Gordon THOMAS. The Pope’s Jews: The Vatican’s Secret Plan To Save Jews from the Nazis. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012, pp. xx + 314, ISBN: 978-0-312-60421-9, $27.99, hardcover. Reviewed by Patrick J. HAYES, Redemptorist Archives of the Baltimore Province, Brooklyn, NY
Let me dispense with the unpleasantries first. This book, by the Welsh writer Gordon Thomas, author of dozens of works of fiction and non-fiction, has already received considerable praise from those who would lionize Pope Pius XII as a saint. Because it presents a case for the Pope’s “secret” machine to save inhabitants of Rome’s Jewish ghetto from the Nazis, Thomas’ volume is held up as putting the lie to the claim that Pius was in fact “Hitler’s Pope.” As such it has become an instant and politicized tool for the cause of the Pope’s canonization.
The cynic in me detests such gaming of the system, which is ultimately meant to ferret out the truth. The fact that public opinion on the pope’s virtues (or lack thereof) hinges on his acquiescing to Nazi depravity, make the stakes all the higher.
Is this work to be believed? I do not wish to impugn Thomas’ abilities as a writer, but it would set the reader’s mind at ease if he would simply cite his sources. The uninitiated reader has no ability to judge whether Thomas is fabricating his narrative which, as narratives go, is compelling. He found a number of survivors of the Rome ghetto liquidation. He consulted works by Fr. Robert Graham, SJ, Sr. Margherita Marchione and William Doino, Jr. He is also under the spell of Sr. Paschalina Lehnert’s diary, the musings of which reflect her association with Pius XII over the course of her 41 years of service as his housekeeper and aide-de-camp. All have shown their favorability toward Pius’ actions during the Second World War.
Though he never cites them, one feels as though Thomas has at least passing familiarity with Owen Chadwick’s work on the Vatican and British relations (see Chadwick’s Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, 1988) or the memoirs of Harold Tittmann, the American chargé d’affaires at the Vatican between 1939 and June 1944, when Rome was liberated (see Harold H. Tittmann, Jr., Inside the Vatican of Pius XII: The Memoir of an American Diplomat During World War II, 2004). The exploits of the British ambassador, Sir D’Arcy Osborn, and Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty are by now well known, too. Thomas takes full advantage of their fame in weaving their action into his drama. Conspicuously absent is any mention of the role played by the French ambassador in the saving of both Jews and Allied escapees. Such details matter.
Though the book tries to suggest that Pius orchestrated a massive and complex organization of secret networks that gave refuge to so many escaped prisoners of war as well as to the Jews of Rome, he often digresses from the point. Actually, Thomas makes an equally intriguing case for the Jews’ ability to hide their own. Consider the doctors at the Fatebenefratelli Hospital, for instance, who stashed away Jews in a special ward while convincing Nazi occupiers that their disease was highly contagious. Their heroic actions had nothing to do with any papal order and no material assistance by the Holy See was given.
There are errors of fact in the book as well. When Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli visited the United States as the head of the Vatican Secretariat of State in 1936, he did not meet with Myron Taylor, as Thomas reports. He offers little proof of an alleged plot to kidnap Pope Pius XII, but such a story—largely debunked by most scholars (including Chadwick and Graham)—remains the stuff of good theater. And in the end, this is what the narrative strives for. In that, it succeeds.
Though it is a page turner, Thomas’ book has serious implications for scholars who will be examining the documentation generated during Pius’ papacy when it becomes available. Until then this whole genre, which has the distinct ring of an exposé, must be viewed with strict caution.