The Vatican said Thursday it would publish online thousands of letters to the pope from Jews in Europe seeking help during World War II, including liberation from Nazi concentration camps.
The archive of 2,700 cases “gathers the requests for help sent to Pope Pius XII by Jewish people… after the beginning of Nazi and fascist persecution”, said the Vatican’s de facto foreign minister, Paul Richard Gallagher, in a statement.
Although the documents have been available for consultation by scholars since March 2020, Pope Francis requested they be accessible to everyone, said the statement.
Putting the archive online “will allow the descendants of those who asked for help to find traces of their loved ones from any part of the world”, it said.
Since becoming pontiff in 2013, Francis, 85, has pushed for more transparency in church dealings.
In March 2019, under pressure from historians and Jewish groups, Francis announced he would unseal the secret archives of wartime pontiff Pius XII , who critics say did not do enough to protect Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust.
“The Church is not afraid of history,” Francis said at the time.
The newly released documents — labelled “Jews” in the Vatican’s archives — include requests from all over Europe from Jewish people seeking visas or passports, finding asylum, help reunifying families or searching for news about those already deported.
Some are more dire, such as pleas for help being freed from concentration camps.
– ‘Little hope’ –
Most requests involve entire families or groups. And in most, the ultimate fate of those asking for help is unknown, the Vatican said.
One letter included in the Vatican’s press release Thursday was written in 1942 by a 23-year-old German university student seeking freedom from a concentration camp in Spain.
“There is little hope for those who have no outside help,” wrote Werner Barasch.
The Vatican archive reveals no further information about Barasch. But research from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington shows he was released a year after his letter, ultimately settling in California, the Vatican said.
Francis unsealed Pius XII’s archive 62 years after the pontiff’s death in 1958, ahead of the usual lag of 70 years.
His move followed decades of pressure from scholars fiercely divided over the former pope’s perceived passivity during Nazi Germany’s extermination of millions of European Jews.
The Vatican has defended Pius XII, saying he saved many Jews by having them hidden in religious institutions and that his silence was born out of a wish to avoiding aggravating their situation.
The archive of Jewish letters shows that those within the Vatican working for the pope “worked tirelessly to provide Jewish people with practical help”, according to Thursday’s statement.