Newly discovered wartime correspondence from Pope Pius XII suggests he may have known about the Holocaust earlier than previously thought.
Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Sunday published a typewritten letter recently found in Vatican archives.
The letter, dated December 14, 1942, appears to contradict the Holy See’s official position at the time, which was that the information it had was vague and unverified.
Written by Father Lother Koenig, a Jesuit who participated in the anti-Nazi resistance in Germany, the letter was addressed to the Pope’s personal secretary at the Vatican, Father Robert Leiber, also German.
The letter was rediscovered by an internal Vatican archivist and made public with the encouragement of Holy See officials.
Vatican archivist Giovanni Cocco told Corriere that the importance of the letter was “huge, a unique case” because it showed the Vatican had information that the labor camps were actually death factories.
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In the letter, Koenig tells Leiber that sources had confirmed that about 6,000 Poles and Jews a day were being murdered in “SS furnaces” at the Belzec camp near Rava-Ruska, then part of German-occupied Poland.
Asked by the Corriere interviewer if the letter showed that Pio knew, Coco said: “Yes, and not only since then.”
The letter made reference to two other Nazi camps – Auschwitz and Dachau – and suggested there were other battles between Koenig and Leiber that have either been lost or have yet to be found.
Pius’ supporters say he worked behind the scenes to help Jews and did not speak out to prevent a worsening of the situation for Catholics in Nazi-occupied Europe. His critics say he lacked the courage to speak about information he had despite pleas from the Allied forces fighting Germany.
The discovery of the letter comes more than four years after Pope Francis decided to open Vatican archives on Pope Pius XII, who many Jewish groups have accused of doing little to stop the Holocaust.
Francis said the church is “not afraid of history” and said the Vatican’s secret archives would be open to researchers.
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“The church is not afraid of history. On the contrary, it loves it and would like to love it even more, as it loves God,” Francis said in his personal archive. “Thus, with the same confidence as my predecessors, I open up and entrust to researchers this legacy of documentation.”
Reuters contributed to this report.