Israeli Ambassador Criticized for Praising Controversial WWII Pope

Last week, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Mordechay Lewy, made some confusing comments at a ceremony honoring an Italian priest who helped Jews during WWII, which seemed to amount to rare praise for Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 and 1958.  Pius XII is infamous for his lack of action during the Holocaust, refusing Jews’ pleas for help on the grounds of maintaining neutrality.  The Vatican claims that public protestation would have done no good, and that instead Pius worked behind the scenes to forestall further Nazi reprisals.  Many Jews, however, disagree, saying that he was silent while he could have been saving lives.

It’s thus unsurprising that Pius XII is rarely praised.  At the ceremony, however, Lewy lauded the many Catholic institutions that sheltered Jews during mass arrests in Rome in October 1943.

There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about steps to protect Jews,” Lewy said, according to RNS.  ”So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.”

The reactions harked back to the anger expressed by Jews after the current Pope, Benedict XVI, wrote in a book that Pius was “one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else.”  At the time, the president of Rome’s synagogue told Benedict that Pius’ “silence before the Holocaust” was unforgivable because, as the head of Europe’s most powerful religious institutions, he could have done far more to stop German atrocities.

Similarly, Lewy was immediately criticized by Holocaust survivors.  ”For any ambassador to make such specious comments is morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius’s silence,” said Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendents.  He added that Lewy had “disgracefully conflated the praiseworthy actions of elements in the Catholic Church to rescue Jews with the glaring failure of Pope Pius to do so.”

A day after the remarks, Lewy said that he was aware that his comments might ”raise some eyebrows in the Rome Jewish community.  But,” he added, “this refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him.”  Huh?  It seems like Lewy is saying that Pius should be praised for the few he did save, and – well, let’s not talk about anything more he could have done.  Understandably, this was not a satisfying response.

At least, after a few days, Lewy seems to have realized that his remarks were more than a little half-baked.  Unfortunately, though, his explanation is just as difficult to explain.  Saying that his comments were “embedded in a larger historical context,” he continued, “Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature.”

What on earth is Lewy trying to say?  It’s even more confusing – and offensive – given that Lewy, as the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, is in charge of a fragile diplomatic relationship.  Surely he should have realized that these remarks would be devastating to Holocaust survivors, even if they did endear him a little more to the Vatican.  It will be interesting to see if Lewy issues another apology, or whether his critics simply allow the episode to blow over.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

jane richmond
jane richmond6 years ago

We will probably never know the REAL truth.

Sarah C.
Sarah C6 years ago

Possibly, the Israeli ambassador was just trying to be appreciative of the little Pius did. Time will be the best judge. Ultimately, everyone's role in life, actions and words, everybody would be held accountable. Important thing is, what about the present pope? What is his stance? And our own?

Cynthia B.
Cynthia B.6 years ago

Will this discussion go on forever? There is justifiable reason for setting any record straight, but the Holocaust has taken front stage for decades now and people should be careful about not overdoing it. There were so many other people murdered in that war and many other ethnic cleansings who receive little, if any attention. The same goes fro the present day and as one blogger noted, the Palestinians are now due for some of the study that has been devoted to the killing (or saving) of the Jews during the Nazi era.
It's a sad world where one has to plead for balance in such a case, but I'm sure many Jews feel as I do.

Tom Edgar
Tom Edgar6 years ago

Pius was not known as "Hitler's Pope" for nothing. Prior to his Papal elevation he was a constant in the Third Reich's and Adolf Hitler's machinations. His anti Jew stance was replicated in the Nazi philosophy and actions. He did nothing to prevent Jews being transported to the gas chambers even from Italy. Hitler himself viewed Pius as a favored son and used him constantly, to keep Catholics on side, and to justify his extremism, in which they seemed to be in total accord regarding Judaism.

My one clear recollection of him, in the mid to late thirties,along with others, including the then Pope, is when they were blessing and giving benediction to Italian troops as they embarked to commit atrocities on the natives, and annex their land, of Abyssinia.

The only vindication for this atrocious man's actions is that he was playing politics to slow the demise, and perceived possibility of the diminution of the Church's influence within Germany. To that end the fate of non Catholics, & especially Jews, was, to his mind, no price at all.

Alicia N.
Alicia N6 years ago

read but no comment, thanks

Tom Y.
Tom Y6 years ago

There's a whole other side to the story of Pius XII. It's been steadily emerging, and Jews are certainly aware: "The Myth of Hitler's Pope," by Rabbi David G. Dalin, sets forth the case on which Ambassador Lewy's visit rests. Unfortunately, the legacy of Pius was tarnished by a historically revisionist play, "The Deputy," which depicted him tacitly approving the Holocaust. Ironically the playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, went on to the defense of Holocaust deniers.

Hochhuth's play must be seen as posing a caricature of the Pope, which went on to have an damaging and untrue influence on the societal memory of Pius XII. Truth, thank God, is the daughter of evidence and time, and the truthful flock to it.

Richard M.
Richard Moffa6 years ago

Perhaps those so outraged should read the history a little more closely. The Ambassador's comments to the effect that "…this refers to saving Jews, which Pius did…" is historically accurate. For starters, he spent $100,000, virtually his entire inheritance from the Pacelli family (c. $2-4 Million in todays dollars) helping Jews. He directed that Church properties be opened to refugees from persecution, and some 5,000 Jews were hidden in churches, monasteries and convents in Italy, including Vatican properties. When the Germans began their roundup of Jews in Rome, he spoke out - diplomatically, and immediately to Baron Von Weisacker, the German Ambassador. He demanded the deportations stop. They did. Not soon enough for those who were taken, but what he did, quietly, saved thousands. Of some 48,000 Italian Jews, 40,000 survived the war. He protested Vichy cooperation with the Nazi deportations, and directed the prelate of Hungary, and others, that they should help Jews and other victims of the Nazis. He warned the regent of Hungary, Admiral Horthy, that he would be held responsible for his cooperation with the Nazis mass deportation of Hungarian Jews. Horthy demanded that his German allies stop (yes, it did help, coincidentally, that the day after Horthy read Pius' letter, 15th Air Force bombed Budapest). Again, it failed to save many thousands, but it did save many. Under his leadership, the papal legate to Istanbul, Monsignor Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII, work

Drusilla P.
Drusilla P6 years ago

Some Catholics (real Christians, those) did help save Jews during WWII, but Pius XII was a complete disgrace.
All ambassadors being politicians first, this "incident" makes me wonder what the hidden agenda is here.

Thanks for the info.

caterina caligiuri

thanks for the article