ROME (Reuters) - An Italian Jewish leader told Pope Benedict Sunday that his wartime predecessor Pius XII should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust to show solidarity with Jews being led to the “ovens of Auschwitz.”
The comments, from the president of Rome’s Jewish community Riccardo Pacifici, were made during the pope’s first visit to Rome’s synagogue and were some of the bluntest ever spoken by a Jewish leader in public to a pope.
“The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah, still hurts because something should have been done,” Pacifici told the pope, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
“Maybe it would not have stopped the death trains, but it would have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, toward those brothers of ours transported to the ovens of Auschwitz,” he said.
The visit, Benedict’s third trip to a Jewish temple since becoming pope in 2005, has deeply split Italy’s Jewish community after he took the decision last month to advance Pius XII on the path toward sainthood.
Many Jews say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, did not do enough to help Jews facing persecution by Nazi Germany.
In his speech to the pope, Pacifici paid tribute to Italian Catholics, priests and nuns during the war and said their efforts made Pius’ “silence” hurt even more.
The Vatican maintains that Pius was not silent during the war, but chose to work behind the scenes, concerned that public intervention would have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in a wartime Europe dominated by Hitler.
The pope, speaking after Pacifici, broadly stuck to this stance, although he did denounce the Holocaust as “the most extreme point on the path of hatred” and acknowledged that “unfortunately, many remained indifferent.”
“The Apostolic See (the Vatican) itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way,” Benedict said, referring to the wartime record of the Catholic Church during Pius’ papacy.
Jews have asked that the Vatican wartime archives be opened for study and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom repeated the request to the pope privately at the synagogue.
“I asked the pope to find a way to make it possible to open the archives in the Vatican in order to give some details of the papacy of Pius XII in order to ease tensions between the Jewish people and Catholics,” Shalom told Reuters at the synagogue.
Italian Holocaust survivors gave the pope a letter saying “the silence of someone who could have done something has marked our lives ...” The letter said: “We are here but we have never left Auschwitz.”
The visit comes 24 years after Pope John Paul became the first pope in nearly 2,000 years to enter a synagogue and called Jews “our beloved elder brothers.”
Benedict, a German who was drafted into the Hitler Youth and German army as a teen-ager during World War Two, has had a more difficult relationship with the Jewish community.
Many are still seething at his decision last year to start the rehabilitation process of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who denied the extent of the Holocaust.
And some in the Jewish community, including at least one senior rabbi and a Holocaust survivor, decided to boycott the Sunday synagogue visit after Benedict approved a decree recognizing Pius’s “heroic virtues.”
The two remaining steps to sainthood are beatification and canonization, which could take many years.
Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton