ROME — Written between 1938 and 1944, and previously unreleased to the general public, the letters reveal desperation and fear. They reflect the humiliation, discrimination and confinement Jews were subjected to during a dark moment in European history.
In one, a Milanese lawyer asks the Vatican to intervene in favor of his Jewish clients; another is from nuns entreating the Vatican to help a family of Jews travel to the United States. There are requests for travel documents, and appeals to be freed from a concentration camp.
The missives are all part of a trove of thousands of letters written by Jewish people across Europe begging Pope Pius XII and other Roman Catholic officials for help during the Nazi-Fascist persecutions. This week, on Pope Francis’ orders, part of the cache was made available on the internet. In total, 170 volumes, containing around 2,700 individual appeals, will be published online in an archival series titled “Jews,” the Vatican announced on Thursday.
Making them available, wrote the Vatican’s foreign minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, “will allow the descendants of those who asked for help to find traces of their loved ones from any part of the world” and “will allow scholars, and anyone interested, to freely examine this special archival heritage, from a distance.”
Academics have had access to the archive since March 2020, and the publications that are emerging from their scholarship are reviving the debate about Pius, the World War II-era pope. For some, the pontiff remained shamefully silent as the Nazis massacred Jews during the war, while others claim that he worked behind the scenes and, as a result, thousands of Jews were saved.
The released volumes are only a small part of the archives pertaining to Pius XII, whose pontificate ran from 1939 to 1958.
The files are organized alphabetically, each one its own tragedy.
There’s a tightly-scribbled postcard in Hungarian and addressed to “XII Pius Pope” in “Rome, Vatican, Italy,” with an accompanying note from an official at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, which dealt with such requests, noting that the supplicant had appealed for “moral assistance against the new law about Jews in Hungary.”
One letter written on July 29, 1941, by a parish priest on behalf of a German Jew hoping to emigrate to Brazil asks: “Is it true that the Holy See — with a passport visa — is able to help Jews get to places where they can find hospitality?” The Vatican’s note to the letter, dated a week later, is not particularly encouraging: “You can respond that only Jews who converted before 1935 receive a visa.”
There are, in fact, many requests from Jews who were baptized, asking the Vatican to provide proof of their conversion to Catholicism. Other appeals sought assistance from the Vatican to help prove their “Arian race,” as in the case of an unnamed resident of Turin who in 1940 wanted to marry a Catholic woman.
In presenting the archive, Archbishop Gallagher wrote that the requests would “arrive at the Secretariat of State, where diplomatic channels would try to provide all the help possible, taking into account the complexity of the political situation in the global context.”
In some cases, the letters reveal a paper trail of saved lives, like that of Werner Barasch, a 23-year-old Jew baptized as a Catholic in 1938 who was detained in a concentration camp in Spain. In 1942, Mr. Barasch appealed to Pius to intervene, via his representative in Madrid, so that he could join his mother who had emigrated to the United States. Letters in the file show that Vatican diplomats raised the case with their counterpart in Madrid. “Then the paper trail is interrupted,” Archbishop Gallagher wrote of this specific case. Subsequent online research showed that Mr. Barasch did make it to the United States, where he worked as a chemist in California.
The archive shows “that people in the corridors of the institution at the service of the pontiff worked tirelessly to provide Jewish people with practical help,” Archbishop Gallagher wrote, though in most cases, the “result of the request was not reported,” and it is unclear whether the Vatican was actually able to help those who asked for assistance. The outcome of the stories “of attempts to flee racial persecution, leave us with bated breath,” the archbishop acknowledged.
David Kertzer, whose latest book, “The Pope at War,” critically examines the church during World War II and the Holocaust, said that putting the files on line was “part of a continued attempt of the Vatican to present a certain kind of narrative of its role” during that period.
“I am sure one can find some cases where Jews were helped, but most of these cases where they offered any help were Catholics who were being considered Jews by the Nazis, which of course the Vatican was very opposed to,” Mr. Kertzer said, adding that during the Nazi-Fascist persecutions, “many Jews thought that their only hope of escaping being murdered was to convert, and so thousands of Jews did.”
The files put online, in any case, “have very little information on what if anything was done for them, much less whether it did any good,” he said.
But releasing the letters is an important step, both for families who will find their ancestors in the archives and for historians like Mr. Kertzer who write about the era.
Francis announced that he would open the sealed archives from World War II in 2019, under pressure from historians and Jewish organizations. “The church is not afraid of history,” the pope said at the time.