The Pope’s Defender
They call her “The Fighting Nun,” an 85-year-old retired Italian-language scholar who lives in a convent set on a scenic hilltop just west of Morristown.
Warm and gentle during an interview, Sister Margherita Marchione nevertheless manifests a steely determination to stand up for her beliefs.
And when it comes to most members of the organized Jewish community, she needs all the determination she can muster: Marchione has devoted the last 10 years of her life to defending the honor and reputation of Pope Pius XII, who is often vilified by Jewish groups and scholars for his role during the Holocaust.
Marchione has written seven books contending the wartime pope has been wrongly and unfairly charged with having been passive while Hitler carried out the genocide of European Jewry.
She believes that pressure from the international Jewish community is a major contributing factor to the Vatican’s failure so far to beatify Pius (the first and most important step in the Vatican’s process to making someone a saint).
As a result, she desires to enlighten as many Jews as possible to what she passionately believes is the truth: that Pius, pope from 1939 until his death in 1958, did everything he could to save Jews during the Holocaust, and that, by sending unwritten instructions to subordinates in the church hierarchy, he may, in fact, have caused hundreds of thousands to be saved.
Marchione also hopes to reach Jews (or their descendants) who will come forward with evidence that they were saved from death at the hands of the Nazis due to Pius’ intervention.
A retired professor of Italian language and literature at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Marchione has lived since the 1930s in Villa Walsh, a convent of the Order of the Religious Teachers Filippini.
In recent years she has barraged Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial authority, with appeals that it change its present unflattering characterization of Pius XII and instead declare the wartime pope a “Righteous Gentile.”
Marchione specifically objects to a statement concerning Pius XII that is printed below a photo of him at Yad Vashem. The statement reads in part:
“Pius XII’s reaction toward the killing of Jews during the period of the Holocaust is controversial. Although reports about the assassination of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest either by speaking out or in writing. In December of 1942, he did not participate in the condemnation by members of the Allies regarding the killing of Jews. Even when the Jews were being deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the pope did not intervene. He maintained a neutral position except toward the end of the war when he appealed on behalf of the government of Hungary and of Slovakia. His silence and absence of directives obliged the clergy in Europe to decide independently how they should behave toward the persecuted Jews.”
Last year, Marchione received a reply from Mordecai Paldiel, director of the Yad Vashem’s Righteous Gentiles Department, promising that the museum would consider changing the negative presentation of Pius’ role during the Holocaust if at least two Jews (or their descendants) were to come forward with proof they were saved from the Nazis due to Pius’ personal intervention.
There is a consensus among scholars of the period that convents and monasteries within and near the Vatican hid nearly 5,000 Jews during the German occupation of Rome from September 1943 to June 1944. Yet these same scholars assert there is no proof that these institutions acted at the behest of the pope.
In a recent interview at her office at Villa Walsh, Marchione said she has interviewed scores of elderly Italian Jews who expressed gratitude to the pope for the fact that they were hidden in Vatican institutions during that period.
For the International Jewish Committee On Interreligious Consultations, the main Jewish body that conducts dialogues with the Vatican, Pius’ potential beatification remains an issue, although not the burning issue it was in the late 1990s. After Pope Benedict XVI’s first major meeting with Jewish leaders in 2005, Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told the Catholic News Service that “there would be very many [people] within the Jewish world who would see the beatification of Pius XII as an act of intentional insensitivity.”
Marchione denied that she is angry at the Jewish community for ongoing opposition to Pius’ beatification.
“I understand that the Jews suffered horrendously during those terrible years so I understand that Jews today are upset that not more was done to save the Six Million,” she said.
Nevertheless, Marchione condemns what she terms “a smear campaign” against Pius XII, mounted by “misguided Jews,” among others.
“If we Catholics want to venerate someone who did good,” she asked, “why do we have to listen to an outside group?”
According to Marchione, prominent Israelis such as Golda Meir, Moshe Sharett, and Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog praised Pius during his lifetime and after his death in 1958 for his efforts on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust.
“If Jewish leaders say today that Pius XII did nothing to save Jews, they are disputing the testimony of other Jews who said he did quite a lot,” Marchione said. “It is terribly unfair to put so much blame on Pius, who had no army besides a few Swiss Guards with which to resist Hitler, while leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who had the means to bomb the concentration camps, failed to do so.”
Marchione is a public speaker of some prominence who received a special medal from Pope John Paul II and was one of the honorees at a National Italian American Foundation dinner attended by President Ronald Reagan.
Nevertheless, Marchione’s work has been derided by more liberal Catholics, like the Rev. John Morley, a professor of Jewish studies at Seton Hall University, and Father John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Seminary in Chicago.
Morley wrote a doctoral dissertation decades ago on Vatican diplomacy during the Holocaust years that was highly critical of Pius XII.
Pawlikowski has urged Catholics and others to confront the long history of Christian anti-Semitism.
Pawlikowski said he gives Marchione “very little credibility. She never gets invited to scholarly conferences on the Holocaust.”
Another critic of Marchione is Susan Zuccotti, the author of Under His Very Windows (2002), a richly documented study of the Holocaust in Italy. The book is highly critical of what Zuccotti portrays as Pius’ failure to take effective action to save the Jews.
“There is absolutely no written or oral record of a papal order or instruction of any kind to help the Jews,” Zuccotti told NJ Jewish News.
Marchione also said she has been frustrated by her inability so far to get a hearing from Jews, including the Jewish community served by United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Last summer, Marchione made arrangements to speak at a local Jewish institution, but that appearance was cancelled at the urging of Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, who sent an e-mail to the agency in question arguing that Marchione did not deserve a hearing. (Both Wind and Marchione confirm that the incident took place but neither can remember the name of the institution that planned to invite Marchione.)
Asked why she urged the cancellation, Wind responded, “From my perspective as the child of survivors, there is no evidence that Pius XII did anything positive to save Jews during the Holocaust.”
Acknowledging that she has not read Marchione’s writings on the subject, Wind said, “Sister Marchione is obviously a devout Catholic who is entitled to her views, but she is not seen as a reputable historian by Catholic scholars whom I respect, like Father John Morley.”
Still what could be the harm of giving Marchione a hearing? a reporter asked.
Wind responded, “I am concerned that most of the people she would speak to do not have the historical background to weigh her comments and understand whether they are factual or not.”
For her part, Marchione said, “It is unfortunate that a representative of the Jewish community prevented other Jews from hearing a different perspective on this important issue.”
An amateur historian
Marchione was born in Little Ferry in 1922 to a family of Italian immigrants. As a member of a teaching order with roots in 17th-century Italy, Marchione, who has spoken Italian since childhood, studied at Columbia University and eventually became a professor at Fairleigh Dickinson.
An amateur historian, she wrote a book during the 1970s about Philip Mazzei, a now largely forgotten 18th-century native of Florence who moved to Virginia, fought in the American Revolution, and became a lifelong personal friend of Thomas Jefferson. She then launched a sustained and ultimately successful campaign to get the U.S. Post Office to designate a Mazzei stamp, after intimating that failing to do so would be a slap in the face of Italian-Americans.
Marchione had a brief meeting at the Vatican with Pius XII shortly before he died in 1958. Although she has also been received by all subsequent popes, she feels an especially close emotional bond with Pius, of whom she wrote, “Pius XII’s piercing eyes penetrated my soul and I still see him a tall, dignified, and ascetic figure with a brilliant glance, a loving smile, and animated gestures.”
Marchione was deeply offended by the subsequent campaign against the late pope, which began with the opening of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy in 1963, in which the pope is portrayed as indifferent to the fate of the Jews.
But it was not until the mid-1990s, after she discovered that her own order, the Religious Teachers Filippini, sheltered 114 Jews in 1943-44 at their convent in Rome, that she wrote her first pro-Pius book, Yours Is a Precious Witness, published in 1997 by Paulist Press, a small Catholic publisher in Mahwah. It included extensive interviews with Italian Jews who expressed gratitude for having been hidden by convents and monasteries during the Nazi occupation of Rome.
Since then she has written more books on the same theme, including Pope Pius XII, Architect for Peace (2000) and Consensus and Controversy, Defending Pope Pius XII (2002).
Marchione makes several points in her defense of Pius. She argues that he did not speak publicly against Hitler because he had good reason to believe that “doing so would have made matters even worse for the Jews.”
In support of that position, she cites one occasion when Catholic bishops in occupied Holland publicly denounced the deportation of Jews from that country, leading the Nazis to immediately deport to the death camps a group of Jews who had become Catholics.
In any case, Marchione argues, “don’t forget that the pope was a virtual prisoner in the Vatican with the Nazis and fascists providing water and electricity.”
She also cited an upcoming book by Dan Kurzman asserting that Hitler plotted to seize the pope and move him to Germany before the Allies took Rome. “Do you think,” she asked rhetorically, “that if Pius had spoken out publicly in support of the Jews, the Nazis would have left him [in the Vatican] untouched?”
Finally, Marchione contends that it is inconceivable that the heads of so many convents and monasteries would have sheltered Jews unless they were acting at Pius’ direction, even though such orders could not be put in writing for fear of triggering Nazi retribution. Marchione cited a comment by Father David Jaeger, an Israeli-born convert to Catholicism and expert on Vatican canonical law, who argues, “Anyone who has any acquaintance with the law and culture of the Catholic Church at that time would understand those things could not have taken place without specific orders of the pope, and those orders could not have been in written form.”
Marchione has her defenders as well, including Dr. Eugene Fisher, associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Everything Margherita Marchione has written on Pius XII and the Jews is solid and should be believed,” he told NJJN.
Another defender is Gary Krupp, president of the New York-based Pave the Way Foundation, a Jew who said he believes that Jewish groups should drop their opposition to the beatification of Pius in order to buttress a Jewish-Vatican alliance in the face of the rise of radical Islam.
According to Krupp, “Margherita Marchione has done important research on Pius’ efforts on behalf of the Jews during the Holocaust and is highly respected within the church for her accomplishments. More people should listen to what she is saying.”
Critics of Pius like Zuccotti and Pawlikowski appear to have adopted a more nuanced approach than the one depicting Pius as a deeply anti-Semitic man who was complicit in Hitler’s genocide of the Jews, an image popularized by Hochhuth and by John Cornwall in his 1999 book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.
Said Zuccotti: “It is likely Pius was aware of the rescue efforts” of Jews by Roman convents and monasteries.
Said Pawlikowski: “It is not historically accurate to shout that the pope did nothing to help the Jews. I believe he did some things behind the scenes. Yet, overall, the Jews were not a high priority for Pius. He certainly could have done a lot more than he did.”
For her part, Marchione said she believes she has made a meaningful contribution to moving the issue in a pro-Pius direction.
“Look, it is true that I am not a professional historian, but I am a pretty good researcher,” she said. “All of my work is based on primary documents and the interviews I did with Jews themselves. What it shows was a compassionate pontiff who did more to save Jews during the Holocaust than any other world leader at the time.”
Marchione said she would consider information to the contrary.
“Of course, I believe deeply in the righteousness of Pope Pius, but if you were to prove to me that Pius XII did something wrong, I would be the first to acknowledge it. Yet I haven’t found anything so far to indicate that.”
Marchione added, “I know I won’t be around forever, but I very much hope to live long enough to witness the beatification of Pius XII. Until then, I will do what I can to bring that day closer by exposing the falsity of the attacks on this great and good man.”
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