Why We Can Never Forget the Vatican's Silence On the Holocaust

Last Monday, the international community observed Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), commemorating the victims of the event that etched genocide permanently into human memory.

But the Holocaust’s permanence did not come without a fight.

While some parties — in particular, the Allied Powers, who liberated many Nazi concentration camps and witnessed firsthand the brutal realities behind their gates — immediately recognized and attempted to make reparations for the Holocaust, certain scholars and international entities remained ignorant. Others vehemently contradicted the genocide’s legitimacy and magnitude, perpetuating the phenomenon we know today as Holocaust denial.

Among the most influential of these dissenters was the Roman Catholic Church. While the Church did not openly press an agenda of Holocaust denial, it famously kept silent about the system of mass extermination sweeping Europe, including Italy, the Vatican’s closest neighbor.

Later, under the leadership of Pope Pius XII, the Church demonstrated strong opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in the Holy Land, not for the legitimate concern that the relocation and subjugation of the Palestinian people might develop into the security threat that it has today, but as an expression of the Church’s resistance to Jewish Zionism, part of an ongoing religious rivalry between Catholics and Jews.

At a time when millions of Jewish men, women and children were rooted out of their homes, packed into cattle trains, interned, abused and executed en masse, it is alarming to think religious rivalry might not have been put inside as the international community coordinated a (quite overdue) response to the crisis.

But as the long process of Jewish repatriation — and the much longer processes of grieving and healing — began in Europe, Pope Pius focused instead on the mistreatment of German Catholics under the Nazi regime, discussing the plight of priests interned at Dachau in an address to cardinals in June of 1945.

Reading the pope’s words, I cannot help but think of the tens of thousands of Jewish survivors who would later give testimony on their experiences at Dachau and other camps and wonder how their experiences could have been so trivialized, their voices so disregarded by the supposedly highest moral authority on the planet.

For it is silence that creates a climate in which such disasters can happen again.

Indeed, in May of 1994, 4,000 miles away from where a document acknowledging the complicity of the Church in perpetuating the Holocaust by standing by, as well as by contributing to anti-Semitic sentiment in the years leading up to WWII was being presented in Germany, a wave of unprecedented violence against a people called Tutsi was sweeping Rwanda.

Even then, the Holy See refused to accept the document, which had been jointly prepared by the German and Polish Bishops’ Conferences, until Pope John Paul II presented a new version for publication in March of 1998.

It is difficult to learn from mistakes you haven’t yet acknowledged. Despite Yom Hashoah, despite Jewish and other advocates’ cries of “Never forget,” genocide continues to be perpetrated again and again. No international institution with as much political and moral influence as the Roman Catholic Church can be excused for staying silent on genocide for so long. Not when silence is the chief device by which our world allows them to continue.

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Francesca Bessey

Canadian-born writer/student/philosopher/activist studying international relations and narrative at the University of Southern California. Holocaust researcher with the USC Shoah Foundation and leader and founder of the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative at USC. Feminist without apologies. Enthusiast for the outdoors, travel, and life.

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