Jewish Petitions to Pope Pius XII. must be made accessible in an online archive. A corresponding historical project wants to explore the history of the Jews of Europe under National Socialism. The German church historian Hubert Wolf is responsible, he presented his initiative in Rome these days.
Mario Galgano – Vatican City
Unfortunately, the last survivors of the Holocaust couldn’t talk about that time for very long, according to Wolf. It is all the more important to have access to this time, to the lives of these people. With the project “Ask the Pope for help”, about 15,000 petitions to Pius XII. (1939-1958) can be freely accessed in an online archive. Church historian Wolf tells Vatican Radio that these writings are so important because they are not just information about the Jews, they let them speak for themselves:
“It means that people in need, people who are persecuted, people about to be deported to Auschwitz write to the pope, to the cardinal secretary of state or to the Roman curia in general. Sometimes they don’t even know how to address him: for example, some write “Your Majesty” to the Pope. Some know how to write ‘Your Holiness’ to him. You hear of Jews here whose memory the National Socialists wanted to erase – and now we have the chance to hear from them thanks to these so-called ego documents.”
Giving a voice or a face to this Jewish people, given that the National Socialists wanted to erase this memory, was a unique and, for him, “surprising” opportunity, according to Wolf.
“And now, after a year and a half of preparation by the EVZ Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office as well as the Bayer Foundation and the Krupp Foundation and SAP, we have the opportunity to find all these petitions for five years, and then hopefully it for another five years and to make them all accessible in a digital edition and in a second step to follow the whole journey that such a petition takes in the Curia It can be very different and often you have to watch 15 series to a case so that we can fully resolve it. That’s sort of the option we have now.
Available for two years
Two years ago, the archives of Pope Pius XII were in the Vatican. open to research. A team of historians led by Wolf uncovered the petition letters, initially estimated to number 15,000. Although the letters only contained aspects of the Jewish person’s life, far more than could be gleaned, explained the teacher. Wolf hopes this will also counter rising anti-Semitism in Europe:
“Because this time there is no funding from the German Research Foundation. It is of course a scientific project and a digital project and it corresponds to scientific standards, but it is a project which is intended to serve a single objective: it is a question of processing and protect against anti-Semitism. We have a keen interest in talking about it. We have information that 6 million people were murdered from the Federal Agency for Civic Education and from a wide variety of people, in school, for history lessons, for religion lessons, for party work or for citizenship programs and for anything we say, is awful, but somehow it suffocates us. We want to counteract that.
Wolf has already presented some of the petitions in public:
“A lot of people cried and even the young people needed a handkerchief. A petition reads: ‘Holy Father, save us! I am a candidate for the rabbinate, I am 19 years old, I have never had a good day in my life. I was born in Berlin, then I had to flee when the National Socialists took over I first went to Warsaw, then to Amsterdam, to Paris, then to Toulouse and now I’m sitting in Toulouse at the end of 1942 and the deportation to a camp extermination is imminent Save us Save me and my family We know there is only one Creator in Heaven He will thank you Talk to the Swiss Tourist Police so we can get a visa so that my brother, my parents and I can be saved. ‘Save us!’”
The historian said the writings have shed more light on the actions of the Vatican and the Pope under National Socialism. In terms of content, the requests did not only relate to financial aid, but also to aid for family reunification or for escaping from Europe. The Vatican has also acted at the diplomatic level. Wolf:
“It was quite literal now this letter and now you can see what the Holy See is doing? It reacts immediately. A few days after the letters arrived in Rome, the Cardinal Secretary of State wrote to the nuncio in Bern and told him: talk to the Swiss tourist police; ask for a visa for the family. The Swiss tourist police said no. And the nuncio in Vichy then got the answer and replied to the young Jew that the Vatican could not do anything about it. However, we do not yet know whether the young Jew survived or not. The Vatican archives cannot tell us that, we need the Yad Vashem databases, we need the documents from the Holocaust Memorial at Washington, we need more clues.
It is important that research does not focus on the role of Pius XII. but to focus on the actions of the whole Curia, says Wolf:
“In this way, we can piece together all of fate. But it is the document of the ego, that immediate one, that counts. From Switzerland it was said that the documents of the tourist police have not been received. The Vatican kept its archives. Maybe it’s enough to say that, and for me it leads to this paradigm shift: I actually wanted a new biography of Pius XII. for writing. But I will rather give a voice to this Jewish people. To do this, I will work with my collaborators to give them all the floor, because one thing is also clear: we estimate that they are 15,000. That could represent 12,000 petitions. We cannot know yet. We cannot make a selection. It is interesting to wonder what criterion was used to say whether such a woman was entitled to a visa and such a woman not.
“Asking the Pope for Help” is still in its infancy. The historian from Münster estimates that it would take ten to twelve years for all the letters to be digitized. However, the website itself should be accessible sooner. In addition to research, petitions should then be used primarily for political education – didactically prepared in such a way that young people have access to this time and these people.