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
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture