During the times of the Nazi regime, about 15,000 Jewish people from all over Europe asked Pope Pius XII and the Vatican for help. The petitions submitted were authored by women and men, by children and adolescents, who belonged to various Jewish denominations, social classes and generations. They were written in German and Italian, in French and Romanian, in Yiddish and Hungarian. Each individual letter tells the story of a unique person from a first-person perspective. It is truly moving to read them. We witness atrocity and degradation, persecution and hunger, deportation and fear of death, but also hope and accounts of successful rescue. In these petitions people whose lives and memory the National Socialists sought to erase are given a voice and brought back to our minds.
These letters were hitherto unknown. They were found in the holdings of the Vatican archives (the “secret archives”) pertaining to the pontificate of Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958. These holdings were only made accessible to researchers on March 2, 2020. This collection of ego-documents written by Jewish victims of the Shoah is unique in its density and allows us to trace what each individual person went through. Frequently, these letters are the last written texts they wrote before they were murdered.
When analysing these unique documents, we also learn a lot about Pius XII’s stance on the Shoah and about how the Roman Curia worked. We come across both staunch anti-Semites and people who wanted to help the Jews by all means. When dealing with the petitions, the focus, however, must be on the persecuted people. Their voices from the past are a veritable and indispensable memorial for us today: in view of reawakened anti-Semitism they admonish us not to stand back and not to look away.
The #askingthepopeforhelp project has two main goals:
- finding and scientifically editing the petitions as well as all other pertinent sources that are scattered in various Vatican archives; reconstructing the further fate of all Jewish Nazi victims coming up there on the basis of the Vatican sources as well as national and international online sources; and publishing the results in a critical digital edition.
- offering ongoing and ample research communication as well as a didactically prepared transfer of knowledge in the area of political education in the sense of “anti-anti-Semitism education”; this educational work is aimed at various target groups, including school teaching as well as political instruction for society as a whole.