Pope's praise of Pius dismays Holocaust survivors

Rome, Italy - A Holocaust survivors group has voiced dismay over Pope Benedict XVI's assertion in a new book that wartime pontiff Pius XII was a "great righteous" man who saved more Jews than anyone else.

Benedict's "comments fill us with pain and sadness and cast a menacing shadow on Vatican-Jewish relations," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, in an emailed statement late Saturday.

Some contend Pius didn't speak out enough against mass deportation and killing of 6 million Jews by Germany's Nazi regime and its collaborators.

In "Light of the World," to be published on Tuesday, Benedict lavishes praise on Pius, who progressed down the Vatican's road to possible sainthood when the pope last year formally hailed his predecessor's "heroic virtues."

He notes pleas from Jewish groups and historians that sainthood efforts be put on hold until the Vatican opens up its archives on the 1939-1958 papacy. The Vatican says the documents, which Benedict says number in the "hundreds of thousands," will be opened up to scholars when archival work is ready, likely in a few years.

Benedict reveals in the book that he "ordered an inspection of the unpublished archival records, because I wanted to be absolutely sure." The "records confirm the positive things we know, but not the negative things that are alleged."

"The decisive thing is what he did and what he tried to do, and on that score, we really must acknowledge, I believe, that he was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else," Benedict said, offering perhaps his most sweeping praise of Pius' papacy to date.

But Steinberg contended that that assertion "is categorically contradicted by the known historical record."

Neither Benedict nor Steinberg cited numbers.

An Israeli diplomat, Pinchas Lapide, wrote in 1967 that Pius and the Catholic church should be credited with saving between 700,000 and 860,000 Jews from certain death. Holocaust scholars dismiss the figure as guesswork.

If Pius becomes a saint, that would create an "unfathomable breach" in Catholic-Jewish relations, Steinberg said. "Pius' silence during the Holocaust was a profound moral failure," he said.

Benedict reiterated the Vatican position that protesting publicly against the Germany occupiers of Rome would have endangered the lives of Jews who were sheltered in convents and monasteries.