Author of new book on Pope’s silence during Holocaust coming to STL


Jordan Palmer, Chief Digital Content Officer

In late October 1941, a bishop in Slovakia wrote to Pope Pius XII  to alert him that the country’s Jews “are simply being shot, systematically murdered, without distinction of sex or age.” This was the first credible account of the pope learning of Nazi atrocities. We know this because in 2020 Pope Francis ordered 170 volumes of the “Jewish Files” or requests for help from the Catholic Church during World War II to made available to historians.

One of the first scholars to gain access to these files was Pulitzer Prize winning historian David Kertzer. Kertzer, the son of a rabbi, will be in St. Louis on March 27th to discuss his new book  “The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler.” The event will take place at the Graham Chapel at Washington University.

“My new book brings to light for the first-time surprising findings from those newly opened archives, including the fact, kept hidden for over eight decades, that shortly after Pius XII became pope in 1939, Hitler saw an opportunity and sent a secret envoy to enter into negotiations with the pope, secret meetings that lasted many months,” said Kertzer.

Amazingly, Kertzer found virtual transcripts of the pope’s conversations with the German prince, Philipp von Hessen, who was Hitler’s envoy.

“The Vatican had been able to keep that secret for the past 80 years, till my book,” said Kertzer. “The transcripts certainly makes us understand the pope’s attitudes, at least in the beginning of the war. The pope is basically saying, ‘Look, if you just let up pressure on the church the Catholics will be your most loyal servants in the Third Reich.’ And saying nothing about why they shouldn’t be the most loyal servants of the Nazi regime. It gives a whole new dimension to our understanding.”

The pope at war

The book is based on thousands of never-before-seen documents not only from the Vatican, but from archives in Italy, Germany, France, Britain and the United States. Kertzer paints a new, dramatic portrait of what the pope did and did not do as war enveloped the continent and as the Nazis began their systematic mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

In his research Kertzer found documents connecting the pope to what was happening right in Rome.

“I discovered these documents from the middle of December 1943, which showed the actual attitude toward Jews in the Vatican at the time that they were being taken off to Auschwitz. I did find those kind of shocking — particularly the timing. October 16, 1943 was the roundup of the Jews of Rome, where over 1,000 were sent to Auschwitz, essentially to their death, and the pope kept silent,” said Kretzer.

The book clears away the myths and sheer falsehoods surrounding the pope’s actions from 1939 to 1945, showing why the pope repeatedly bent to the wills of Hitler and Mussolini.

Kertzer in St. Louis

Professor Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, will discuss with Kertzer his research based on newly opened Vatican archives. There will also be time for audience Q&A.

This event is free and open to all. Graham Chapel is open seating and doors will open at 6 p.m. for this event.

Sponsored by the Michael and Barbara Newmark Institute for Human Relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. LouisSt. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust MuseumSt. Louis Jewish Book Festival, the Office of Peace & Justice of the Archdiocese of St. LouisSt. Louis County LibrarySt. Louis University Division of Mission and Identity, and the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics.

Local independent bookseller Left Bank Books will be on site for purchase of Kertzer’s book.

Register at [email protected] or call 314-935-9345.