard “Heinz” Wisla’s audience with Pius XII in 1941. The Jewish man spoke to the Pope on behalf of his group of 500 Jewish refugees interned by the Italian military in a camp on the island of Rhodes, where they faced starvation due to a shortage of basic necessities.
Wisla’s memoirs recounted his audience with Pius XII.
“You have done well, my Jewish friend, to have come to me and told me what has happened down there in the Italian islands. I have heard about it before,” the Pope said, according to Wisla.
The pontiff asked him to return with a written report and deliver it to the Vatican Secretary of State, who was dealing with those refugees.
Not only did Pius XII promise help for refugees, he affirmed Wisla’s Jewishness in the presence of a German audience.
“But now to you, my young friend. You are Jewish. I know what that means in these times we live in. I do hope that you will always be proud to be a Jew,” the Pope told Wisla.
Wisla’s account continued: “And then the Pope raised his voice so that everybody in the room could hear it even more clearly: ‘My son, whether you are worthier than others, only the Lord knows, but believe me, you are at least as worthy as any other human being on our earth before the Lord. And now, my Jewish friend, go with the protection of the Lord Almighty, and never forget: Be always proud to be a Jew.’”
Doino explained that Wisla’s story was important for understanding the pontiff.
“He affirms his Jewish faith,” noted Doino, who believes the account proves that Pius XII was pro-Jewish at a time when “a lot of people were insensitive or didn’t understand the close bonds between Judaism and Christianity.”
Doino said he thought it was “unfair and wrong” to say that Pius XII didn’t regard the fate of Jews as part of his circle of moral obligation.
“He loved all human beings. Of course, he was a Catholic, and believed in the truth of the Catholic Church. But he also embraced all of humanity because he knew they were God’s children.
“I think he’s recognizing the profound bond that Jews and Catholics share. And I think that’s very, very important, because a lot of people think that only after Vatican II did we see a significant change in the papacy. I don’t think that’s true at all, I think the change began before that, and I think this is clear cut evidence of that.”
Pius XII’s comments were “all the more significant” because his audience with Wisla included German officers and took place during the Holocaust, Doino said in his new article “Pope Pius XII: Friend and Rescuer of Jews,” which was published in the January 2012 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine.
“If those Jews don’t get off of Rhodes, eventually the Germans take over and kill them,” Doino explained. They would have either starved or suffered the fate of the island’s indigenous Jewish population. The German army occupied the island in 1944 and 1,400 Jews were executed immediately.
Wisla’s “largely forgotten” memoir draws from a pseudonymous piece he authored in the Palestinian Post in 1944. There, he expressed his gratitude to Pius XII.
Doino first reported on the piece in 2006, but did not know the author’s identity at the time.
“The story intrigued me because he published it anonymously. For years, I’ve been trying to find out who he was,” Doino explained.
“Also I wanted to find out about whether the Pope was actually able to help the starving Jewish refugees.”
In his writings from the winter of 1941-1942, Wisla credited the “personal intervention” of Pope Pius XII for the arrival of a Red Cross ship which picked up the hundreds of starving Jewish refugees at the Rhodes internment camp and brought them to the Italian mainland.
Another refugee from Nazi persecution, the Czechoslovakian Herman Herskovic, was also interned on Rhodes. In a special 1964 issue of “L’Osservatore Romano,” he recounted Wisla’s audience with the Pope. According to Herskovic, the pontiff “listened attentively to him and promised his intervention with the Italian government.”
Herskovic also defended the Pope from Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy,” which depicted a Pope who was indifferent to Nazi persecution. Without Pius XII, Herskovic said, he would never have reached America, where he became a furniture dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.
Thanks to Wisla and Pope Pius XII, Herskovic and other Jewish internees were transferred to the Ferramonti di Tarsia camp in Calabria, Italy. During the tumult of the German retreat, when Jews feared they would be massacred, the Catholic chaplain of the camp persuaded the guards to allow them to escape.
Other Vatican documents show that the internees thanked Pope Pius XII for sending gifts of clothing and money to them.
“I don’t in any way want to ever downplay the radical evil of anti-Semitism or the sins of Christians, Doino told CNA. “By the same token, when good things happen, that should be celebrated and recognized.”
Gary Krupp, a Jewish researcher on Pius XII and World War II who lives in New York, said Doino’s new information is “just another example of how Pope Pius XII directly interceded to save Jewish lives when most of the world’s religious leaders did nothing.
“And Pius did so while being surrounded by hostile forces and mindful of the plan to invade the Vatican to kidnap him in 1943. It is time for the world to appreciate what this man did.”
Krupp, who is also founder and president of the interreligious relations-focused Pave the Way Foundation, called upon the authorities at the Holocaust memorial organization Yad Vashem to “seriously look” at the material and other evidence in order to have Pope Pius XII declared “righteous among nations.”