Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today, January 27, is the day that people in European countries usually commemorate the Holocaust. (In the U.S., as far as I have noticed, the Holocaust is commemorated on the day chosen by the Israeli Knesset and followed by Jewish communities - the 27 of Nisan, which this year falls on April 11). The date was chosen because on January 27, 1945, the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. Outside the Italian consulate in New York City today the names of the 8,600 Italian Jews rounded up and killed from 1938 to 1945 were read aloud by a variety of figures. The readers included the Cardinal Edward Egan of New York and some prominent rabbis.
But this year’s observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day carried an added weight of silence, coming soon after the outbreak of an international, interfaith controversy over the proposed canonization of Pope Pius XII, who presided in Rome during World War II.

None of the readers, including Cardinal Edward M. Egan and several prominent rabbis, made mention of the dispute while standing at microphones planted along Park Avenue, reciting names that included about 1,000 Roman Jews rounded up by German and Italian authorities in a single day, Oct. 16, 1943....

Many historians contend that Pius XII did not do enough to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Vatican has long said that Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, helped save many Jews who were hidden in Roman Catholic churches, monasteries and convents.

Natalia Indrimi, one of the organizers of Wednesday’s event and director of the New York office of Centro Primo Levi, a group dedicated to the history of Italian Jews, said the question of Pius’s role during the Holocaust would be settled only when all papal records of the wartime period were unsealed by the Vatican, which so far has released only some.

“It is up to the church to make its own decisions about canonization,” she said. “But any claim that Pius did something or didn’t do something is only a claim until all the records can be studied by the historians.”


  1. Rebecca,

    You write: "Many historians contend that Pius XII did not do enough to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Vatican has long said that Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, helped save many Jews who were hidden in Roman Catholic churches, monasteries and convents."

    I have not explored this issue carefully with reference to the then Pope but, nonetheless, wonder about framing the issue around the word "enough" (or some equivalent wording). Obviously, judged by the horrors that occurred, not enough was done since, quite obviously, what happened was not stopped.

    I think the word "enough" raises the wrong question.

    I raise this issue with reference to another issue, about which I am more familiar, namely, the efforts by FDR. There are those who have written and, by their accounts, shown that FDR did all but nothing. There are others who have written and shown that FDR did, given the circumstances in which he lived and the state of the world, a great deal. Whatever he did, was it "enough"?

    Returning to the question about the Pope, it might be argued that one can never know what is enough and one can say, since horrors occurred, that there is never enough. Which is to say, the question itself asks for a moral judgment, not an examination of what occurred.

    My sense, having read a fair amount about that period - although not about this specific question -, is that were the Pope a person who loved Jews, he would have been restrained substantially by others in his Church and by public opinion that was decidedly not sympathetic to Jews. Could he have changed that? Consider what is going on in Europe today vis a vis the Israelis. Whatever justification there is for objection to Israeli policies, it does not account for the tone, topics, character, repetitiveness and viciousness of Israel's critics when they criticize Israel. I do not think that any campaign directed at such people by any leader will reverse what is now occurring.

    What are your views on framing the issue around the word "enough"?

  2. I'm not sure what I think. I didn't write the sentence you quote - it's from the New York Times article on the memorial service. I guess part of the problem is defining what "enough" would be. The most expansive definition would have been to stop the killing of Jews altogether. That was not going to happen until the Allies defeated the Nazis. One argument I've read in defense of FDR is that the real American effort to stop the Holocaust was by winning the war, not specific actions to save particular Jewish communities. The same consideration wouldn't hold for the Vatican, since they were not combatants. I think with regard to the Pope, one thing that people now think the Pope should have done was to speak out much more publicly and strongly against the attacks on the Jews. Another question has to do with the whole relationship between the Vatican and the Nazi regime. They signed a concordat in the 1930s. Maybe they should not have, although at the time the genocidal extent of Nazi antisemitism wasn't completely clear. I think it's a question that needs a lot more information, in the form of the files of the papacy from that era, which have not been made public by the Vatican yet.

  3. Hi Rebecca,

    I understood that you did not write the sentence.

    My point, to explain myself a bit better, is that the word "enough" - which calls for a moral judgment - can stand in the way of first finding out what and why things happened. Only then, once everything is understood the best it can be, and with all different interpretations of what and why things happened considered, can honest judgments be made.

    Clearly, the world did rather little to help Europe's Jews. And, what was done happened for many reasons, some of it being hatred of Jews and some of it being mistakes in judgment and some of it being other compelling obligations and some of it being that what was needed was beyond the capacity to do.

    Regarding WWII, I recommend two books very much worth your time - if you enjoy topics outside of your specialty - and, by the way, I, very long ago, majored in religion (although my specialty was philosophy, having written my thesis on Nietzsche and religion). One is Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust, by Robert N. Rosen. The book includes a forward by the famed WWII historian Gerhard Weinberg - something that has attracted the attention of my history professor friends - and an afterword by Alan Dershowitz. The argument in the book is that Roosevelt did a great deal (and not merely - although that is an important part of the mix - winning the war). It is a masterful book that clearly advances the case for FDR the good guy. I know that such understanding fits the view held by many people I know from that generation.

    The other book, The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, by William I. Hitchcock, which I think describes what liberation is like for those liberated. The evidence regarding how bombs did not often fall where they are supposed to and, even when they did, the place being bombarded was often the wrong place speaks to the issue of bombing train lines and concentration camps, etc., etc. Which is to say, it strongly supports Robert Rosen's interpretation although the topic is not quite the same.

    In addition and unrelated to our topic, the last part of the book tells how Jews liberated from camps were treated. It was, all and all, a horror story. Dehumanized people often being treated badly and, even when not so treated, being hostile, due to their trauma, to efforts to help. It is not at all what I thought on the topic. But, I think that Professor Hitchcock has told his story straight, going where the fact took him and not merely presenting a narrative.

    I agree with you that the Church should be more open. But, I would not count on it. There is no up side for it because, as they likely see the matter, nothing they did could be viewed as ever having been enough - after all, it was an unmitigated horror story. Which is to say, they will be damned no matter what, back then, they thought they were doing and no matter what they did that is not already known.

    On the Nazi pact with the church, I am not inclined to condemn that as suggesting complicity with genocide. That clearly goes too far because the pact was entered into in July of 1933. Hitler only came to power in January of that year. Most of Europe and the world did not, at that point, know where Hitler was really heading. Churchill was, in this regard, the exception who caught on pretty early.

    The church should, however, be severely criticized for making peace with an overt and violent bigot and Antisemite but that is different from reading the future into that event.