The Pope heads for the Holy Land (just don't mention the war)

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Vexed question of the Vatican's appeasement of Hitler will overshadow Benedict's first visit to Israel

When Pope Benedict XVI pays his respects to the six million Jews killed in World War II at the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem next Monday evening, he won't actually tour its stunning museum, inaugurated just four years ago.

The Vatican is at pains to say that this simply reflects the multiple demands already being made on the 82-year-old Pope during his long awaited first tour of the Holy Land. But it also means he will be spared a sight of the museum's short, but for the Roman Catholic hierarchy highly sensitive, notice questioning the wartime role of his most controversial predecessor of modern times, Pope Pius XII.

The Vatican stresses that Benedict's first trip here as Pope is predominantly a personal pilgrimage. He will hold masses in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth and the warm welcome he will receive is not in doubt. But there is almost nothing about a papal visit here that does not touch a nerve. There are taxation and property disputes with Israel; there are pressures faced by Christian Palestinians. In deference to the Israeli authorities, the Pope will not now meet the mayor of the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin, much criticised on the Israeli right for his opposition to this year's military assault on Gaza. And plans have been dropped for the pontiff to use a platform in a Bethlehem refugee camp which would have sent TV pictures across the world of him standing next to the West Bank separation wall.

Given that some Muslims will be uneasy about his controversial 2006 speech quoting a text depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a man of violence, and some Jews about his spell in the Hitler youth - which he has explained was enforced - and his perceived initial leniency towards the holocaust-denying priest Richard Williamson, it's easy to see the potential for controversy to simmer.

The issue of Pius XII, whom Benedict has described as a "great" churchman is one case in point. The Yad Vashem notice succinctly summarises the argument that Pius failed to take a moral lead against Hitler's extermination of the Jews, or even endorse the Allied declaration in December 1942 condemning it. And that finally when Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz "the Pope did not intervene". The 12-line account in Yad Vashem goes to the heart of a still resonant dispute between most Israeli – and many other – holocaust scholars and the Vatican.

Pope Pius was a vigorous anti-communist and the Concordat he signed as Vatican Secretary of State with Franz Van Papen in 1933 followed an earlier meeting with Hitler's Vice Chancellor and Hermann Goering at which, by Van Papen's account, the future Pope remarked "how pleased he was the German government now had at its head a man uncompromisingly opposed to communism and Russian nihilism in all its forms".

An early enthusiasm for Hitler does not of course convict Pius of later indifference to the fate of the Jews. But what is not in dispute is Pope Pius's public reticence on the holocaust, maintained despite numerous attempts by allied diplomats and many of his own brave prelates and priests to persuade him to speak out.

Pope Pius's defenders say he worked hard behind the scenes to save Jews. Last September, Pope Benedict himself praised Pius for his "courageous and paternal dedication" to that task and argued that there was plenty of evidence to show it. But he produced no new documents to back up his claim.

Which is where the problem lies. Avner Shalev, director of Yad Vashem, says that it is always "open to new facts and to revising our views in the light of research." But to meet its high academic standards there is a need for documentary evidence, and in particular papers in the Vatican archive which remain secret after more than six decades. The archives run only up to 1939, and the one volume of records since published by the Vatican on the issue were selected from a huge number of documents. Mr Shalev welcomes a new joint Jewish-Catholic academic commission to "widen the vision and the understanding of a very difficult period of history", as the Apostolic Nuncio here, Monsignor Antonio Franco, put it this week.

But Mr Shalev argues there is no substitute for making the documents fully available. "The archive is crucial," he says. Defenders point out that some Roman Jews were hidden in monasteries and churches as another 1,000 were deported to their deaths in the autumn in 1943.

"They say this cannot be explained without there having been a direction by the Pope," says Mr Shalev. "But this they have to prove." Particularly since the German ambassador to the Vatican at the time, Baron Ernst Von Weizsacker, reported that Pius had "done everything he could in this delicate matter not to strain relations with the German government..." Pius's defenders say Weizsacker was protecting the Pope from Nazi reprisals. But Pius did not speak out against the deportations.

Towards the end of the war the Pope did appeal to the Slovakian and Hungarian regimes to halt the deportations. But even his 1942 Christmas message deploring persecution for reasons of faith or race did not mention the Jews – or Poles.

For leading Hebrew University holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer, writing in The Tablet, the Pope's failure was moral and theological. Contrasting his stance with those of other Catholics who risked or lost their lives saving Jews, Professor Bauer wrote: "Had he spoken out he probably would not have saved a single Jew but he might have saved his soul – according to the belief system he genuinely believed in."

Having been told informally that Pope Benedict would like to open the archive within the next five years "or even accelerate it a bit", Mr Shalev argues that "he would gain a lot" by making a public and irreversible statement to that effect ahead of his visit. Mr Shalev, who will warmly welcome the Pope to Yad Vashem on Monday, fully recognises his long and strongly stated desire to bring the church and Jewry closer together. And he has no wish to labour the Pope's youthful past, or doubt his explanation for it. Mr Shalev acknowledges that in contrast to Benedict's immediate predecessor John Paul II, a Pole who saw the regime from the angle of the victims, Benedict saw it "from a different angle". That in turn, says Mr Shalev, lends "a special sensitivity" to his words.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
Life and Style
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions