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  1. The story

Some medias (Die Zeit, Kirche+Leben, Religion News Service) have recently reported the following story: in one week alone «German researchers» of a group led by Münster’s professor Hubert Wolf «found that the Pope [Pius XII], who never directly criticized the Nazi slaughter of Jews, knew from his own sources about Berlin’s death campaign» but kept «this from the U.S. government after an aide argued that Jews and Ukrainians — his main sources — could not be trusted because they lied and exaggerated, according to the researchers».

It’s really epic the way medias have reported Professor Wolf’s stay in the Vatican archives. It seems that, in five days only, his group discovered the definitive worst side of Pope Pius XII – his inner wish of ignoring what was happening to Jews in Poland and in Ukraine.

As everybody knows, the community of “pontifical scholars” had been waiting for Vatican archives to be available since a long-time. Everybody knew that a long work was awaiting scholars in the whole Pius’ archives. In fact, methodologically nobody could challenge the rationale that a “Pius’ fine-tuned story” should be a matter of time, study and careful scholarship. Instead, we discovered that in the only five days the Vatican archives were opened (before their doors were dramatically slammed by the coronavirus), a group of young scholars led by an authoritative historian discovered the mother-evidence of Pacelli’s indifference to the fate of European Jews during the second world war.

Given the importance of the question, it is necessary to go to the focal point. Wolf and his group allegedly discovered a document proving that Pope Pius XII knew about the Holocaust well in advance but hid this information from the US Governments after an aide had advised not to believe to Jewish and Ukrainian sources of the memo, since they exaggerated reality or tended to be dishonest.

  1. Wolf’s anti-Pius roadmap

In detail, Wolf’s research roadmap goes as follows:

  1. On 27th September 1942 President Roosevelt’s personal representative to the Pope, Ambassador Myron Taylor, submitted to the Vatican Secretariat of State a memo about the massacres of the Jews in the Warsaw’s Ghetto. The memo came from a Geneva-based Jewish Agency for Palestine. The memo reported the killing of 100,000 Jews in Warsaw and/or in its surroundings, adding that other 50,0000 Jews had been killed in Lviv, in German-occupied Ukraine.
  2. An internal note by a Vatican official informed that Pope Pius XII read the document.
  3. Meanwhile, the Vatican official received two other notes confirming the story of Myron Taylor’s memo, namely

c.1)       A letter from the Lviv Archbishop mgr. Andrey Szeptyckyj, of August 1942, revealing that 200,000 Jews had been killed by the Nazis in Ukraine.

c.2)       A memo of a conversation held in mid-September 1942 between Mgr. Montini and IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Italiana) official Count Malvezzi, where the latter described the unbelievable butchery of Jews he had seen during his recent stay in Warsaw. Mgr. Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) reported the gist of this conversation to Vatican Secretary of State Card. Luigi Maglione.

Despite his awareness of what was going on in Warwaw and Lviv, Wolf argues, Pius XII let Myron Taylor know that the Vatican was not able to confirm the news the US Ambassador had received from Geneva. Why did the Pope behave this way? The answer lies in an unpublished document Wolf has discovered in Vatican archives during the five-day lapse of their opening.

According to Wolf, this document shows that papal aidée Mgr. Angelo Dell’Acqua, after examination of the Jewish Agency’s memo brought by Taylor, and after scrutiny of the news sent by Lviv Archbishop Szeptyckyj, advised not to give much credit to them since Jewish informers exaggerated while the Eastern ones (read: the Archbishop of Lviv) were not exactly an example of honesty. This opinion, Wolf concludes, let the Vatican decide to keep the secret on the reports by Szeptyckyj and Malvezzi, and respond to Ambassador Myron Taylor that the memo of the Jewish Agency in Geneva could not be confirmed.

Wolf adds that Dell’Acqua’s memo does not appear in the Vatican edited collection Actes et Documents du Saint-Siège. He clearly believes in a faulty omission committed by ADSS editors, since the Dell’Acqua memo could embarrass the Vatican by proving that the Pope had known about the massacres of the Jews in advance and remained silent. In fact, Wolf says, «this is a key document that has been kept hidden from us because it is clearly anti-Semitic and shows why Pius XII did not speak out against the Holocaust […]. That’s why we have to be skeptical about the whole 11-volume series and check it against the archive document by document», since «these 11 volumes break up the context in which the documents are found in the archive. The result is that one can no longer understand how they relate to each other».

  1. The problems of Wolf’s interpretation

The Author of these lines is one of the few researchers in the world to have gained access to the Vatican archives the very day the files of Pope Pius XII were opened. Exactly as Münster’s Professor Hubert Wolf (strange to say, a Catholic priest), Dr. Michael Hesemann and others, I experimented the first school day’s excitation in getting fresh archival papers on my desk, and soon after suffered the delusion for the premature closing of the Vatican archives due to coronavirus pandemic.

That’s why I feel uncomfortable with Wolf’s assessments as reported by the medias, finding that Wolf’s opinion upon his fresh discoveries about Pacelli left itself open to criticism.


The first question involves Mgr. Dell’Acqua’s unpublished memo. Even by admitting that the note exactly said what Wolf believes it did, Mgr. Dell’Acqua was in no position of conditioning directly the papal line. In the Vatican hierarchy he was a minutante of the First Section of the Vatican Secretariat of State – hence on the first stage of the Vatican diplomatic career, so that any advice coming from him should pass the filter of his own direct superiors (i.e. Mgr. Tardini). In fact, Vatican documents show no evidence of a cause-effect relationship between Dell’Acqua’s memo and papal non-confirmation of the news coming from Geneva. There’s no evidence at all that Pius’ opinions were forged by a minutante. More, there is no evidence that Pius XII read Dell’Acqua’s remarks on the unreliability of the news on massacres in Poland and Ukraine.

Moreover, a minutante, although prone to the hierarchy, could even cast doubts about news coming from a very important Cardinal as Szeptyckyj (a man very esteemed by Pius XII). Anyway, this does not means that Dell’Acqua could write adamantly that Eastern people like Szeptyckyj were dishonest.


But there are other points of weakness in Hubert Wolf’s assertions. For instance, what about Malvezzi? Was Count Malvezzi reliable while informing about the events in Warsaw? Was he exaggerating or reporting dishonestly? Did Malvezzi’s information reach US Ambassador Myron Taylor or not?


A third point of weakness in Wolf’s theory is the wrong quotation of Mgr. Dell’Acqua’s words. Michael Hesemann has already quoted the following words of Dell’Acqua: «It is necessary to make sure they [the information coming from Geneva] be true, since exaggerations often happen, even among the Jews».

The whole Dell’Acqua’s note of 2nd October 1942 (in ARSR, AA.EE.SS., Extracta, Germania 742, f. 25) says the following: «No doubt the news contained in the letter by Ambassador Taylor are very serious. But we need to be sure they correspond to truth, since exaggeration is easy even among Jews. It’s not enough, in my humble opinion, to base upon information given by the Catholic Ruthenian Metropolitan Bishop of Lviv and by Signor Malvezzi (even Easterners are not an example in matters of sincerity). But, even considering the news as true, it will be appropriate to proceed with great prudence in confirming them to Mr. Tittmann since it seems to me to see also a political (if not purely political) aim in the move by the American Government, which should not miss the oppotunity of giving publicity to an eventual confirmation by the Holy See –  which could have unpleasant consequences not only for the Holy See but also for those Jews themselves who are into hands of the Germans, who could profit to worsen the hateful and barbaric measures adopted against them» (**).

In a nutshell, Dell’Acqua did not advise to keep the information secret but rather to pass them to Taylor accompanied by warnings about their possible inaccuracy and non-verifiability. But, most of all, it is not true that Dell’Acqua’s memo was not included in the 11-volume series of the Vatican documents because it was a «key document that has been kept hidden from us because it is clearly anti-Semitic». On the contrary, as we have seen by citing the memo entirely and not by serial quotations, Dell’Acqua was worried about the possible «unpleasant consequence» the political use of a serious humanitarian question could produce «not only for the Holy See but also for those Jews themselves who are into hands of the Germans, who could profit to worsen the hateful and barbaric measures adopted against them».

How could one maintain that Mgr. Dell’Acqua was an anti-Semite, and that his anti-Semitism was the reason why his memo was not published in the Vatican documents’ official series?


Wolf does not see that even the memo by the Jewish Agency for Palestine contained a set of inaccuracies. Myron Taylor’s letter pouching this memo was brought personally by him to the Vatican Secretariat of State on 27th September 1942. Cardinal Maglione was not in office, but soon Montini forwarded the letter directly to the Pope, who saw it. When Cardinal Maglione read it, soon after, he asked: «I don’t believe we’ve got information confirming – in detail – these shocking news. Isn’t that?». Maglione’s aidées answered. «There are Malvezzi’s» (ADSS, vol. 8, doc. 493).

Malvezzi was an IRI clerk who had been in Warsaw for business. He was in close contact with Mgr. Montini whom he met on 18th September 1942. Montini summarized their conversation as follows: «In last weeks there are two remarkable serious facts: the bombings of Polish cities by Russians and the systematic massacres of Jews. Massacres of Jews have reached dreadful dimensions and appalling forms. Incredible slaughters happen every day; it seems that in mid-October they want to make the Ghettos empty from hundreds of thousands unhappy languishing in order to make place for Polish driven off their own homes…»


Hence, the main point is the following: was the Jewish Agency memo pouched by Ambassador reporting exactly the situation? If we study that document carefully, we see that many information were not verifiable or were inaccurate. For instance, the memo said that all the Jews in Warsaw Ghetto were being liquidated. The massacres, the memo reported, were not taking place in Warsaw but in Belzek and Lemberg, where 50,000 Jews had been killed. But after few lines, as in a matrioska-game, the memo itself enclaved another memo according to which in fact massacres had been perpetrated in Warsaw and that 100,000 Jews had been killed. More, the Jewish Agency for Palestine added: «There is not one Jew left in the entire district east of Poland, included occupied Russia». These information were obviously inaccurate – for instance, many Jews still resided in territories believed to have be emptied of them; and the figures of the killings were totally different; and so were the places where the massacres had taken place (Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic papers, 1942, Europe 1942, vol. II, pp. 775-776).


Hence, if the Vatican could not confirm a mess of divergent and contrasting news it was receiving, this doesn’t mean that Pius XII wished these information to be kept secret from the US. Had one followed the whole story to the end, he should have discovered that the Vatican acted vis-à-vis Myron Taylor the following way: «To prepare a brief note by telling, essentially, that the Holy See has received news about severe mistreatments against the Jews, but that it could not check the exactitude of all the news received. On the other way, when the occasion arose, the Holy See itself did not miss the opportunity to intervene».

The conclusion is that Ambassador Myron Taylor was not kept in the dark of the information coming to Vatican with news about massacres of Jews. The only warning was that the reported news could not be verified in their accuracy.


If we move from the Vatican sources to other ones, we discover that, in treating the news about holocaust, Pope Pius XII behaved in a way similar to others.

Gerhart Riegner was a German lawyer and a Jew emigrant to Switzerland, who during the war had been working in the World Jewish Congress’ Swiss headquarter. Riegner became famous for his memo of 8th August 1942, by which he intended to forward to British and American Jews alarming information on the holocaust, he had received from the German industrialist Edward Schulte and from other sources.

Riegner’s dispatch (pouched by the British Legation in Bern) said that «in the Führer’s Headquarters, a plan has been discussed, and is under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany numbering 3 1/2 to 4 millions should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be at one blow exterminated in order to resolve, once and for all the Jewish question in Europe». The action was reported «to be planned for the autumn» and that «ways of execution were (my Italic) still being discussed including the use of prussic acid». «We transmit this information with all the necessary reservations as exactitude cannot be confirmed by us»; even if «our informant is reported to have close connexions with the highest German authorities, and his reports are generally reliable» (See PRO file FO.371/30917).

The closing remarks casting doubts about the accuracy of the report came directly from Riegner’s superior at the World Jewish Congress, the international lawyer Paul Guggenheim, who peremptorily ordered Riegner to cancel any mention of the existence of a huge crematorium and to insert a hint that the accuracy of the received information could not be checked.

We now know that Allied secret services tried to block the dissemination of the Riegner’s memo. But there is more. In strange synchronicity with the Jewish memo pouched by Myron Taylor, in September 1942 the President of the American Jewish Congress confessed his personal doubts about the truthfulness of the Riegner’s memo (See Breitman, Official Secrets, p.144). In fact, «the desk officers in the European Division and the refugee specialists discounted this telegram, and the State Department declined to pass it on to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress». It is very interesting to note that the State Department considered Reigner’s information «a wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears» (Breitman, Goda, Naftali and Wolfe, US Intelligence and the Nazis, Cambridge 2005, p. 26; cfr. Breitman, Lichtman, FDR and the Jews, Belknap Press 2013, p. 199 ff.).

All this shows that even one of the most reliable sources on the holocaust during the Second World War, the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, was under accurate scrutiny as to the news it was spreading, because of the need of their careful verification before dissemination.


If we move to American documents, we make another interesting discovery. During the Summer of 1943 Allies were preparing a statement against Nazi atrocities in Poland – a demarche urgently requested by Jewish Agencies in US, UK and elsewhere. While preparing this demarche by an accurate wording, Washington received from London the following news: «At the suggestion of the British Government which says there is insufficient evidence to justify the statement regarding execution in gas chambers, it has been agreed to eliminate the last phrase in paragraph 2 of the Declaration on German Crimes in Poland beginning “where” and ending “chambers” thus making the second paragraph end with “concentration camps”. Please inform the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the change in text» (FRUS, 1943, III. pp. 416-417).

As a consequence, the final text of the US-UK Declaration on German Crimes in Poland read as follows:

Trustworthy information has reached the United States Government regarding the crimes committed by the German invaders against the population of Poland. Since the autumn of 1942 a belt of territory extending from the province of Bialystok southward along the line of the River Bug has been systematically emptied of its inhabitants. In July 1943 these measures were extended to practically the whole of the province of Lublin, where hundreds of thousands of persons have been deported from their homes or exterminated

These measures are being carried out with the utmost brutality. Many of the victims are killed on the spot. The rest are segregated. Men from 14 to 50 are taken away to work for Germany. Some children are killed on the spot; others are separated from their parents and either sent to Germany to be brought up as Germans or sold to German settlers or dis patched with the women and old men to con centration camps.

The United States Government reaffirms its resolve to punish the instigators and actual perpetrators of these crimes. It further de clares that, so long as such atrocities continue to be committed by the representatives and in the name of Germany, they must be taken into account against the time of the final settlement with Germany. Meanwhile the war against Germany will be prosecuted with the utmost vigor until the barbarous Hitlerite-tyranny has been finally overthrown. (Department of State Bulletin, 1943, p. 150)

This document shows us that, in August 1943, Allies had decided to omit any mention about gas chambers in Poland since no evidence of their existence could be produced and taken accurately at its face value. Anyway, not by this circumstance Allies had to be considered guiltily silent on Nazi crimes in Poland. They in fact behave exactly the way Pius XII did. They needed to verify carefully every information coming from Europe, especially from German-occupied Poland. Having not received verifiable news about gas chambers and crematoria, Jewish warnings notwithstanding, the Allies choose not to disseminate such information in their reports or memos. Anyway, no one has claimed that the World Jewish Congress or the Allies be put under trial for their “silence” on crematoria and gas chambers.


Even Wolf’s jugdment on the 11-volume Series Actes et Documents du Saint-Siege is to be put under scrutiny. Wolf argues that «we have to be sceptical about the whole 11-volume series and check it against the archive document by document», since «these 11 volumes break up the context in which the documents are found in the archive. The result is that one can no longer understand how they relate to each other».

Few remarks are necessary on this point.

First, an edited series of documents never reproduces the archives. Archives remain archives while edited series reproduce abundance of papers but not the archives as a whole.

Secondly, Wolf’s is wrong in assuming that the whole ADSS should be disregarded as a primary source only because some documents are missing, even if they are now available in the Vatican archives (which proofs that nothing was concealed to researchers by the Vatican). Wolf forgets that many documentary series could not resist to his own pretention «to be sceptical» and «check it against the archive document by document». How many series could resist the objection that they «break up the context in which the documents are found in the archives»?

In fact many series of edited documents leave open to such a criticism. American and British ones are thematic and chronological, the Italian is chronological, but has become thematic few years ago; the German is chronological, and so on. Editing work has been subject to momentous changes and fine-tunings, from the paper-era to digitalization; hence it has not been always a perfect work.

Last but not least, ADSS series was created under special circumstances – the anti-Pius querelle after the book by Saul Friedländer, Pius XII und das Dritte Reich which published documents from the German archives for the first time. It was Pope Montini who ordered that four Jesuits prepare a documentary collection of Vatican documents on the Second World War. The work was done before the Vatican files could be declassified. Anyway, the series revealed itself as a very interesting one, full of documents coming from many other States and international agencies. ADSS allowed scholars to get a first-hand (although temporary) impression about the general lines of Vatican diplomacy during the Second World War. Briefly, even today the ADSS series deserves the place of one of the most important documentary collections in the world.


This point is connected to the recent openings of the Vatican archives on Pius XII.

One has to make a distinction. While in the Vatican Apostolic Archive a great re-ordering activity went under way, in the historical archive of the Sezione Rapporti con gli Stati of the Vatican Secretariat of State, records on Pius XII were digitalised by mirroring their original archival order. In particular, the dossier containing Dell’Acqua’s memo was re-ordered before 2010 by applying the so-called “historical method” followed by the former Director of the archive, so intervening on the original order of the records. This means that a high probability exists that digitalized the files of that archive could set aside many surprises to researchers dealing with the theme we are treating right now.

  1. In conclusion…

Getting the truth from historical archives is something much more complex than being inside them for five days only. Nobody could claim seriously to have built historical truths by a four-day work in the Vatican archives (one of the five days being engaged in bureaucratic arrangements). Anyway, Wolf’s story has been reported by medias as if an armoured research patrol had invaded Vatican archives exactly the way Nazi divisions did in Poland.

Obviously, historical truth is something different, more complex, more fascinating and, most of all, demanding time, patience, dedication, bravery and capability to be properly researched.

Time after coronavirus hopefully will give us back all this.

(*) Professor of International History, Diplomacy and International Relations at the University of Molise, Italy. International Delegate of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences, Vatican City.

(**) Here’s the original text of  Mons. Dell’Acqua’s Memo: «2 ottobre 1942 – Appunto – Le notizie contenute nella lettera dell’Ambasciatore Taylor sono gravissime, non v’è alcun dubbio. Occorre, però, assicurarsi che corrispondano a verità, perché l’esagerazione è facile anche fra gli ebrei…E non basta, secondo il mio umile parere, fondarsi sulle informazioni date dal Metropolita Ruteno-cattolico di Leopoli e dal Signor Malvezzi: (anche gli Orientali non sono un esempio in fatto di sincerità). Ma, dato anche che le notizie siano vere, converrà procedere con grande cautela nel confermarle al Signor Tittmann perché mi sembra di scorgere anche uno scopo politico (se non puramente politico) nella mossa del Governo Americano, il quale non mancherebbe forse di dare una pubblicità all’eventuale conferma della Santa Sede :il che potrebbe avere spiacevoli conseguenze non solo per la Santa Sede, ma per gli stessi ebrei che trovansi nelle mani dei tedeschi, i quali ne approfitterebbero per aggravare le misure odiose e barbare adottate nei loro confronti».