By Philip Pullella
(Reuters) – Wartime Pope Pius at the time the information it had was vague and unverified.
The yellowed typewritten letter, reproduced on Sunday in Italy’s Corriere della Sera, is of great interest because it was discovered by an internal Vatican archivist and made public with the encouragement of Holy See officials.
The letter, dated December 14, 1942, was written by Father Lother Koenig, a Jesuit who was in the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, and addressed to the Pope’s personal secretary in the Vatican, Father Robert Leiber, also a German.
Vatican archivist Giovanni Coco told the Corriere that the importance of the letter was “huge, a unique case” because it showed that the Vatican had information that labor camps were in fact death factories.
In the letter, Koenig tells Leiber that sources had confirmed that about 6,000 Poles and Jews were being killed per day in “SS ovens” at the Belzec camp near Rava-Ruska, which was then part of German-occupied Poland and is now located in Poland. Western Ukraine.
“The novelty and importance of this document arise from one fact: now we have the certainty that the Catholic Church in Germany sent Pius XII exact and detailed news about the crimes committed against the Jews,” Coco told the newspaper , whose article was headlined: “Pius XII knew”.
When asked by the Corriere interviewer whether the letter showed that Pius knew, Coco replied: “Yes, and not just from then on.”
DOCUMENTS LUCKILY SORTED
The letter referred to two other Nazi camps – Auschwitz and Dachau – and suggested there were other messages between Koenig and Leiber that are missing or have not yet been found.
Supporters of Pius say he worked behind the scenes to help Jews and did not speak out to prevent the situation for Catholics in Nazi-occupied Europe from worsening. His opponents say he lacked the courage to speak out about the information he had, despite pleas from the Allied powers fighting Germany.
The letter was among documents that Coco says were haphazardly kept at the Vatican Secretariat of State and only recently transferred to the central archives where he works.
Suzanne Brown-Fleming, director of International Academic Programs at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, told Reuters in an email that the release showed the Vatican took seriously Pope Francis’ statement that “the Church is not afraid of history” when he ordered the opening of the war archives in 2019.
“There is both a desire and support for a careful review of the documents from a scientific perspective – whether favorable or unfavorable in what the documents reveal,” she said.
In an email to Reuters, David Kertzer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Pope at War,” a 2022 book about the Pius years, said Coco was a “top-notch, serious scholar” centrally placed in the Vatican for the truth.
Brown-Fleming, Coco and Kertzer will be part of a major conference on Pius and the Holocaust in Pontifical Gregorian next month, sponsored by Catholic and Jewish organizations, the U.S. State Department and Israeli and American Holocaust research groups, among others.
(Reporting by Philip Pullella, additional reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt; Editing by Alex Richardson)