Documents discovered by Jewish groups show that at the height of World War II, Pope Pius XII warned against making Palestine a homeland for the "Hebrew race" and had no complaints about the Nazi occupation of Rome.
The discovery of the documents in U.S. archives cast new light on a pope whose failure to speak out publicly against the persecution of the Jews during the war is still causing controversy, especially now that the Vatican is considering him for sainthood.
In one document, a Vatican spokesman informed the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the pope's help in saving 4,000 Slovakian Jewish children and getting them to Palestine must not be construed as a sign that he was in favor of setting up a Jewish homeland there.
"It is true that at one time Palestine was inhabited by the Hebrew race, but there is no axiom in history to substantiate the necessity of a people returning to a country they left 19 centuries before," said the letter the apostolic delegate to Washington, Archbishop A.G. Cicognani, wrote to FDR's special envoy to the Vatican, Ambassador Myron Taylor.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said his group discovered the letter in a collection of documents that Taylor had bound in leather and presented to the Library of Congress.
Cicognani added in the June 22, 1943, letter: "If a Hebrew home is desired, it would not be too difficult to find a more fitting territory than Palestine. With an increase in the Jewish population there, grave, new international problems would arise. Catholics the world over would be aroused. The Holy See would be saddened and justly so, by such a move."
Hier said it was clear the Vatican did not want the rescue of the Slovakian Jewish children to be considered an endorsement of Zionism, and he added, "The pope made a pronouncement against a helpless people at the height of the Holocaust. If only he had written Hitler a private letter attacking his policies against Jews. I am outraged that he did nothing of the kind."
Meanwhile, the World Jewish Congress said it had discovered a Nov. 1, 1943, memo written by the British ambassador to the Vatican, Francis D'Arcy Osborne, recounting a one-hour conversation he had with the pope months before the Allies liberated Italy.
Osborne quoted Pius XII as saying he had "no complaints" about the Germans occupying Rome and that the Germans had "behaved correctly" when it came to respecting the neutrality of the Vatican.
The ambassador said he told the pope the Germans "were systematically stripping [Rome] of all its supplies, transport and labor, were arresting Italian officers . . . and youth and were applying their usual merciless methods of persecution of the Jews." He also said it was the opinion of a number of people that the pope had "underestimated his own moral authority and the high respect it was held" by German Catholics.
"I urged him to bear it in mind in case in the course of coming events an occasion arise for taking a strong stand," Osborne said.
WJC executive director Elan Steinberg said the document "is troubling in its implications. It suggests a morally insensitive Vatican."