A recently discovered letter suggests that Pope Pius XII was aware of the mass killings taking place at the Belzec death camp during the Holocaust. The Vatican has long maintained that it was unaware of the true extent of the Holocaust. The letter, written by German Jesuit priest Lothar Koenig in December 1942, was addressed to the pope’s secretary and was recently found by a Vatican archivist. In the letter, Koenig reportedly mentions the existence of a gas chamber at the Belzec camp, where up to 6,000 men were being killed daily, particularly Poles and Jews.
It is unclear whether Pope Pius ever read Koenig’s letter, but it is known that he began receiving correspondence from British and Polish envoys in the same month, informing him that up to one million Jews had already been murdered by the Nazi regime in Poland. Two weeks after receiving Koenig’s letter, the pope delivered an address condemning the killings of “hundreds of thousands” of “faultless” people based on their nationality or race. However, he did not explicitly name the perpetrators or victims of these murders.
Critics of Pius have long argued that he did not do enough to bring attention to the Holocaust and that his statements on the matter were overly cautious. His supporters, on the other hand, contend that he was constrained by the Holy See’s neutrality and worked behind the scenes through diplomatic channels to save Jewish lives, potentially up to 800,000.
In his letter, Koenig reportedly implored the pope’s secretary not to make its contents public out of fear that the Nazi authorities would retaliate and kill him and his resistance sources. After the war, Pius received recognition for the Holy See’s efforts in rescuing Jews from persecution. He was presented with a monetary sum from World Jewish Council leader Dr. Leon Kubowitzky and was honored by Israeli Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Moshe Sharett, as well as Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog.
Koenig’s letter, along with other correspondence from Pope Pius XII’s papacy, will be discussed at a conference next month at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Attendees will include representatives from Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust research institute, the US Holocaust Memorial, and Israeli and US embassies.
The discovery of this letter adds to the ongoing debate surrounding Pope Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust. It provides evidence that the Vatican was not entirely unaware of the atrocities being committed, contrary to its longstanding position. However, it also raises questions about the level of action taken by the pontiff to address the genocide. The conference next month will provide an opportunity for scholars and experts to further examine and discuss the role of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during this dark chapter in history.