For as long as I knew the late Lord Janner – or Greville Janner MP as he was when I first met him – he had a project on the go, whether it was the Commonwealth Jewish Council or the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), both of which he founded, or the placing of memorial signposts to the murdered Jews of wartime Lithuania.
All too often, Greville’s was a lone voice, and I will admit that I often didn’t understand the passion he brought to his campaigns. And sometimes, it has to be acknowledged, I and others thought he was on a hiding to nothing, espousing a cause that had no possible hope of being realised.
Yet Greville came to mind this week with a vengeance, as I read with horrified fascination of what might be termed the endgame, in one of his last – and you will forgive the word, but it is apposite – crusades. Greville campaigned with dogged determination to persuade the Vatican to open up its secret wartime archives.
Over many years, he harried the Vatican because he was convinced the Pope during the Holocaust era, Pius XII, had failed to do all he might to help the desperate Jews fleeing the Nazis. Quite how complicit Pius was we never knew, because even though, in 1998, Greville succeeded in getting some Vatican files released to HET, they did not reveal the core of what really happened. Now, however, we may be on the way to learning the truth of those dark years, and stories published this week, almost ignored in the face of coronavirus articles, are shocking.
It turns out that files first released in March by the Vatican, but then swiftly closed because of the virus, do not show Pius, pope from 1939 to 1958, in a good light.
Two hundred academics had applied to look at these archives but were forced to put their trips on hold because of Covid-19. But, critically, a German team of scholars, led by award-winning religious historian Hubert Wolf from Münster University, managed to get a look at the material before global lockdown.
And what a shocker: not only did the Pope know about the mass murder of Jews from his own sources, but he kept that information from the American government.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of Catholic priests and nuns throughout Europe were only too aware of what was happening to the continent’s Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Each monastery and convent and diocese were sending back reports to the Vatican, some co-operating with the Nazis, some doing their utmost to save Jews. Some, indeed, were at the forefront of the so-called “ratline” established towards the end of the war to help guilty Nazi perpetrators escape to south America.
Hubert Wolf’s team has already found some damning documents in the newly-released material. They include a secret report prepared by the Jewish Agency, relating to the 1942 mass murder of 100,000 Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, and to the deaths of 50,000 Jews in German-occupied Ukraine.
Washington asked if the Vatican could confirm the report from its own sources among Catholics, but were told it could not. But Hubert Wolf has found a note in the archives, which not only shows the Pope had read the report, but also indicates two independent corroborations to the Vatican of the killings.
This, and much more material that may still exist in the Vatican archives, show behaviour that it is now impossible to understand. Who knows how many Jews could have been saved had the Pope made a public intervention, based on these reports? But he did not.
Now, it remains for the entire archives to be forensically dissected by as many scholars as possible. And for a complete block to be put on Vatican plans to make Pius XII a saint.
Lord Janner, it turns out, was prescient in the extreme.