History is a Persistent Dialogue: Interpreting the Vatican’s Response to Black Saturday

Purdue University Press spoke with author Patrick Gallo about his new book, The Nazis, the Vatican, and the Jews of Rome.

Q: Could you give a brief description of your book?

The Shoah happened in Italy not by accident or chance, but by design. My book takes the reader inside Rome during the 1943-1944. I focus on two crucial events during World War II, the roundup and deportation of the Jews of Rome and the Vatican’s crucial response to it. Moral condemnations would not have worked, nor would direct confrontation. Secrecy and clandestine action had the best chance of success. It was essential to assess the danger, and to act quickly and secretly.

Q: What is the goal of your book? What motivated you to write it?

History is a persistent dialogue between the present and the past; interpretations are subject to change as new evidence emerges raising questions and challenging previous assumptions. This was my goal in writing this book. It’s essential to understand what happened and why. The events and the principal characters during this period within Italy, Rome, Berlin are carefully examined in their historical context. I attempt to allow the reader to understand the character of the Nazi protagonists. I take the reader directly to Saturday October 16,1943 (Black Saturday), and put a human face on their Jewish victims, following them on the train and into Auschwitz.

Q: What are a few things that are being studied for the first time in this book?

Black Saturday was to be a two-day operation. Why did the roundup end abruptly at 2 p.m. on October 16? The Pope acted swiftly during the roundup, threatening a public protest. He arranged for Bishop Hudal to write a letter that threatened a public protest if the roundup was not ended. His principal aide Pancratius Pfeiffer personally delivered the letter to the German Commandant of Rome and urged him to act. The commandant took it upon himself to contact Himmler and urged him to suspend the continuation of the roundup. The roundup ended abruptly at 2 p.m. on October 16.

What is not studied carefully enough is the immediate violent reaction of the Nazi press and officials to the Pope’s, and Vatican’s public declarations, they understood that they were speaking on behalf of the plight of the Jews. The Pope’s first encyclical. Darkness over the Earth was a powerful condemnation of anti-Semitic violence. The Nazi press and officials responded immediately. This is just one example

Q: Is there anything that shocked or surprised you while working on this project?

Yes, the sheer cruelty, depravity of the Nazis. How other accounts of the Pope’s role in rescue has been ignored. These accounts ignore context.

Q: Pope Pius XII was not only acting against the German regime but was also very vocal in his opposition. Do you think making himself and the church a target helped to further his practical efforts? Speaking out was important, but did it draw attention that caused problems for him, the church, and/or the German Resistance?

Yes, it likely would have triggered reprisals against priests, nuns who were already in captivity. Many priests had already been taken into custody or killed in Poland. Many priests were taken to Dachau. In Rome, the Pope directed key figures to open churches, convents, especially cloistered convents, monasteries, and church properties to Jews. The pope was a realist and understood the meaning of power, its possibilities, and limitations.

Q: Was Vatican City in danger of being invaded by German forces?

Yes. Many Germans both within Rome and elsewhere felt it was only a matter of time before Hitler would issue an order to invade the Vatican. The diplomatic corps within the Vatican also believed the Vatican would be penetrated. Vatican officials proceeded to hide crucial documents. I describe fully Hitler’s meeting with SS General Karl Wolf in 1943 ordering him to proceed with an invasion plan.

Q: You emphasize that Pope Pius XII was a man of practicality and action. Can you summarize some of the actions he took to aid the Jewish people?

Pius XII directed trusted aides, with the mission to secretly inform priests, nuns etc. on all levels to open churches, monasteries, convents, church properties to shelter Jews. No written order was given but transmitted verbally, secretly. Those who were chosen to transmit the directive could be stopped at any time and a written order would have been a catastrophe. I devote an entire chapter to this rescue effort. An open protest by Pope Pius XII would have exposed the Jews hidden in the churches and other locations to the Nazi penetration.

The Pope personally directed Monsignor Ferrofino to go to Madird and Lisbon to transfer Jews from Spain and Portugal. Ferrofino requested those Governments to provide exit visa for the Jews. Ferrofino accompanied the first boatload of eight hundred Jews from Portugal to the Dominican Republic.

Pius created a special department for Jews in Vatican Information Office and in 1943 200,000 Jews located their missing kin. Once the Nazis troops took control of Italy the Committee for Assistance to Jewish Immigrants operated in secret. The Pope pledged   his financial support for Jews to leave Italy. In addition, the Pope ran a secret parallel network in Rome led by Father Gicancarlo Centioni, Pius arranged through trusted aides, and two Jewish couriers to transfer travel money, passports, false identity papers, ship tickets and letters of recommendation for foreign visas to individual Jews.

In December 1942, the Allies published their condemnation of the Nazi holocaust. Pius XII followed with his Christmas message which condemned the extermination of people based on their race or descent. The Allied Declaration and the Papal Christmas message were according to Martin Gilbert,” directly and inextricably linked acts of denunciation.” Through many activities and instructions, Pius speak out but did so in a manner that was designed not to undermine the Church’s rescue efforts. The Nazis fully understood when the Pope spoke and repeatedly threatened retaliation.

Q: Is there anything else you would like people to know?

With antisemitism on the rise today at an alarming rate and the last remaining witnesses passing away, it is essential to understand what happened to the Jews. How should all generations respond to the unvarnished evil of the Nazis implementation of the Final Solution? Elie Wiesel contended that responsibility and memory were essential. To fathom the unfathomable is responsibility and memory.

I have been to Rome countless times and at one point taught at the Loyola University Center. I took my students to historical sites related of World War II including the Rome Ghetto the site of the roundup. I am drawn to the Jewish ghetto and to visit a dear friend. Black Saturday is a constant reminder even as we enjoy an espresso or cappuccino.

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