When Mordechai Lewy, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, praised the role of Pope Pius XII in saving Jews during World War II, he managed to upset a lot of people -- hardly surprising, given the way an entire academic industry has been built on the idea that Pius XII failed to raise his voice against the Holocaust.
But Levy never actually contradicted that criticism during his remarks during a ceremony on Thursday night to honor Fr Gaetano Piccinini, a Catholic priest in Nazi-occupied Rome whose surviving family members received on his behalf a 'Righteous among the Nations' award from the Yad Vashem Institute.
Catholic convents and monasteries opened their doors to save Jews in the days following a Nazi sweep of Rome's Jewish ghetto on 16 October 1943, said Lewy. "There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on," he said, adding that "it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true".
He said the fact that the Vatican couldn’t stop the deportation of Jews from Rome’s ghetto "only increased the will, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own sites as refuges for the Jews." That is why, he added, "the train that left on October 18 1943 was the only one that the Nazis managed to organize from Rome to Auschwitz."
That was a guarded, diplomatic way of saying that Pius XII had himself ordered Rome's Catholic communities to do what they could to help Jews facing deportation -- which of course they did, saving thousands. In his book-length interview last year, Light of the World, Pope Benedict XVI said that "no one did more" than Pius to save Jews.
Lewy was careful later to clarify that his remarks referred to direct actions to save Jews, not to the question of whether Pope Pius XII should have spoken out against the Holocaust -- a question hotly debated for years. "This refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him," Lewy told Reuters.
But too late. The storm had broken. Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, called Lewy’s comments "morally wrong" because Lewy had "disgracefully conflated the praiseworthy actions of elements in the Catholic Church to rescue Jews with the glaring failure of Pope Pius to do so" -- which implied that Pius XII had not rescued Jews, when he plainly did.
Equally depressing was Dr Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and researcher of Nazi war crimes, who spoke of his fear that “what he said will be used by those with other agendas" -- which implies that truth should be suppressed in case it is misused.
But most depressing of all was the way Lewy pandered to these reactions, hastily backtracking on Sunday -- whether on his own initiative or on orders is not clear. His comments were "embedded in a larger historical context", he said, adding: "Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature."
Personal historical judgement ....?