In a remarkable historical find, testimony has emerged revealing that, in 1941, Pope Pius XII received a German Jewish visitor at the Vatican who was seeking help for certain Jews who were being held in an Italian internment camp. After welcoming the young man and promising him help, Pius told him not once but twice—in emotional language, in front of a large group that included German soldiers—”Be proud to be a Jew!”
The amazing testimony, written as a first-hand account by an anonymous Jewish author in wartime Palestine, originally appeared on April 28, 1944 in The Palestine Post (now, The Jerusalem Post), the most influential Jewish publication in the world at that time.
According to longtime Inside the Vatican contributor William Doino, who discovered the testimony in an archive, maintained by Tel Aviv University, “the testimony has apparently been forgotten, because, as far as I know, no leading Holocaust authority or biographer of Pius XII has ever cited it.”
As the article reports, the Jewish author attended a papal audience in the autumn of 1941. He entered the papal chamber along with numerous other people, including a group of German soldiers. (It was common for soldiers to visit the Pope early in the war era. Later, when Hitler learned of what the Pope told them, he put an end to this practice.)
The author was the final individual to approach the Pope that day. He wanted to tell Pius about a group of Jews who were being interned by Italy’s Fascist government on an island, in danger of starvation. He tried to speak in broken Italian, but the Pope invited him to use his native language, assuming that it would be German. “You are German, too, aren’t you?” asked the Pope. The author then explained that he was born in Germany, but he was a Jew.
Pius invited the author to finish his story. He listened intently then said: “You have done well to come to me and tell me this. I have heard about it before. Come back tomorrow with a written report and give it to the Secretary of State who is dealing with the question. But now for you, my son. You are a young Jew. I know what that means and I hope you will always be proud to be a Jew!”
Pius then raised his voice so that everyone in the hall — including the German soldiers — could hear it and said (in a “pleasant voice”): “My son, whether you are worthier than others only the Lord knows, but believe me, you are at least as worthy as every other human being that lives on our earth! And now, my Jewish friend, go with the protection of the Lord, and never forget, you must always be proud to be a Jew!”
The significance of this testimony, particularly for the cause of Pius XII, is still too early to gage, but Doino believes “it may well be the most explicit single testimony about Pius’s personal feelings toward Jews that has ever been recorded. It is not too far removed from Pius XI’s famous declaration of September 1938: “No, it is not possible for Christians to take part in anti-Semitism…. Spiritually, we are all Semites.” But Doino notes one great difference between the statements: “Pius XI’s remark to a group of Belgian pilgrims was given wide publicity and is often quoted; Pius XII’s statement has been lost to history — until now.”
“For Pius XII to make this statement to a German Jew, in 1941, in private, would have been remarkable enough,” continued Doino. “That he did it in public, with his voice raised so that ‘everybody in the hall’ could ‘hear it clearly,’ in front of German soldiers, as well as cardinals, bishops and other high dignitaries of the Vatican government, is more astonishing still. It doesn’t merely reveal Pius XII’s kindness and Christian compassion; he goes well beyond that and affirms the young man’s Jewishness, the very core and dignity of his being.”
Attached below is the original article, as it first appeared in the pages of The Palestine Post, in 1944, describing events that had occurred three years earlier. This will be followed by a full-scale commentary by Doino, in an upcoming issue of Inside the Vatican magazine, in which he evaluates the importance of this testimony for Pius XII studies, recounts the story of the shipwrecked Jewish refugees, the Vatican’s support for them, and gives clues as to whom the anonymous Jewish author might be.
Note: the original article can be found online by accessing the archives of the Palestine Post, run by Tel Aviv University. Follow the instructions to access the April 28, 1944 issue of the Palestine Post, forward to page 6, and go to the article entitled, A Papal Audience in Wartime, by “Refugee.” Or read it here.