Thursday, June 23, 2005

Pius XII, Nazi Gold, and Jewish Art

I found myself entering a response today to a comment on another entry in which I ran out of allowed characters and could not post the entire response. That's the first time that's ever happened to me, and probably is a sign that I rant too much.

Since I took the topic so seriously, however, I figured I would write about it here.

Commenting on a post I had made in defense of Pius XII's role during WWII, a reader asked: "Does this mean there isn't any truth to the charges of Nazi gold or Jewish-owned artwork that were found in the Church's possession? Did that pope really not do poorly by the Jews?"

A good general commentary (from the Catholic perspective) on Pius XII and the Jewish people can be found here.

The gist of the "Nazi Gold" rumors is that the Vatican helped former fascist leaders (Nazi sympathizers) from Yugoslavia escape the Communists by running to South America after WWII; and that the Vatican either held onto or transported their wealth after them. What looks like a good, neutral compendium of the charges and counter charges can be found here. My take is that there is no compelling evidence that the Vatican is "hiding Nazi gold", and even if there was good evidence, the Vatican has always made it known that as the war ended, they were just as concerned to help former Nazi sympathizers from eastern Europe escape Stalin or Tito's form of justice as they were to help Jews escape Hitler's vision of racial purity. Could some corrupt Cardinal have gotten sticky fingers, been too anxious to help former Axis allies with whom he sympathized, or been all too ready to establish a slush fund for his directorate? All that is possible, though I would be surprised if those specific charges proved true.

Regarding looted artwork: I wouldn't be the least surprised if much of the priceless works found in the Vatican Museum and Library were, at sometime, stolen; and that some of it might have been stolen from Jewish people or synagogues. I can imagine some medieval baron sacking a synagogue on some pretext and his descendants bequeathing whatever treasure he took to a local monastery. The local monastery then would have promised to say Masses daily for the soul of Baron Synagogue Sacker under the pretext that he went to confession before his death, was sorry for every bad thing he ever did, escaped Hell, and now needed spiritual help to get out of Purgatory and into Heaven. In all honesty, it probably would never have occurred to anyone that sacking a synagogue would have been a serious sin. Later, when the Vikings or Moors or Hugenots or Communists or whomever posed a threat, the treasures got shipped off to the mother house in Italy. Later still, when the religious order needed to liquidate assets for whatever reason, the treasures went to the Vatican.

All of this is quite unsavory. My ancestors were peasants from the upper Rhineland. I imagine they would have sacked a synagogue in a heartbeat had they the chance. For whatever thefts, murders, and other outrages have ever been committed against the Jews in Christ's name by my ancestors or co-religionists, for what it's worth, I am sorry.

Of course, my apologies mean very little since I neither committed such acts myself, nor have I benefited from them, nor do I personally know or know of anybody related to me who actually did such a thing.

I remember visiting the Vatican Library Art Museum with my parents when I was a child. I recall seeing a beautiful menorah along with some remnant of an ancient copy of the Torah and some Hebrew (along with some Greek, Roman, and Byzantine) relinquaries for holding the bones of the dead. I recall seeing similar exhibits of other items which, at some point, almost certainly had to have been removed from their original locations over someone else's wishes, at the British National Museum, the Chicago Natural History Museum, and a few other places. Indeed, I suspect that almost every major museum of artwork or antiquities has stolen property in it.

I remember (also as a child) touring an Anglican Cathedral somewhere in northern England. A pious old catholic gentleman asked the tour guide whether the Anglican Church ever had any intention of returning that grand old building to the Catholics.

The tour guide was very patient indeed as he explained that Her Majesty, the queen, had no intention of returning such property and in any event, he didn't really think that His Holiness, the pope, expected her to.

If I were in charge of the collection at the Vatican Library Museum, would I send all the certainly, likely or possibly once-stolen property back to, say, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, or the Cairo Museum, or the Synagogue of Rome?

No. I would see all the material as having been entrusted to me, whether it's original provenance was legitimate or not, and I would not break up the collection. No curator would.

Do I think there are other treasures, known to be stolen and known to still be sought, hidden somewhere deep in the bowels of St. Peter's?

I'd sure be surprised. And if anybody knew of specific items, I'd sure like to know.