Historian: Research could ‘downsize’ potential saint’s wartime heroism

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VATICAN, June 24, 2013 (CNS) — New research on an Italian candidate for sainthood may “downsize” his importance in saving Jews from the Nazis, but cannot “transform him from a savior of the Jews into a persecutor,” said an Italian Jewish historian writing in the Vatican newspaper.

Anna Foa, a professor of modern history at Rome’s Sapienza University and a frequent contributor to the Vatican newspaper, said a recent study on the wartime activities of Giovanni Palatucci by the Centro Primo Levi at the Center for Jewish History in New York was an “unfounded condemnation.”

The director of the Centro Primo Levi has written that Palatucci, long credited with saving thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps, was a “willing executor” of Italy’s anti-Semitic racial laws and a Nazi collaborator.

“We are basically facing the problem of the lack of documentation” for drawing an accurate conclusion, Foa wrote June 22 in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

Considering the headlines claiming that Palatucci had persecuted Jews, Foa wrote, “the impression is, in fact, that a different issue is involved — the church of Pius XII — and that, in targeting Palatucci, the intention essentially was to strike down a Catholic involved in rescuing the Jews” and the “idea that the church worked to save Jews.”

Using Palatucci to cast doubt on whether the wartime Pope Pius did enough on behalf of the Jews is “ideology, not history,” Foa wrote.

Palatucci, a police official in Fiume, a city on the Adriatic Sea that is now part of Croatia, has been called “Italy’s Oskar Schindler” after the German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews by employing them in his factories. The Italian has been said to have saved 5,000 Jews by “losing” their records or having them sent to camps in Campagna, where his uncle was bishop, rather than north to German death camps.

Foa said the Centro Primo Levi’s research could lead to Palatucci being credited with saving only several dozen Jews.

Arrested in 1944 on charges of treason, Palatucci died in the Dachau concentration camp in 1945. In 1955, the Italian Jewish community formally recognized his efforts to save Jews during the war and in 1990 the State of Israel recognized him as “Righteous Among the Nations,” an honor conferred on those who rescued Jews from the Nazis.

In her Vatican newspaper article, Foa said that “firsthand research into the Palatucci case is scarce,” and it is likely that stories of his wartime efforts on behalf of the Jews have been embellished.

But the central questions must be based on facts, she said: “Did Palatucci save Jews or not? Did Palatucci denounce Jews or not? These are the only questions we are waiting for documents to answer. Everything else is just commentary.”

Palatucci’s sainthood cause was opened by the Diocese of Rome in 2002; in 2004, the diocese handed its material over to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes. New documentation can be submitted at any time during the process.

The 1983 rules governing the canonization process demand that during the diocesan phase of the process, “all the writings of the Servant of God, those not yet published as well as each and every historical document, either handwritten or printed, which in any way pertain to the cause, are to be gathered.”

Historians and archivists are to be employed to produce “an accurate and precise report together with the collected writings. In this report, they are to indicate and testify that they fulfilled their duty properly; to include a list of the writings and documents; to give a judgment on their authenticity and their value as well as on the personality of the Servant of God, as it appears from the same writings and documents.”

The cause then is handed over to the Congregation for Saints’ Causes where the process has two phases: study and judgment. In the study phase, the congregation can and often does ask for more documentation. One of the preliminary steps in the judgment phase is an investigation and vote by a panel of historians.

The 1983 rules conclude by saying, “Furthermore, one must also refrain, even outside of church, from any acts which could mislead the faithful into thinking that the inquiry conducted by the bishop into the life of the Servant of God and his virtues or martyrdom carries with it the certitude that the Servant of God will be one day canonized.” (Cindy Wooden)

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