The situation for Jews in Italy took a dramatic turn for the worse in July, 1943, when the Allies invaded Sicily and bombed Rome. Italy’s fascist government fell, Mussolini was arrested and eventually executed by Italian partisans. Pietro Badoglio became Prime Minister of Italy and began to negotiate an immediate ceasefire with the Allies. Enraged, Hitler used force to bring Italy back into the Axis fold. Despite the increasingly desperate situation on the Eastern Front, he sent troops to occupy northern and central Italy. On September 11, 1943, Rome came under German occupation: Marshal Albert Kesselring declared martial law. Soon thereafter, SS troops (22 percent Catholic), along with the most zealous of Mussolini’s supporters (overwhelmingly Catholic), began rounding up Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Trieste, and other northern cities.
According to documentary evidence, in October, 1943, the Pope was advised that deportation of Italian Jews was imminent. Publicly, he remained silent. Privately, his defenders claim, Pius instructed his diocesan clergy to provide refuge for Jews — even though he was aware of a Nazi plot to kill or kidnap him. Four hundred seventy- seven Jews were sheltered within Vatican City; another 4,238 were sheltered in Roman monasteries and convents.
Powerful voices, outside the Vatican, were raised to stop the planned deportation from Italy. Several of those voices were German — Ernst von Weizsacker, ambassador to the Holy See and Kesselring among them. A third objector was Albrecht von Kessel, German consul to Rome. All three were convinced that if deportation was allowed to proceed, a popular uprising against the occupation was likely, particularly if Pius protested publicly. But no protest came from the Pope. Weizsacker wrote to a colleague in Berlin:
“Although pressed on all sides, the Pope did not allow himself to be drawn into any demonstration of reproof at the deportation of the Jews of Rome. The only sign of disapproval was a veiled allusion in ‘L’Osservatore Romano,’ in which only a restricted number of people could recognize a reference to the Jewish question”
On October 16, 1943, the Nazis, despite receipt of a large ransom in gold paid by the Jewish community of Rome, rounded up over a thousand Jews and amassed them in a piazza within the Jewish ghetto, established by Pope Paul IV in the sixteenth century. The piazza was located within walking distance of the papal apartments in St. Peter’s Square. Ironically, the piazza contained one of Rome’s many churches, Santa Maria del Pianto (“St. Mary Weeping”). Many of the Jews rounded up, including women, children and infants, were leaving evening Yom Kippur services. The convoy of trucks transporting them to the railway terminal took a route along the Tiber that passed St. Peter’s Square. Shortly after arriving at the terminal, they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 811 of them were gassed upon arrival; only 16 survived.
On October 28 1943, Ambassador von Weizsacker, in a telegram to his superiors in Berlin, wrote:
“…the Pope has not yet let himself be persuaded to make an official condemnation of the deportation of the Roman Jews…. Since it is currently thought that the Germans will take no further steps against the Jews in Rome, the question of our relations with the Vatican may be considered closed.”
As in other European countries, there were clergy in Italy who attempted to rescue Jews from deportation. When approached by Jewish assistance groups to help coordinate rescue efforts, for example, Cardinals Pietro Boetto of Genoa, Ildefonso Schuster of Milan, Maurilio Fossati of Turin, and Elia Dalla Costa of Florence instructed the clergy and religious of their archdioceses to cooperate fully. In Florence, Cardinal Dalla Costa mobilized his archdiocese for Jewish rescue; at least twenty- one monasteries, convents and parish churches were put in service for rescue operations. Monsignor Giuseppe Nicolini implemented a rescue program in his diocese of Assisi, on his own initiative, without being asked for help. Susan Zuccotti, author of “Under His Very Windows,” credits Bishop Antonio Santino of Trieste and Capodistria with demonstrating “courage, initiative, and undeniable sympathy for Jews.” Zuccotti cites an incident when Bishop Santino delivered a passionate homily in the presence of German Nazis and Italian fascists, castigating them for the suffering they were causing to “… people from whose womb came (the Savior) as a man and in whose midst he lived and died.”
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, has honored 281 Italians as Righteous Gentiles for their roles in saving Jewish lives, including Don Arrigo Beccari, a teacher at the Catholic seminary in the village of Nonantola, who helped 120 Jews escape to Switzerland; Cardinal Pietro Boetto’s secretary, Don Francesco Repetto; Frs. Rufino Nicacci and Aldo Brunacci of Assisi, who, together with Monsignor Giuseppe Nicolini, arranged for hundreds to be provided false credentials, to be hidden in private homes and smuggled out of Italy; and Fr.Giovanni Simione and Fr. Angelo Della Torre who cooperated in saving the lives of twelve Jewish women and their children.
Another Italian honored as a Righteous Gentile is Dr. Giovanni Passante who when inviting a Jewish family to hide in his family’s home said: “I ask you to stay with us for my sake, not yours. If you leave, I will forever be ashamed to be numbered among the human race.”
Forty thousand Italian Jews (80 percent of the total) survived the Holocaust because ordinary Italians, including lower-level government officials, members of the Italian military and church officials, passively resisted the Nazi occupiers by, among other things, sheltering Jews, obstructing deportation or helping Jews escape to unoccupied southern Italy. According to Susan Zuccotti, claims by Pius’ defenders like Pinchas Lapide that the Pope encouraged Italy’s rescue efforts of Jews are “unsubstantiated and without foundation” and, in fact, “contradicted by credible evidence.” She writes:
“Pius XII personally seems to have made no contacts and no appeal to Italians for the Jews. Likewise, he seems never to have appealed personally to any German officials. At the very least, he might have asked that Italian Jews be allowed to remain in internment camps on Italian soil. He did not do so.”
In Act III of “The Deputy,” as Roman Jews are being rounded up for deportation, the fictionalized Fr. Riccardo, who later dies a martyr’s death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, declares,“doing nothing is as bad as taking part …God can forgive a hangman for such work, but not a priest, not the Pope!”
After the war, Pius continued as pope for another thirteen years, during which time he uttered no word of apology or regret, offered no requiem Mass of Remembrance for any Jew who perished in the Holocaust. Jacques Maritain, a prominent French Catholic philosopher, who became an exponent of emerging Christian Democracy in postwar Europe and assisted in the drafting the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” tried unsuccessfully to convince Pius to speak out about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Maritain resigned his post as French ambassador to the Holy See in 1948, citing Pius’ inaction on the issue of German guilt.