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Documentary confronts cost of Pope Pius XII’s ‘Holy Silence’ during Holocaust

Last year, Pope Francis announced that on March 2, 2020, he would open the Vatican Archives for the pontificate of Pius XII. It is a long awaited move, as controversy has swirled for decades over Pius XII’s lack of action to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Indeed, the canonization of Pius XII has been delayed – if not totally derailed — due to questions about his reluctance to use the Church’s moral influence during this dark period.

“The Church is not afraid of history,” proclaimed Pope Francis in his official announcement of the archives’ scheduled opening.

Vatican archivists, led by Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, have prepared for years for this ahead-of-schedule opening (archives are usually opened 70 years after the end of a pontificate). In addition to the Vatican Secret Archives (recently renamed the Vatican Apostolic Archives), a number of other archives from the pontificate of Pius XII from 1939 to 1958 will be opened. It will take years for scholars to comb through the approximately 17 million pages of documents expected to be released.

In the meantime, the public can learn more about the historical background to the events reflected in these documents from a new film, “Holy Silence,” which will have its world premiere on January 21 at the Miami Jewish Film Festival.

The major question posed by “Holy Silence” is whether Pius XII did all he could to counter Nazi Germany and save Jews. The answer is clearly no based on the majority of viewpoints expressed by the experts interviewed.

The pope believed that the Nazis would win the war and control most of Europe as a result. Therefore, American requests that he support the Allies fell on deaf ears. In his public statements and radio addresses, the pontiff decried violence and expressed sorrow for its victims, but he did not explicitly mention the Jews. In one speech, he entreated the combatants not to bomb the art and architectural treasures of Rome and Vatican City, but didn’t express much concern about protecting people.

The film indicates that there is currently no clearcut evidence that the Vatican warned Jews of impending deportation when Germany occupied Italy in 1943, or that the Pope issued a directive to Catholic institutions to shelter Jews. In one instance, on October 16, 1943, 1,259 Jews were arrested within meters of Vatican City.

However, there is a second equally important question posed, which is whether history would have been different had Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, not died in February 1939 while on the verge of presenting a draft encyclical denouncing racism and anti-Semitism to an assembly of bishops.

According to Eisner, German and French versions of the draft encyclical also survived in the Vatican archives, but all documentation surrounding the writing of and plans for the document were destroyed.

Pius XI, who had a late in life change of heart about confronting anti-Semitism and fascism, had throughout the 1920s and 1930s relied on the advice of his secretary of state Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli — who later became Pope Pius XII. Pacelli had lived and represented the Vatican in Germany for many years, and therefore had an affinity for the country.

“There was no evidence that Pius XII was anti-Semitic, but he was clearly pro-German,” said Peter Eisner, journalist and author of “The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler.”

The pope’s lack of action already speaks louder than the words in the 17 million documents that will be soon be released, but there will certainly be nuanced information to broaden and deepen our understanding of what really happened.

Perhaps historians will uncover the truth: Was Pius XII only protecting the Church, or was he motivated by anti-Semitic animus? It’s a question audiences of all faiths can ponder as they watch Pressman’s film and reflect on the cost of remaining silent.