He’s been called “Hitler’s Pope” and his name has been intrinsically tied to a worldly ambivalence to the Holocaust as it happened. For the past six decades, plenty of people have debated whether Pope Pius XII was actually an anti-Semite or simply blind, and the record has not been cleared.
Ruth Gledhill, who writes the Articles of Faith blog, reports that newly unearthed evidence further complicates the quest for understanding the pontiff formerly known as Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli.
In 1917, it seems, Pacelli arranged for a meeting between Nahum Sokolow, the leading Zionist publisher, and Pope Benedict XV. It’s difficult to infer from this meeting what the future pope thought. He is merely a facilitator. But the exchange does offer some interesting, and ironic, insight into the efforts to create a Jewish state.
Sokolov arrived in Rome about three weeks later, and on the 10th May, after conferring with Monsignor Pacelli, he was received by Benedict XV. It was as though Herzl’s audience was being annulled. ‘Have I correctly understood Zionism?’ asked the Pope when the opening formalities were over. ‘What a reversal of history! Nineteen centuries ago Rome destroyed Jerusalem, and now, desiring to rebuild it, you take the path to Rome!’
In his reply Sokolov recalled the fate of the Empire and compared it to that of the Jewish nation: one had vanished, the other was reclaiming its land.
‘Yes, yes,’ agreed Benedict with enthusiasm, ‘this was providential. God willed it.’
The Pope then asked Sokolov to explain the Zionist project in detail. Sokolov answered as follows: ‘Our programme is twofold. It aims first to create in Palestine a spiritual and cultural centre for Jewry, and secondly to establish a national home for oppressed Jews. Our desire is to build up in that country a great centre where Jews will be able to develop their culture freely, to educate their children in the spirit of their ideals, and to devote all their energies to making their National Home a model of Jewish civilisation and morality.’
The Pope was deeply impressed. ‘That is a wonderful idea,’ he said. Then he wanted to know whether this plan had been contrived with a view to preventing persecutions. Sokolov answered in the rhetorical terms which came naturally to him. He referred to the right of the Jews ‘to a place in the sunâin our land.’
‘We look forward,’ he said, ‘to the rebirth of historical Judaism, to the spiritual and material revival of the homeland that personifies our national genius and our Biblical tradition in its purest sense. We claim the right of Freedom which cannot be denied to any people.’