ROME The Vatican tried to enroll Roman Jewish men in its security forces in 1943 in order to save them from the Nazis, the Vatican's second in command said on Tuesday, rejecting charges that wartime Pope Pius XII was anti-Semitic.
Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican's Secretary of State, who ranks second only to the Pope in the Holy See hierarchy, made his comments at the presentation of a new book about Pius by Italian author Andrea Tornielli.
Bertone called accusations that Pius turned a blind eye to the Holocaust "a black legend" and re-stated the Vatican's position that he worked behind the scenes to help save Jews.
Bertone said that in October 1943, the Vatican asked the German occupiers for permission to take on some 1,425 more men for a police force called the Palatine Guard, since disbanded, which patrolled the Vatican and Church-owned buildings in Rome.
Holding up still classified Vatican documents, he said this was an attempt to get Jews into the force to protect them. But German occupiers and their Italian Fascist allies wanted the men's names, date of birth and race.
"Our people said 'no'," he said.
He gave no further details, but that same month Nazi forces rounded up Jews from the Rome neighborhood known as The Ghetto. More than 1,000 were sent to their deaths in Auschwitz but hundreds of others were hidden by Italian Catholic families.
One Jewish historian was puzzled by Bertone's remarks.
"If the Vatican has documents, let's see them," said Marcello Pezzetti, an expert on Rome Jewish history. "These are such serious topics that more precise language should be used. Vague language does not help anyone."
Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of being indifferent to the Holocaust and not speaking out against Hitler. His supporters consider him a holy man who worked behind the scenes to help Jews throughout Europe.
FEAR OF REPRISALS
The Vatican maintains Pius did not speak out more forcefully against the Holocaust because he was afraid of provoking Nazi reprisals and worsening the fate of Catholics and Jews.
"It is out of place to accuse him of 'silence'," Bertone said, adding that Pius "chose a prudent profile" and acted "within the limits of circumstances imposed on him".
Bertone called assertions that Pius should have done more to help Jews "incomprehensible".
Supporters say Pius ordered churches and convents in Rome to take in Jews after the Germans occupied the city.
This month, the Vatican's saint-making department voted in favor of a decree recognizing Pius' "heroic virtues", a major hurdle in a long process toward sainthood that began in 1967.
The Anti-Defamation League has asked Pope Benedict to suspend the sainthood process until the Vatican declassifies its World War Two-era archives "so that the full record of the Pope's actions during the Holocaust may finally be known".
Bertone said he believed the archives would be opened up "rather speedily".