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Pope Pius fought to save Jews behind the scenes, Benedict says

Pope Benedict XVI told Jewish leaders that the Vatican “itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way.’’ Pope Benedict XVI told Jewish leaders that the Vatican “itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way.’’ (Max Rossi/ Reuters)
By Victor L. Simpson
Associated Press / January 18, 2010

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ROME - In a synagogue visit haunted by history, Pope Benedict XVI and Jewish leaders sparred yesterday over the record of the World War II-era pope during the Holocaust and agreed on the need to strengthen Catholic-Jewish relations.

Both sides said the visit to the seat of the oldest Jewish community in the diaspora was an occasion to overcome what Benedict called “every misconception and prejudice.’’

Signs of the Jewish community’s tragic history were abundant, as the German-born Benedict stopped at a plaque marking where Roman Jews were rounded up by the Nazis in 1943 and at another marking the slaying of a 2-year-old boy in an attack by Palestinian terrorists on the synagogue in 1982. A handful of death-camp survivors wore striped scarves to symbolize the camp uniform.

Benedict defended Pius XII against critics, telling the audience that the Vatican worked quietly to save Jews from the Nazis during World War II.

Many Jews object to Benedict’s moving Pius toward sainthood, contending the wartime pope did not do enough to protect Jews from the Holocaust. The Vatican has maintained that Pius used behind-the-scenes diplomacy in a bid to save Jewish lives.

While he didn’t mention Pius by name, Benedict told Jewish leaders in the synagogue that the Vatican “itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way.’’

Benedict said Catholics acted courageously to save Jews even as their extermination “tragically reached as far as Rome.’’

He spoke shortly after Jewish Community president Riccardo Pacifici, whose grandparents were killed at Auschwitz and whose father was saved by Italian nuns in a Florence convent, criticized Pius. Pacifici said that Italian Catholics worked to save Jews, but that the “silence’’ of Pius “still hurts as a failed action.’’

Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni told the packed synagogue that “human silence . . . doesn’t escape judgment.’’

Later, Di Segni said the pope’s speech helped to “calm the waters.’’ Pacifici told reporters that Benedict’s indirect mention of Pius was “very measured’’ and showed that “he understands our worries.’’

Several prominent Jews had said they would boycott, but Benedict received warm applause throughout the 90-minute visit. In an emotional moment, as Pacifici greeted the Holocaust survivors, the entire audience, including Benedict, rose to honor them.

The temple sits in the Old Jewish Ghetto, the Rome neighborhood near the Tiber where for hundreds of years Jews were confined under the orders of a 16th-century pope.