Newly uncovered correspondence from World War II-era documents has shed light on Pope Pius XII’s knowledge of Nazi atrocities, raising questions about his legacy and beatification campaign. These revelations, published in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera and originating from the Vatican archives, could reignite debates about Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust.

Historians have long been divided over Pius XII’s record. Supporters argue that he used quiet diplomacy to save Jewish lives, while critics contend that he remained silent in the face of the Holocaust’s horrors.

The newly revealed letter, dated December 14, 1942, was authored by a trusted German Jesuit priest, the Rev. Lothar Koenig, addressed to Pius XII’s secretary, the Rev. Robert Leiber. Written in German, the letter reported that the Nazis were systematically gassing up to 6,000 Jews and Poles daily in German-occupied Poland, specifically in the town of Rava Ruska, now located in Ukraine. The victims were being transported to the Belzec death camp.

Letter Exposes Pope Pius XII's Knowledge of Nazi Crimes, Illuminating WWII-Era History
Letter Exposes Pope Pius XII’s Knowledge of Nazi Crimes, Illuminating WWII-Era History

The significance of this letter lies in the fact that it provides detailed information about Nazi extermination from an informed church source within Germany. Father Koenig was part of the Catholic anti-Hitler resistance, which managed to convey secret information to the Vatican.

The date of the letter is noteworthy because it coincided with the period when Pius XII was receiving diplomatic notes from British and Polish envoys, reporting that up to one million Jews had already been killed in Poland. Although it cannot be confirmed whether Pius saw the letter, Father Leiber, its recipient, was a close associate of Pius and had worked with him during his tenure as the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany in the 1920s.

However, in mid-December of 1942, a high-ranking official in the secretariat of state, Monsignor Domenico Tardini, informed the British envoy to the Vatican that the Pope could not speak out about Nazi atrocities because the Vatican had been unable to verify the information.

Giovanni Coco, a researcher and archivist at the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives, emphasized the importance of this document, stating, “The novelty and importance of this document comes from this fact: that on the Holocaust, there is now the certainty that Pius XII was receiving from the German Catholic Church exact and detailed news about crimes being perpetrated against Jews.”

However, it should be noted that Father Koenig also urged the Vatican not to make his revelations public, fearing for his life and the safety of the resistance sources who provided the intelligence.

Letter Exposes Pope Pius XII's Knowledge of Nazi Crimes, Illuminating WWII-Era History
Letter Exposes Pope Pius XII’s Knowledge of Nazi Crimes, Illuminating WWII-Era History

The revelations from the newly opened Vatican archives are set to be discussed at a significant conference at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University next month. The conference, supported by the Vatican, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust research institute, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, and the Israeli and U.S. embassies, among others, will feature scholars such as David Kertzer, Coco, and Johan Ickx, the archivist at the Vatican secretariat of state.

Coco revealed that Father Koenig’s letter was discovered in the Vatican’s secretariat of state archives and was transferred to the Vatican’s main Apostolic Archives only in 2019. The disorganization and scattering of papers in the secretariat of state’s archives, including some of Pius XII’s documents stored in plastic containers in an attic storage space, had contributed to their preservation challenges.

This newly revealed correspondence adds another layer to the ongoing debate surrounding Pope Pius XII’s role during World War II and his relationship with the Holocaust. As historians and scholars delve deeper into these historical documents, the complexities of this period continue to emerge, prompting further analysis and discussion.

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