Newly discovered correspondence has revealed that Pope Pius XII during World War II reportedly had detailed information from a trusted German Jesuit that up to 6,000 Jews and Poles were gassed every day in German-occupied Poland.
This revelation undermines the Holy See’s previous arguments that it could not verify diplomatic reports on Nazi atrocities to report them.
The documentation from the Vatican archives, published this weekend in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, is likely to further fuel the debate over the legacy of Pius XII and his now stalled beatification campaign.
Historians have long been divided over the former Pope’s past, with supporters insisting he used quiet diplomacy to save Jewish lives.
Critics have long taken the opposite line, arguing that he remained silent while the Holocaust raged.
Corriere della Sera reproduced a letter dated 14 December 1942 from a German Jesuit priest, Reverend Lothar Koenig, to the secretary of Pius XII.
The document will be presented in a forthcoming book on the newly opened dossiers of the pontificate of Pius XII by Giovanni Coco, researcher and archivist at the Vatican Apostolic Archives.
Coco told the Courier that the letter was particularly significant as it represented detailed correspondence about the Nazi extermination of Jews from an informed source in the German church.
That source is said to have been part of the anti-Hitler Catholic resistance who managed to bring otherwise secret information to the Vatican.
Koenig’s letter to Pius’s secretary, a fellow German Jesuit, the Rev. Robert Leiber, is written in German and addresses Leiber as “dear friend.”
He goes on to report that the Nazis killed up to 6,000 Jews and Poles every day from Rava Ruska, a city in pre-war Poland that is now in Ukraine, as well as transporting them to the Belzec extermination camp.
According to the Belzec memorial, inaugurated in 2004, a total of 500,000 Jews died in the camp.
The memorial’s website reports that as many as 3,500 Jews from Rava Ruska had already been sent to Belzec in early 1942 and that, in the space of 4 days in December of that year, the city’s Jewish ghetto was liquidated.
Explaining the incident, the Belzec website states: “About 3,000-5,000 people were killed on the spot and 2,000-5,000 people were taken to Bełżec.”
The date of Koenig’s letter is particularly significant because it suggests that correspondence from a trusted Jesuit arrived in Pius XII’s office in the same three weeks that the late Pope received numerous diplomatic notes from British and Polish envoys with reports that up to 1 million Jews had been killed so far in Poland.
He cannot be entirely certain that Pius XII actually saw the letter – and he died in 1958, so he cannot disprove any claims.
However, Leiber was Pius XII’s chief aide and had served the pope when he was the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany in the 1920s, suggesting a close working relationship especially regarding matters relating to Germany.
According to “The Pope at War,” a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning anthropologist David Kertzer, a senior secretariat of state official told the British envoy to the Vatican in mid-December that the pope could not speak openly about Nazi atrocities. because the Vatican had not been able to verify the information.
Pius XII’s legacy and revelations from the newly opened Vatican archives will be discussed at a major conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome next month.
It is set to become notable due to its wide-ranging list of participants and its sponsorship, with support from the Vatican, the Israeli Holocaust research institute Yad Vashem, the United States Holocaust Memorial, as well as Israeli and American embassies.
The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will open the meeting in which scholars including Kertzer, Coco and Johan Ickx will participate.
Also present will be the archivist of the Vatican Secretariat of State, whose 2021 archives book – “Pius XII and the Jews” – praised Pius XII and the Vatican’s efforts to care for Jewish communities and others fleeing war .