Two million euros provided for research on petitions from Jewish Shoah victims

Church historian Hubert Wolf and his team reconstruct Jewish fates from documents in Vatican archives

During the National Socialist regime, many persecuted people sought, as a last resort, to flee their homes. Yet many of them lacked the money and necessary support. In desperation, estimated 15,000 of Jewish men and women - both converts to Christianity and non-converts - petitioned to the Catholic Church and its then head, Pope Pius XII. A team of researchers led by Professor Dr Dr h.c. Hubert Wolf, head of the Department of Medieval and Modern Church History at the University of Münster, has now received joint funding from the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" (EVZ), the German Foreign Office and Bayer AG for the project "Asking the Pope for Help". This project will systematically record thousands of petitions found in the Vatican Archives and make them accessible to the public in a digital edition.

Petition of Hilde Schmahl
Hilde Schmahl writes to Pope Pius XII on 11 November 1940 asking for help to leave the country to the USA. Her letter is one of thousands that were under lock and key until 2 March 2020.
© 2022 Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, Segr.Stato, Commissione Soccorsi 296, fasc. 120, fol. 46r. - per concessione dell’Archivio Apostolico Vaticano, ogni diritto riservato

The five-year research project was made possible when the Vatican Archives’ documents concerning the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958) were finally made accessible, after a long delay, on 2 March 2020. The preliminary work for the project began at that time, two years ago, with funding from the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation. "Without anyone knowing what results sifting through the 400,000 boxes of documents in the Vatican Archives on Pope Pius XII would bring to light, the project outline foreshadowed that the endeavour may change the historical perspective. So, it was providential that the Krupp Foundation was able to use its creative freedom to make this ambitious project possible," emphasized Professor Dr Dr h. c. Ursula Gather, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees of the Krupp Foundation. "We are pleased and proud to have been able to take these first steps together with the Department of Church History."

"The project is of great socio-political and historical relevance - I would therefore like to thank the two foundations for supporting it financially and for trusting in the academic work of the University of Münster," added the University's Rector, Professor Dr Johannes Wessels. "I am sure that Professor Hubert Wolf's team, with their theological and historical expertise, will succeed in shedding light on this unique archival material." The findings achieved by reconstructing the fate of these individuals will also be of enormous importance for political education. "The letters and calls for help to the Vatican are an archival treasure trove, the unlocking of which makes a major contribution to our national and transnational culture of remembrance. Memories must be shared if they are to be remembered," explained Annette Schavan, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the EVZ Foundation and former German Ambassador to the Holy See. "At a time when opportunities to speak directly to eyewitnesses for the purpose of historical and political education are becoming increasingly rare, I look with particular anticipation to the conveying of these deeply touching fates through digital formats."

For further information on the "Asking the Pope for Help" project, please visit

Giving Victims a Voice and Investigating the Roman Curia under Pius XII

After an initial inspection of the files on Pius XII, the researchers quickly realized that their evaluation of the collection should focus primarily on the history of the persecuted. By bringing together documents from various archives and presenting the life stories of Jewish people in a digital edition, the researchers are opening up new perspectives on this period. Of many victims, little more than their names and a few biographical details were known; now they again have their say.

The analysis of individual fates is also expected to provide insight into how the Catholic Church reacted to the requests for help. What options did the Church have when it came to taking a stand against anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews? Under which circumstances and for what reasons were these options exercised? The collection includes the petitioners' handwritten letters and autobiographical sketches, which are, in many cases, the last written testimonies of victims who were murdered shortly thereafter. In addition, the sources also include the responses of Church representatives.

Research results for the general public

This research will continue to  receive media coverage that will raise public awareness of the Shoah and promote the critique of anti-Semitism. In documentaries, articles, videos and innovative digital formats the results of the project will regularly be communicated, thus providing insight into the team's work in the Vatican Archives and in Münster. As the petitioners came from different countries in Europe - including Germany, Poland, Italy and France - this is done in an international framework.

Additional teaching materials, for example on specific groups of cases, enable biographical learning that respects the individuality of the persecuted and concretises the unimaginability of the Holocaust. Furthermore, the project will become a living experience in the educational institutions thanks to specific course components on relevant subjects, the organisation of student projects and teacher training courses. Exhibitions and workshops are planned to cover the field of political education. Through both lectures and excursions, university students, as disseminators of the culture of remembrance in schools, academia and the public sphere, will also be taught how to deal with the Vatican documents responsibly using appropriate forms of commemoration.

The Funding Bodies

The "Asking the Pope for Help" project is jointly funded by the EVZ Foundation, the German Federal Foreign Office and Bayer AG. The mission of the Foundation  "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" (EVZ) is to keep alive the memory of the iniquity of the National Socialist persecution, to accept responsibility for it in the present and to actively shape the future. The primary purpose behind the establishment of the EVZ Foundation in 2000 was the payment of humanitarian compensation to the forced laborers of the National Socialist regime – a turning point in the German process of coming to terms with the past. Today, with its fields of activity EDUCATION and ACTION, the EVZ Foundation funds projects that support survivors of National Socialist persecution, promote intercultural understanding and contribute to the strengthening of human rights.

The non-profit Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation has been supporting people and projects in art and culture, education, research, health and sport since 1968 and has so far committed 680 million euros to this purpose. As the largest shareholder of ThyssenKrupp AG, the Foundation uses the income it receives exclusively for the benefit of the public and pursues the goal of stimulating new development. With its work, the Krupp Foundation provides impetus for the development of research and academic teaching, in its efforts to contribute to international understanding and to improve the education of the younger generations.

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