For decades, historians, academics, and Jewish advocacy groups have longed to catch a glimpse of Pope Pius XII's wartime records, kept under lock and key in the Vatican's archives. Earlier this year, the Vatican finally unsealed those records, though the archives were open for less than a week before COVID-19 shut them down again, per the Washington Post. But that gave interested parties enough time to seek answers regarding one of the most-asked questions about Pius, a candidate for sainthood: Did he, behind the scenes, try to help the Jews escape the Nazis during World War II, or did he turn a blind eye? In an article published in the Atlantic, Brown University historian David Kertzer reveals what he found when he plumbed the archives during a multiday visit in March, looking for, among other things, an explanation on Pius' silence during the Holocaust.
Kertzer says he found records that indicated Vatican officials told French Catholic clerics who harbored and secretly baptized two Jewish boys during the war (their parents were taken and killed at Auschwitz) not to turn the boys over to their aunt. Kertzer also dug up a memo "steeped in anti-Semitic language" from a member of the Vatican curia persuading Pius not to speak up when the Gestapo rounded up 1,000 Jews in Rome in 1943. "The pope was well aware that a failure to speak out could be seen as an abdication of his moral responsibility," writes Kertzer. "In the end, he judged it imprudent to raise his voice." Most of those Jews died at Auschwitz. Some church experts warn that any discoveries found in the archives should be studied carefully, and with context. "You can't publish one scoop after another just because you've been in the library for a few days," one tells the New York Times. "That's not the way to work." A more in-depth look at Kertzer's finds here. (Read more Pope Pius XII stories.)