Kertzer also confirms suspicions about choices made by the ADSS’s four Jesuit editors, in this case involving memos from the Jesuit papal advisor Pietro Tacchi Venturi, longtime papal envoy to the Fascist Italian regime, and Msgr. Angelo Dell’Acqua, then in the Secretariat of State and a future cardinal vicar of Rome. The ADSS buried in a footnote an expurgated version of the memos; it had purged all their considerable anti-Semitic content. When Kertzer compared the original documents, which he has transcribed and published in their entirety, with the excerpts published in the ADSS, he revealed how completely the Jesuit editors cleansed the document of the sensitive content at its core. The Dell’Acqua memo, which undoubtedly would have been part of the same folder of material, is not reproduced in any way in the ADSS. This is the first time that scholarly skepticism about the integrity of the previously published documents has been given real substance. Indeed, aside from the specific historical findings of Kertzer’s article, its greatest significance may reside in the proof he offers that, at least in some cases, the ADSS editors did in fact publish those parts of the documents that spoke positively of Italy’s Jews, but otherwise utterly misrepresented the Vatican debate by expunging anti-Semitic material. Whether or not this purification of documents proves exceptional or rare will only become clear over time and with further study.
In his Atlantic article, however, Kertzer focuses on the abduction of two Jewish brothers, Robert and Gérald Finaly, not the Holocaust. The Finaly boys had been taken in by a Catholic woman in Grenoble, France, when, in 1944, their Jewish parents were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz. When the boys’ aunts tried to reclaim the boys the following year, the woman, who was a deeply anti-Semitic Catholic, refused to give the brothers up. Eventually, French courts ordered that the boys be given back to their relatives, but an underground network of nuns and priests spirited them from monastery to convent under assumed names. Though this story was not unknown, the role played by the Vatican behind the scenes has not previously come to light. Kertzer shows that discussions about the fate of the boys among the pope’s most trusted advisors, including Dell’Acqua, then sostituto in the Secretariat of State, were drenched in the language of anti-Semitic prejudice.
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Initially, the Church in France actively opposed attempts to give the two Jewish boys back to their relatives, who had survived the Holocaust; the Church believed that the boys should be raised according to the faith into which they had been secretly baptized. Kertzer demonstrates that the Vatican was directly involved in these efforts, all while striving to keep its role secret. (In fact, both the pope and the Holy Office resisted returning the boys to their Jewish family.) Press coverage of the abduction eventually began to pressure the Vatican to change course. Many of the French clergy who had conspired in the scheme remained in prison for their crimes, further humiliating the Curia. Finding its position untenable, the Vatican finally agreed that the boys could be returned—not to their Jewish family, but to a neutral institution where their putatively Catholic identity could be preserved.
It didn’t take long after Kertzer published his findings for a number of Pius XII’s veteran defenders to pounce. University of Molise professor of international relations Matteo Napolitano began the pushback in early September with a full-page article in L’Osservatore Romano. Then two American writers, neither a historian, responded to Kertzer in venues that, while certainly disreputable, have alarming influence among U.S. Catholics. Ronald Rychlak, an expert in “disinformation” and gambling law at the University of Mississippi, published a critique on the Catholic League website. The tireless pro-Pius champion William Doino, meanwhile, took on Kertzer in an extensive interview with Church Militant bearing the title, “Pius XII No Conspirator.” It wasn’t his first collaboration with that online publication. In an “exclusive” interview with them in February, he confidently predicted that the opening of the Holy See’s archives would “enhance Pius XII’s reputation” and “reveal to the whole world Pius XII’s true greatness.” These comments are revealing. Genuine historians are not in the business of prophecy. They don’t know what an unopened archive will reveal. They may have hypotheses. But their research will be judged by the severe standards of peer and guild review, and so they don’t—they can’t—enter an archive with a predetermined result in mind.
Kertzer’s evidence-based findings did not please Pius’s champions. All three launched broadsides against Kertzer, some ad hominem, accusing him of claiming (in Rychlak’s words) that “Pius XII did nothing when Germans rounded up almost 2,000 Roman Jews for deportation.” (Actually, it was roughly one thousand Jews, but the inflated number makes Kertzer seem even more reckless.) This charge is groundless: Kertzer has never alleged, in his Atlantic article or elsewhere, that the pope did nothing. He merely noted that the Vatican Secretary of State Maglione met with the German ambassador, as he did, and that the Vatican chose not to lodge a complaint, which is true. Kertzer’s detractors offer no evidence to the contrary; they can’t, because none exists. Similarly, the assertion by Napolitano (and repeated by Church Militant) that the archives had been open for only four days in March, an insufficient amount of time for research purposes, is not true. The archives reopened at the beginning of June—a fact that Napolitano, who uses the nearby Vatican Archives regularly, omits.
Napolitano, Rychlak, and Doino also engage in the regrettable habit of characterizing Kertzer as “anti-papal.” They repeatedly refer to his findings as “charges,” reducing a scholar’s archive-based work to little more than fodder for polemics. But Doino spoke more truly than he knew when he observed that “many Jewish historians know their history better than Catholics do.” He’s quite right. Kertzer grasps the details of these events, and is more familiar with the relevant Vatican archival documents, than any of his American detractors. His recent article was based on archival documents none of them has inspected.
In the months after October 1943, the Germans continued to round up Jews in Rome, deporting another thousand to the death camps. Kertzer accurately observes that still no protest was heard from the pope or the Vatican. In his response, Napolitano asserts that Kertzer examined the material on which he based this claim with a pre-ordained conclusion: that the pope’s silence condemned Rome’s Jews to extermination in death camps. Such a reckless, offensive charge—that Kertzer is such an ideologue he would bend the evidence to smear the pope—has never been sustained by a serious scholar. Napolitano nonetheless insists that Kertzer set out to condemn Pacelli to a damnatio memoriae by maintaining that “the silence of Pius XII determined the sad fate of the Jews.” That is simply false. What Kertzer did say is that “the silence” of Pius XII is a subject of scholarly debate—a statement so obviously the case and even banal that it’s unworthy of discussion.
Napolitano exhibits pronounced difficulty handling the anti-Semitic language that Kertzer found in two documents drawn up in 1943 by Dell’Acqua and Tacchi Venturi. Both priests were among the principals in the discussion over whether the pope should protest the continuing murder of Italy’s Jews. Napolitano downplays the significance of the way these documents were buried by suggesting that the four Jesuit editors of the ADSS were stymied by the “archival chaos” supposedly prevailing when they began their work in 1965. But there’s no record of any such chaos at the time, and all the editors were intimately familiar with the Vatican Archives. Tacchi Venturi’s note is even mentioned and some of its lines transcribed in the documents that the editors elected to publish (ADSS 9:611). Dell’Acqua’s memo is also briefly cited. That is clear evidence that the editors knew of the documents. However, the brief lines the editors transcribed and published are—and this is Kertzer’s point—the least ideologically compromised. By only publishing those selections, the editors appear to have actually reversed the meaning of Tacchi Venturi’s memo and concealed the deeply prejudiced language that was still being deployed, even amid Jewish agony.
Another way that Napolitano minimizes the importance of these documents is by suggesting that they never reached the hands of Pius XII, though he offers no evidence of that. Surely it is significant that his most trusted advisors—Msgr. Tardini, Maglione, Dell’Acqua, and Tacchi Venturi were all involved—had written, annotated, or read these documents. It seems highly unlikely, given the importance of the subject and Pius XII’s hands-on habits, that he would not have read the documents. Not to be detained by such matters, Napolitano goes on to argue that Pope John XXIII and Giovanni Montini (later Paul VI) would never have elevated Dell’Acqua to such episcopal dignity had he been an anti-Semite. Surely, though, it is not at all hard to imagine, given the tenacity of the teaching of contempt at the Vatican, either that Montini or a prelate he appointed shared a prejudice against Jews. But there’s not even a need to imagine: in his Atlantic article, Kertzer published a document signed by Montini in 1953, at the conclusion of the Finaly affair, that clearly suggests the future pope was infected with traditional anti-Semitic views.