VATICAN CITY — David Kertzer set down his cappuccino, put on his backpack, and set out in search of more Vatican secrets.
“There’s an aspect of treasure hunting,” said Kertzer, a 74-year-old historian.
Moments later, he sliced through a crowd queuing to see Pope Francis, showed his credentials to the Swiss Guard, and entered the archives of the former headquarters of the Holy Roman Inquisition.
In recent decades, Mr. Kertzer has reversed the investigative roles in the Church. Using the Vatican’s own archives, the mild-mannered Brown University professor and trustee of the American Academy in Rome has arguably become the most effective digger of the Vatican’s hidden sins, especially those leading up to and during World War II.
Kertzer, the son of a rabbi who served as an army chaplain in the liberation of Rome, grew up in a house where a foster child had been taken in whose family had been murdered in Auschwitz. That family background and his activism in college against the Vietnam War instilled in him a sense of moral outrage — tempered by a scholar’s caution.
The result are works that have won the Pulitzer Prize, captured the imagination of Steven Spielberg and shone a sometimes harsh light on one of the darkest settings in the world.
Kertzer’s latest book, “The Pope at War,” looks at the Church’s role in World War II and the Holocaust—what he sees as the formative event of his own life. It documents the private decision-making that led Pope Pius XII to essentially remain silent about Hitler’s genocide and argues that the Pope’s impact on the war is underestimated. And not in a good way.
“Part of what I hope to achieve,” Kertzer said, “is to show how important a role Pius XII played.”
The current pope, Francis, said “the church is not afraid of history” when he ordered the opening of Pius XII’s archives in 2019. But as Francis grapples with how forcefully he must condemn a dictator, this time Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Mr. Kertzer has found terrifying evidence about the cost of keeping silent about mass murders.
Kertzer claims that Pius XII’s overriding fear of communism, his belief that the Axis powers would win the war, and his desire to protect the interests of the Church all motivated him not to offend Hitler and Mussolini, whose ambassadors had worked to protect him. to place. on the throne. The Pope was also concerned, the book shows, that opposing the Fuhrer would alienate millions of German Catholics.
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The book further reveals that a German prince and staunch Nazi acted as a secret back channel between Pius XII and Hitler, and that the Pope’s top Vatican adviser on Jewish issues urged him in a letter not to protest a fascist order to arrest and sent to concentration camp. struggle with most Italian Jews.
“That was astonishing,” Mr. Kertzer said when he came across the letter.
Defenders of Pius XII, whose advocacy of holiness is still under evaluation, have long claimed that he worked behind the scenes to help Jews, and that anti-Catholic enemies have tried to sully the institution by sullying the Pope.
“A more open protest would not have saved a single Jew, but killed even more,” wrote Michael Hesemann, who considers Pius XII a champion of the Jews, in response to evidence revealed by Mr Kertzer, whom he “heavily called biased”.
Mr. Hesemann, who is also the author of a new book on the Pope in wartime based on the Vatican Archives, argued that the Vatican, while following its tradition of neutrality, made efforts to hide Jews in monasteries and issue false baptismal certificates. to spread.
Kertzer argues that the unearthed documents paint a more nuanced picture of Pius XII, showing him neither as the anti-Semitic monster often referred to as “Hitler’s Pope” nor as a hero. But the push to protect Pius’ reputation reflects a more general refusal by Italy — and apologists at the Vatican — to accept their complicity in World War II, the Holocaust and the murder of the Jews in Rome, Kertzer said.
On October 16, 1943, Nazis gathered more than a thousand of them throughout the city, including hundreds in the Jewish ghetto, now a tourist attraction where crowds feasted on Jewish-style artichokes near a church where Jews were once forced to convert at the church. to attend sermons.
For two days the Germans held the Jews in a military school near the Vatican, check to see who was baptized or had Catholic spouses.
“They didn’t mean to offend the Pope,” Mr. Kertzer said. His book shows that Pius XII’s top staff only intervened with the German ambassador to liberate “non-Aryan Catholics.” About 250 were released. More than a thousand were murdered in Auschwitz.
On a nearby street, Mr. Kertzer leaned over at one of the copper cobblestones in memory of the victims. Above him loomed the Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue of Rome.
“I can’t think of that synagogue,” said Mr. Kertzer, “without thinking of my father.”
When the The U.S. Fifth Army reached Rome, Mr. Kertzer’s father, Lieutenant Morris Kertzer, a Canadian-born rabbi, was with them and functioned in the synagogue.
An American soldier, a Jew from Rome who had immigrated to America when Mussolini enacted Italy’s racial laws, asked Rabbi Kertzer if he could make an announcement to see if his mother had survived the war. The rabbi seated the soldier next to him and as the services began a cry broke out and the GI’s mother hurried to hug her son.
“That’s the one I remember most about telling my father,” Mr. Kertzer said.
A year before Mr. Kertzer’s birth in 1948, his parents took in a teenager who survived Auschwitz. When images of Nazi soldiers appeared on television, Mr. Kertzer and his older sister, Ruth, would jump up to take down the set to protect their foster sister, Eva.
By then his father had become the director of interfaith affairs for the American Jewish Committee, essentially to try to rid Christian churches of anti-Semitism. As part of the normalization effort, a young Mr. Kertzer appeared on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” singing prayers during the family’s Passover Seder.
At Brown University, his organization against the Vietnam War nearly got him kicked out and ended up in a prison cell with Norman Mailer. He stayed in school and became enamored with anthropology and with Susan Dana, a religion teacher from Maine.
In order to stay close to her, he went to graduate school in Brandeis in 1969, where a professor of anthropology suggested that Italy was a rich field of study due to his interest in politics and religion.
The result was a year of research in Bologna with Susan, now his wife, and his first book, “Comrades and Christians.” After receiving his doctorate, positions with Bowdoin and Brown, like two children, followed a lifelong relationship with Italy and a growing familiarity with the Italian, and then coincidentally, Vatican, archives.
In the early 1990s, an Italian history professor told him about Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old child of Jewish parents in Bologna. In 1858, the ecclesiastical inquisitor ordered the boy’s confiscation because a Christian maidservant may have had him secretly baptized, so he could not remain in a Jewish home.
The story represented what Mr. Kertzer called “a double career shift,” toward writing for general audiences and on Jewish themes.
The result was his 1998 book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction. It caught the attention of his friend, playwright Tony Kushner, who later gave it to Steven Spielberg, who told Mr. Kertzer that he wanted to make it into a movie. Mark Rylance came on board to play Pius IX. mr. Kushner wrote the screenplay. All they needed was a boy to play Edgardo.
“They auditioned 4,000 — not 3,900 — 4,000 boys ages 6 to 8 on four continents,” Kertzer said, adding, “Spielberg lets us know he’s not happy with any of the guys.”
The project stalled, but Mr. Kertzer didn’t. He came out of the archives to publish ‘The Pope Against the Jews’. on the role of the church in the rise of modern anti-Semitism. In 2014, he published “The Pope and Mussolini,” examining Pius XI’s role in the rise of fascism and the anti-Semitic racial laws of 1938. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
Since then, Vatican archivists recognize and sometimes encourage him.
“Maybe they’re even happy that an outsider can bring this to light, because it might be inconvenient for some to do so,” he said.
After spending a recent morning in the archives, Mr. Kertzer emerged with a boyish grin. He had just discovered that even during the German occupation of Rome, Pope Pius XII was still mainly focused on the dangers of communism. The Pope’s top cardinals advised him to “establish a Catholic party. It is the origin of the Christian Democratic Party,” said Mr Kertzer, referring to the power that dominated Italy for decades to come.
“I doubt anyone has seen it before,” he said. “Well, outside the Holy Office.”