A Survey of Jewish Reaction to the Vatican Statement on the Holocaust

  • Kevin Madigan


In march 1998, the Vatican released a long-awaited statement on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust. In a preface to the document, entitled We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, Pope John Paul II expressed his hope that it would ‘help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices’. Eighteen months after the publication of the document, it seems now possible to conclude that, however sincere the Vatican’s intentions, the pope’s hopes will almost certainly not be realized. Indeed, far from healing, the document has succeeded largely in re-opening, if not actually deepening, old wounds. Not only did it divide the Catholic intellectual and journalistic communities. More importantly, I think, it bewildered and frustrated many Jewish readers and bitterly disappointed others. It also called forth a literary response from Jewish intellectuals and organizations that, while especially vigorous in the immediate wake of the document’s publication, had force and feeling to last more than a year. Since the energy driving these responses appears to have subsided, it seems possible now to undertake a comprehensive survey of Jewish reaction to We Remember and to attempt to account for its intensity and duration.


Jewish Life Vatican Statement American Jewish Committee Vatican Council Nazi Atrocity 
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  1. 1.
    See Catholics Remember the Holocaust, ed. Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (Washington, D.C.: 1998), pp.47–55. Page numbers for quotations from this document will be cited in parentheses in the text. Except in references, I will abbreviate the document hereafter as WR. Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For critical Catholic reaction, see John T. Pawlikowski, ‘The Vatican and the Holocaust: Putting We Remember in Context’, Dimensions 12/2 (1998): 11–16;Google Scholar
  3. Garry Wills, ‘The Vatican’s Dismaying Statement’, Outrider, 25 March 1998;Google Scholar
  4. Michael Phayer, ‘Pope Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Cold War’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12/2 (Fall 1998): 223–56. Roughly one year before the publication of We Remember, James Carroll published a critical assessment of the Pope’s wartime passivity; entitled ‘The Silence’, it appeared in The New Yorker, 1 April 1997. For a moderately critical reaction.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. see John F. Morley, iWe Remember: Reaction and Analysis’, Dimensions 12/2 (1998): 3–10. For defensive Catholic reaction to Catholic criticism.Google Scholar
  6. see Kenneth L. Woodward, ‘In Defense of Pius XII’, Newsweek, 30 March 1998;Google Scholar
  7. and Joseph Sobran, ‘The “Silence” of Pius XII’, Conservative Current, 19 March 1998.Google Scholar
  8. 3.
    Though one of the most thorough, careful and scholarly responses was published shortly after the writing of this paper was completed. See Randolph L. Braham, ‘Remembering and Forgetting: The Vatican, the German Catholic Hierarchy, and the Holocaust’, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 13/2 (Fall 1999): 222–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 5.
    See Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France and the Jews (New York: Basic Books, 1981).Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    R. Wistrich, ‘The Pope, the Church and the Jews’, Commentary 107/4 (April 1999);Google Scholar
  11. R. Cohen, ‘French Catholic Church Apologizes for Silence on Holocaust’, New York Times, 1 October 1997.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Marilyn August, ‘French Bishops Make Unprecedented Apology for World War II Silence’, Associated Press, 1 October 1997.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Thomas O’Dwyer, ‘Vatican’s Struggle to Save the Church’s Soul’, Jerusalem Post, 23 March 1998.Google Scholar
  14. 23.
    Richard Owen, ‘Vatican Apology to Jews “Rings Hollow”,’ The Times, 17 March 1998.Google Scholar
  15. 26.
    W. Drozdiak, ‘Vatican Gives Formal Apology for Inaction during Holocaust’, Washington Post, 17 March 1998.Google Scholar
  16. 48.
    Still, the process of beatification, the penultimate step to sanctification or canonization, has been going on for several years, under the leadership of the Vatican’s Father Gumpel. A recent report, however, suggested that the Church had decided to slow down the process toward sainthood. See ‘Vatican Slows Beatification for Pius XII-Group’, Reuters, 27 October 1999. The timing of this decision coincided with widespread publicity given to the British journalist John Cornwell’s controversial new book, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (New York: Viking, 1999).Google Scholar
  17. 50.
    On this story, see Gitta Sereny: Into that Darkness (New York: Vintage, 1983); Phayer, ‘Pope Pius XII’, pp.233–56;Google Scholar
  18. and Mark Aarons and John Loftus, Unholy Trinity (New York: St. Martin’s 1991). In the 15 November 1999 number of US News and World Report, an article was published that suggests a soon-to-be-released Argentine government report has confirmed the involvement of the Vatican in seeking Latin American visas for fleeing Nazis, many made by the Vatican Secretariat of State. Some were also made for Vichy collaborators, and much intercession occurred on behalf of the Ustasha criminals. The Argentine report has not, however, yet been published.Google Scholar
  19. 51.
    As did some prominent Catholics, including John Cardinal O’Connor, Archbishop of New York. See The Jewish Week, 9 October 1998. The Vatican responded by declaring itself the judge of the timing and scope of archive accessibility.Google Scholar
  20. See Eric J. Greenberg, ‘Vatican to U.S.: No Archives’, in The Jewish Week, 11 December 1998. Morley, who has worked with the eleven volumes of diplomatic documents related to the War published by the Vatican between 1965 and 1981 [Actes et Documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la Second Guerre mondiale, edited by Pierre Blet, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965–1981)] has observed: ‘I fear sometimes that this contribution of the Vatican to historical research has not been clearly appreciated. Moreover, I suspect that the very existence of these primary sources is not as well known as it should be.’ See Morley, iWe Remember’, p.6. At the time of the writing of this paper, the Vatican had appointed a team of three Catholic scholars, which included Morley, and three Jewish scholars, which included Michael Marrus, to discuss the issue of full access to Vatican archives relating to the War and the Holocaust.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2001

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  • Kevin Madigan

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