VATICAN CITY — David Kertzer put down his cappuccino, put on his backpack and went digging for more Vatican secrets.
“There’s an aspect of treasure-hunting,” said Kertzer, a 74-year-old historian.
Moments later, he cut through a crowd lined up to see Pope Francis, showed his credentials to the Swiss Guard and entered the archives of the former headquarters for the Holy Roman Inquisition.
Over the last few decades, Kertzer has turned the inquisitive tables on the church. Using the Vatican’s own archives, the soft-spoken Brown University professor and trustee at the American Academy in Rome has become arguably the most effective excavator of the Vatican’s hidden sins, especially those leading up to and during World War II.
The son of a rabbi who participated in the liberation of Rome as an Army chaplain, Kertzer grew up in a home that had taken in a foster child whose family was murdered in Auschwitz. That family background and his activism in college against the Vietnam War imbued him with a sense of moral outrage — tempered by a scholar’s caution.
The result are works that have won the Pulitzer Prize, captured the imagination of Steven Spielberg and shined a sometimes harsh light on one of Earth’s most shadowy institutions.
Kertzer’s latest book, “The Pope at War,” looks at the church’s role in World War II and the Holocaust — what he considers the formative event of his own life. It documents the private decision-making that led Pope Pius XII to stay essentially silent about Hitler’s genocide and argues that the pontiff’s impact on the war is underestimated — and not in a good way.
“Part of what I hope to accomplish,” Kertzer said, “is to show how important a role Pius XII played.”
The current pope, Francis, said, “The church is not afraid of history,” when in 2019 he ordered the archives of Pius XII opened. But as Francis wrestles with how forcefully to condemn a dictator, this time Vladimir Putin of Russia, Kertzer has unearthed some frightening evidence about the cost of keeping quiet about mass killings.
Kertzer makes the case that Pius XII’s overriding dread of Communism, his belief that the Axis powers would win the war, and his desire to protect the church’s interests all motivated him to avoid offending Adoph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, whose ambassadors had worked to put him on the throne. The pope was also worried, the book shows, that opposing the Führer would alienate millions of German Catholics.
The book further reveals that a German prince and fervent Nazi acted as a secret back channel between Pius XII and Hitler and that the pope’s top Vatican adviser on Jewish issues urged him in a letter not to protest a fascist order to arrest and send to concentration camps most of Italy’s Jews.
“That was flabbergasting,” Kertzer said about coming across the letter.
Defenders of Pius XII, whose case for sainthood is still being evaluated, have long argued that he worked behind the scenes to help Jews and that anti-Catholic enemies have sought to stain the institution by sullying the pontiff.
“A more open protest would not have saved a single Jew but killed even more,” Michael Hesemann, who considers Pius XII a champion of Jews, wrote in response to the evidence revealed by Kertzer, whom he called “heavily biased.”
Hesemann, who is also the author of a new book about the wartime pope based on the Vatican archives, argued that the Vatican, while following its tradition of neutrality, worked to hide Jews in convents and distribute fake baptism certificates.
Kertzer argues that the unearthed documents paint a more nuanced picture of Pius XII, showing him as neither the antisemitic monster often called “Hitler’s Pope” nor a hero. But the urge to protect Pius’ reputation, according to Kertzer, reflects a more general refusal by Italy — and apologists in the Vatican — to come to terms with their complicity in World War II, the Holocaust and the murder of Rome’s Jews.
On Oct. 16, 1943, Nazis rounded up more than 1,000 of them throughout the city, including hundreds in the Jewish ghetto, now a tourist attraction where crowds feast on Jewish-style artichokes near a church where Jews were once forced to attend conversion sermons.
For two days, the Germans held the Jews in a military college near the Vatican, checking to see who was baptized or had Catholic spouses.
“They didn’t want to offend the pope,” Kertzer said. His book shows that Pius XII’s top aides only interceded with the German ambassador to free “non-Aryan Catholics.” About 250 were released. More than 1,000 were murdered in Auschwitz.
When the US Fifth Army reached Rome, Kertzer’s father, Lt. Morris Kertzer, a Canadian-born rabbi, was with them and officiated at the synagogue.
One US soldier, a Jew from Rome who had immigrated to America when Mussolini introduced Italy’s racial laws, asked Morris Kertzer if he could make an announcement to see if his mother had survived the war. The rabbi positioned the soldier at his side, and when the services started, a cry broke out, and the GI’s mother rushed up to embrace her son.
“That’s the one I remember the most of my father telling,” David Kertzer said.
A year before Kertzer’s birth in 1948, his parents took in a teenage survivor of Auschwitz. When footage of Nazi soldiers appeared on television, Kertzer and his older sister, Ruth, would leap to switch the set off to protect their foster sister, Eva.
By then, his father had become the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, essentially to try to strip Christian churches of antisemitism. As part of the normalizing effort, a young David Kertzer appeared on Jack Paar’s “Tonight Show,” singing prayers at the family’s Passover Seder.
At Brown University, his organizing against the Vietnam War nearly got him kicked out and landed him in a jail cell with Norman Mailer. He stayed in school and became enamored with anthropology and with Susan Dana, a religion major from Maine.
To stay close to her, he went in 1969 to graduate school at Brandeis, where an anthropology professor suggested that his interest in politics and religion made Italy a rich field of study.
The result was a year of research in Bologna, Italy, with Susan, now his wife, and his first book, “Comrades and Christians.” After earning his doctorate, positions at Bowdoin and Brown followed, as did two children, a lifelong connection to Italy and a growing familiarity with Italian — and then, by chance, Vatican — archives.
In the early 1990s, an Italian history professor told him about Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old child of Jewish parents in Bologna. In 1858, the church Inquisitor ordered the boy seized because a Christian servant girl had possibly, and secretly, had him baptized, and so he could not remain in a Jewish family.
The story represented what Kertzer called “a dual career shift,” toward writing for a general audience and about Jewish themes.
The result was his 1998 book, “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” a National Book Award finalist in nonfiction. It caught the eye of his friend, playwright Tony Kushner, who later gave it to Steven Spielberg, who told Kertzer he wanted to make it into a movie. Mark Rylance came on board to play Pius IX. Kushner wrote the screenplay. All they needed was a boy to play Edgardo.
“They auditioned 4,000 — not 3,900 — 4,000 6-to-8-year-old boys in four continents,” Kertzer said. “Spielberg informs us that he’s not happy with any of the boys.”
The project stalled, but Kertzer did not. He emerged from the archives to publish “The Pope Against the Jews,” about the church’s role in the rise of modern antisemitism. In 2014, he published “The Pope and Mussolini,” examining Pius XI’s role in the rise of fascism and the antisemitic Racial Laws of 1938. It won the Pulitzer Prize.
Since then, Vatican archivists recognize and, sometimes, encourage him.
“Perhaps even they’re happy that some outsider is able to bring this to light because it’s awkward, perhaps, for some of them to do so,” he said.