Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Books Like Whoa: A Whole Lotta Books About the Holocaust in Italy

Boy, howdy, do I have a cheery post for you today! So, I spent my semester writing on two very happy  topics - Vatican responses to the Holocaust in Italy and suffering in the Christian life. Woohoo. This constituted a lot of my reading, meaning that I want to talk about these books. So I thought I'd keep it brief and group a few of these books together.

First up, books on the Holocaust in Italy...

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust (1930-1965) by Michael Phayer

Phayer takes a rather dim view of Pope Pius XII, positing that though he was a compassionate man who didn't wish the Jews physical ill, he was simply too boxed in by his own presuppositions and concerns to be an effective leader in the midst of genocide. His thesis is that Pius' policies towards the Nazi regime centered on three priorities: 1) To preserve the physical integrity of Vatican City, 2) To maintain a Nazi buffer state between Italy and the Communist bloc, and 3) To position himself to be mediator at the end of WWII. I think he makes his argument very convincingly and does a great job of highlighting the work of lower level Catholic clergy and laity in "acts of righteousness." He pulls out a lot of stories of little people working alone, but also of leaders like Bishop von Preysing (bishop of Berlin) who were outspoken critics of Nazism.

Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust ed. Carol Rittner and John Roth

This is a compilation of essays examining Pius' notorious "silence." This issue is something of a litmus test between historians, with critics eviscerating the pope for remaining silent in the face of information about what was going down with Jews across Europe, and defenders asserting that he had no other choice. The issue is more complex than either side wants to admit, and this collection provides some needed nuance to this area of study.

Cries in the Night: Women Who Challenged the Holocaust by Michael Phayer

Another book from Phayer, this highlights case studies of women who put themselves at risk to perform "acts of righteousness" in the Holocaust. Again, Phayer excels at finding these kinds of little known stories and showing how they relate to broader trends.

It Happened in Italy by Elisabeth Bettina

I wouldn't call this one academic in tone, but it is a good compendium of first hand accounts of Jewish detainees in Italian concentration camps. Bettina seems rather tone deaf on the realities of these camps - while the were absolutely not death camps or even work camps in the same sense as their German cousins, they were nonetheless grim places, akin to today's refugee camps. However, I appreciated how many stories she documented, even if she is biased towards showing Italians in the best possible light.

The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt

This book doesn't specifically deal with Italy, but it does deal with the project manager of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann. Much is known of Eichmann from Hannah Arendt's masterwork, but Lipstadt provides some needed correctives and perspective to the narrative common to the Eichmann story. She draws some interesting parallels and also touches on the important topic of Holocaust denial.

A Cross Too Heavy by Paul O'Shea

O'Shea is the most sympathetic to Pius of the full books I read for this paper (see also Sanchez and Conway for others who provide reasonable defensive positions). He does, however, highlight that Pius' "public neutrality, private compassion" policy was born out of temporal concerns more than a moral high ground. He also traces the strengthening of the Roman Curia from the ultramontanist fervor of the 19th century and shows how this informed Vatican policies of WWII.

Under His Very Windows by Susan Zuccotti

Zuccotti's work is probably the easiest to read of these and the focus level of detail she brings to Italy's situation is much needed in this area of study. She clearly does not approve of Pius's actions a good deal of the time, but she brings supporting evidence into her argument very nicely and doesn't treat him like a monster, as some critics are wont to do. She also highlights the work of a Jewish charity organization, Delasem, and the crucial role that they played in supporting the thousands of Jews who immigrated to Italy during the war.

Whew - a lot of sadness in these books. Seriously. It was a bummer. But this is also a very important topic, because as a lot of blame gets leveled at Catholics for their response during this period, these books remind us of something very important. Even if the top of the hierarchy had its hands tied by certain temporal concerns, the priests and laity were often key in helping with rescue efforts. If they'd had more top-down direction to do so, there may have been even more that could have been done.

If I was going to recommend one or two of these books, I'd recommend Phayer's The Catholic Church and Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows. I'd say Phayer comes closest to having the middle position on the topic of Pius' "silence," whereas Zuccotti is more critical but has a wealth of fascinating information about Italy in this period.

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