A letter has been published in Italian media suggesting that the late Pope Pius XII may have had detailed information from a German Jesuit about Nazi crimes in the Second World War.
Newly discovered correspondence has revealed that World War II-era Pope Pius XII allegedly had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were being gassed each day in German-occupied Poland.
That revelation undercuts the Holy See’s previous arguments that it couldn’t verify diplomatic reports of Nazi atrocities to denounce them.
The documentation from the Vatican archives, published this weekend in Italian daily Corriere della Sera newspaper, is likely to further fuel the debate about Pius’ legacy and his now-stalled beatification campaign.
Historians have long been divided about the former Pope’s record, with supporters insisting he used quiet diplomacy to save Jewish lives.
Critics have long taken the opposite tack – saying he remained silent as the Holocaust raged.
Corriere della Sera has reproduced a letter dated 14 December 1942 from a German Jesuit priest, Rev. Lothar Koenig, to Pius’ secretary.
The document is set to be presented in an upcoming book about the newly opened files of Pius’ pontificate by Giovanni Coco, a researcher and archivist in the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives.
Coco told the Corriere newspaper that the letter was particularly significant as it represented detailed correspondence about the Nazi extermination of Jews from an informed church source in Germany.
That source is said to have been part of the Catholic anti-Hitler resistance that was able to get otherwise secret information to the Vatican.
Koenig’s letter to Pius’ secretary, a fellow German Jesuit, Rev. Robert Leiber, is written in German and addresses Leiber as “dear friend”.
It goes on to report that the Nazis were killing up to 6,000 Jews and Poles daily from Rava Ruska, a town in pre-war Poland that is today located in Ukraine, as well as transporting them to the Belzec death camp.
According to the Belzec memorial, opened in 2004, a total of 500,000 Jewish people perished at the camp.
The memorial’s website reports that as many as 3,500 Jews from Rava Ruska had already been sent to Belzec earlier in 1942 and that, over a 4 day period in December that year, the city’s Jewish ghetto was liquidated.
Explaining the incident, the Belzec website says: “About 3,000-5,000 people were shot on the spot and 2,000- 5,000 people were taken to Bełżec”.
The date of Koenig’s letter is especially significant because it suggests the correspondence from a trusted fellow Jesuit arrived in Pius’ office in the same three weeks that the late Pope was receiving multiple diplomatic notes from British and Polish envoys with reports that up to 1 million Jews had been killed to date in Poland.
It can’t be entirely certain that Pius actually saw the letter – and he died in 1958, so cannot refute any claims.
However, Leiber was Pius’ top aide and had served the pope when he was the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany during the 1920s, suggesting a close working relationship especially concerning matters related to Germany.
According to ‘The Pope at War’, a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist David Kertzer, a top secretariat of state official, had told the British envoy to the Vatican in mid-December that the pope couldn’t speak out about Nazi atrocities because the Vatican hadn’t been able to verify the information.
Pius’ legacy, and the revelations from the newly opened Vatican archives, are to be discussed at a major conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University next month.
It’s set to be notable because of its across-the-spectrum participant list and sponsorship, with backing from the Vatican, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust research institute, the US Holocaust Memorial, as well as the Israeli and US embassies.
The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will open the meeting which will feature scholars including Kertzer, Coco and Johan Ickx.
Also present will be the archivist at the Vatican secretariat of state whose own 2021 book on the archives – ‘Pius XII and the Jews’ – praised Pius and the Vatican’s efforts to care for Jewish communities and others fleeing the war.