VATICAN CITY — David Kertzer put down his cappuccino, shouldered his backpack and went digging for more Vatican secrets.
“It’s like looking for treasure,” said Kertzer, a 74-year-old historian.
A few moments later, he walked through a crowd lined up to see Pope Francis, showed his permit to the Swiss Guard, and entered the archives of the former headquarters of the Holy Inquisition.
Bronze plaques on the cobblestone streets of Rome’s old Jewish quarter display the name and date of deportation of some of that city’s Jews during World War II, on May 13, 2022. (Massimo Berruti/The New York Times)
For the past several decades, Kertzer has reversed roles with the Church.
Thanks to the Vatican’s own archives, this soft-spoken professor, researcher at Brown University, and trustee of the American Academy in Rome has undoubtedly become the excavator more efficient of the hidden sins of the Vatican, especially those committed before and during the Second World War.
Kertzer is the son of a rabbi who served as an army chaplain in the liberation of rome and grew up in a home that had adopted a girl whose family had been murdered in Auschwitz.
That family background and his anti-Vietnam War activism in college gave him an awareness of moral outrage which was tempered by the prudence of the intellectual.
Kertzer with his Italian collaborator, Roberto Benedetti, before digging into the Vatican archives. CreditMassimo Berruti for The New York Times
As a product of this, we have some works that have won the Pulitzer Prize, captured the imagination of steven spielberg and exposed, sometimes very crudely, one of the darkest institutions on earth.
Kertzer’s most recent book analyzes the Church’s involvement in the World War II and the Holocaustwhich he considers the formative event of his own life.
The book documents the personal decision-making that led to the pope Pius XII to say virtually nothing about Hitler’s genocide and argues that the pontiff’s influence on the war is underestimated, and not in a positive way.
“Something I want to do is demonstrate the importance of Pius XII’s participation,” he said.
Praying in Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican. In 2019, Pope Francis ordered that the archives of Pius XII be opened to historians. Photo Massimo Berruti for The New York Times
In 2019, Francis, the current pope, said:
“The Church is not afraid of history”, when he ordered that the archives of Pius XII be opened.
But while Francis resolves how firmly to repudiate a dictator, this time Russia’s, Vladimir PutinKertzer has uncovered some alarming evidence about the cost of keeping quiet about mass murder.
Kertzer argued that the huge dread of communism Pius XII had, his belief that the Axis powers would win the war, and his desire to protect the interests of the Church motivated him not to antagonize or Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussoliniwhose ambassadors had collaborated to put him on the throne.
According to the book, the pope was also concerned that turning against the Führer would alienate millions of German Catholics.
The book also reveals that a German prince and staunch Nazi acted as a secret back channel between Pius XII and Hitler and that the Vatican’s senior adviser on Jewish affairs urged him in a letter to not speak out against of the fascist regime’s order to arrest and send to concentration camps most of the Italian Jews.
“That left me stunnedKertzer commented on that letter.
Defenders of Pius XII, whose arguments in favor of his canonization are still under evaluation, have long argued that he worked behind the scenes to help Jews and that anti-Catholic enemies have tried to tarnish the institution by sullying the pontiff.
“A more open challenge would not have saved any Jews, but would have caused even more to die,” wrote Michael Hesemann, who believes that Pius XII defended the Jews, in response to the evidence released by Kertzer, whom he described as someone “very biased”.
Hesemann, who is also the author of a recent book on the wartime pope based on Vatican archives, argued that the pope, while remaining neutral, hid Jews in convents and distributed fake baptismal certificates.
Kertzer argues that the uncovered documents paint a more nuanced picture of Pius XII, depicting him neither as the anti-Semitic monster often referred to as “Hitler’s pope” nor as a hero.
But, according to Kertzer, the insistence on protecting Pius’s reputation reflects the more general reluctance of Italy — and of Vatican defenders — to accept his complicity in World War II, the Holocaust and the murder of Rome’s Jews. .
On October 16, 1943, the Nazis captured over 1000 jews throughout the city, including hundreds in the Jewish ghetto, which is now a tourist attraction frequented by crowds feasting on Jewish-style artichokes near the church where Jews were forced to attend conversion sermons.
The Germans held the Jews for two days in a military college near the Vatican while they checked who was baptized or had a Catholic spouse.
“They didn’t want to offend the pope,” Kertzer said.
In his book he shows that the high advisers of Pius XII only interceded with the German ambassador to free the “non-Aryan Catholics”.
About 250 were released and more than 1,000 were killed at Auschwitz.
When the US Army arrived in Rome, with it was Kertzer’s father, Lt. Morris Kertzer, a Canadian-born rabbi who officiated at the synagogue.
An American soldier, a Jew from Rome who had emigrated to America when Mussolini introduced racial laws in Italy, asked Morris Kertzer to make an ad to see if his mother had survived the war.
The rabbi placed the soldier next to him; when he began the service, a scream was heard and the soldier’s mother ran to hug her son.
“That’s what I remember most of what my father told,” said David Kertzer.
A year before Kertzer was born in 1948, his parents adopted a teenage Auschwitz survivor.
Every time images of Nazi soldiers appeared on television, David and Ruth, his older sister, ran to turn off the device to protect Eva, their adoptive sister.
By this time, his father had become director of interfaith affairs at the American Jewish Committee primarily to try to eliminate anti-Semitism from Christian churches.
As part of the normalization work, the young David Kertzer appeared on the program “TonightShow” of Jack Paar singing prayers at the family’s Passover Seder.
His anti-Vietnam War activism at Brown University nearly got him expelled and got him jailed along with Norman Mailer.
He continued studying and fell in love with both anthropology and Susan Dana, a religion student from Maine.
In order to be close to her, in 1969 he enrolled in graduate school at Brandeis University, where he was told by an anthropology professor that his interest in politics and religion would find fertile ground for study in Italy.
The results were a year of research in Bologna, Italy, with Susan, by then his wife, and his first book “Comrades and Christians.”
After earning his Ph.D., he found employment at Brown University and Bowdoin College, fathered two children, developed a lifelong relationship with Italy, and a growing familiarity with the Italian archives (and later, by chance, the Vatican). .
In the early 1990s, an Italian history teacher told him about Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old boy from Bologna whose parents were Jewish.
In 1858, the inquisitor of the Church ordered the boy to be arrested because perhaps a Christian servant had secretly taken him to be baptized, so he could not remain within a Jewish family.
This history led him to what Kertzer called “a double change of trajectory”:
to write for a general public and about Jewish subjects.
The product of this was his 1998 book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” a finalist in the nonfiction category for the National Book Award.
The work caught the attention of his friend, playwright Tony Kushner, who later gave it to Steven Spielberg, who, in turn, told Kertzer he wanted to bring it to the screen.
Mark Rylance joined the team to play the role of Pius XII, and Kushner wrote the script; now, all they needed was a boy to play the part of Edgardo.
“They tested 4,000 — not 3,900 — 6- to 8-year-olds from four continents,” Kertzer said.
“Spielberg tells us he’s not happy with any of the guys.”
The project stopped, but Kertzer did not.
He came out of the archives to publish “The Pope Against the Jews,” about the role of the Church in the rise of modern anti-Semitism.
In 2014, he published “The Pope and Mussolini”in which he discusses Pius XII’s involvement in the rise of fascism and the anti-Semitic racial laws of 1938.
This book earnedl Pulitzer Prize.
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