The Vatican and The Nazis

A few years ago, I wrote an article examining the atrocities suffered by non-Catholic peoples living in the Balkans during the years of the Second World War. In this paper, Life Under Rome's Umbrella, I documented some of the activities of Fransiscan death camp commandants and priest-commanders of murderous Ustashe ethnic cleansing units. The article documented some of the support they received from princes of the Roman Catholic Church, including the Pope himself.

In a more recent report, I recalled some of the wartime activities of Croatian archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, who was beatified by Rome's god maker, John Paul II. I included a few facts concerning the goings-on of another "Venerable", Slovenian Bishop Anton Martin Slomsek in a third report

It has been more than half a century since the end of World War II and the numbers of people with contemporary knowledge of events as they happened in the Balkans are dwindling. For some time now, Vatican spin doctors have been busily creating a revised history that paints an image of RCC involvement in ethnic cleansing and other atrocities far different from documented reality. I do not doubt that, one day, history books will record how loving Franciscan priests willingly gave their lives to protect Croatian Jews, Serbs and Gypsies who came to them for help. One day people may speak in awed whispers of the selfless sacrifices of Catholic popes and bishops who gave their all to shelter the intended victims of Nazi pogroms.

One day, perhaps, but for now the truth is still available for those willing to examine it with open minds.

The horrors of the Hitler's Holocaust have been well documented and are part of the collective awareness of modern history of the western world. At least they are now. There was another holocaust, in every way the equal of Germany's. This reign of terror, centered in the puppet state of Croatia, is virtually unknown except to those who bear the scars in their bodies and in their hearts.

The recent apology by Pope John Paul II holds little weight with the heirs and few elderly survivors of one of the bloodiest chapters in the Roman Catholic Church, the 1941-1945 atrocities by the Croatian Nazis known as the Ustashe. In April 1941, multi-ethnic Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis who wasted no time in installing the fanatical Ante Pavlic's Catholic Ustashe in power in Croatia. With the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church and the active participation of clergy, especially Franciscan monks, the Ustashe killed 750,000 Serbs, Jews, and Roma in an orgy of violence that shocked even some of the Germans and revolted their Italian allies.[1]

"Active participation of the clergy?", one might ask. "Just how involved were those priests and monks?" They were drenched in innocent blood right up to their armpits.

"Nearly half of the 22 concentration camps in Fascist Independent State of Croatia, during WWII were headed by Croatian Roman Catholic clergy."[2]

"Led by Archbishop Stepinac, the Catholic Church was deeply involved in the Holocaust in Yugoslavia - its bishops and priests openly supported the murderous regime of Ante Pavelic, the wartime Croatian leader who pursued a ruthless policy of "kill a third, deport a third, and convert a third" of all the Serbs, Jews and Roma of Croatia and Bosnia. Abbot Marcone [the de facto Papal Legate in Croatia] was Pavelic's confessor and Archbishop Stepinac, [were] convicted of war crimes after the war. Several members of his clergy were involved in the genocide at Jasenovac - notably the Franciscan priest, Pater Miroslav Filipovic, who was one of the commandants of the camp. Stepinac recorded in his diary on 3rd August 1941 that "the Holy See (the Vatican) recognized de facto the independent State of Croatia."[3]

Some might argue that the above statements are pure emotionalism; that they cannot be true, else the world would know about these events. While it is true that few ever heard of Croatia or the Ustashe before the recent troubles in Yugoslavia, that is changing. One historian described Catholic Ustashe rule in Croatia as:

"an act of 'ethnic cleansing' before that hideous term came into vogue, it was an attempt to create a 'pure' Catholic Croatia by enforced conversions, deportations, and mass exterminations. So dreadful were the acts of torture and murder that even hardened German troops registered their horror. Even by comparison with the recent bloodshed in Yugoslavia at the time of writing, Pavelic's onslought against the Orthodox Serbs remains one of the most appalling civilian massacres known to history." [4]

Not surprisingly, the Vatican claims to have been ignorant of all that was going on in Croatia. This, despite the fact that the Pope's legate, Msgr. Marcone, frequently traveled between Zagreb and the Vatican. What Pius XII supposedly was unaware of seems to have been common knowledge among senior members of the Catholic hierarchy.

"Pius Xll could not plead ignorance of what was going on in Croatia by bringing forward the excuse of the obstacles of war. Communication between Rome and Croatia was as easy and as free as in peacetime. From the very beginning of hostilities the Nazi Ambassador at the Vatican was treated as of far greater importance than all the Allied diplomats. In 1940 the Vatican was on the most cordial terms with Hitler. Political and religious Ustashi leaders came and went between Rome and Zagreb as freely as did the Germans and Italians, the Ustashi State then being a satellite of Nazi Germany, and hence a province of the Nazi Empire. Moreover, the Pope knew what was happening in Croatia, not only through the Hierarchical administrative machinery, which kept him up to date on all Croatian events, but also through other reliable sources. They were:

"(a) The Papal Legate. Pius XII, it should never be forgotten, had a personal representative in Croatia, whose task was to implement Vatican policy and coordinate it with that of Pavelic, as well as reporting on religious and political matters to the Pope himself. The Papal Legate to Croatia was Mgr. Marcone, who openly blessed the Ustashi, publicly gave the Fascist salute, and encouraged Catholics (e.g. when he went to Mostar) to be "faithful to the Holy See, which had helped that same people for centuries against Eastern barbarism" -- that is say, against the Orthodox Church and the Serbs. Thus, the Pope's official representative openly instigated religious persecution, as well as praying for victory "under the leadership of the Head of the State Pavelic," against the Yugoslav National Liberation Army in 1944 - 5.

(b) Cardinal Tiseran [sic], head of the Holy Congregation of Eastern Churches. This congregation's specific task was to deal with Eastern Churches. Cardinal Tiseran received detailed reports of every forcible conversion and massacre in Croatia. Between April and June 19 over 100,000 Orthodox Serbs were massacred; yet Cardinal Tiseran on July 17, 1941, had the audacity to declare that Archbishop Stepinac would now do a great work for the development of Catholicism in "the Independent State of Croatia...where there are such great hopes for the conversion of those who are not of the true faith."

(c) Ante Pavelic, who, by his representative to the Vatican, through whom Pius XII sent "special blessing to the Leader (Pavelic)," forwarded regular reports, at times straight from the Minister of Religions, about the "rapid" progress of the Catholicization of the New Croatia.

(d) Last but not least, Archbishop Stepinac himself, who in person visited Pius XII twice, and who supplied His Holiness with figures of the forcible conversions. In an official document, dated as late as May 8, 1944, His Eminence Archbishop Stepinac, head of the Catholic Hierarchy, in fact, informed the Holy Father that to date "244,000 Orthodox Serbs" had been "converted to the Church of God." [5]

Support for the above allegations is provided by a letter written in March of 1942 by Cardinal Eugene Tisserant to the Croatia representative to the Vatican.

"I know for a fact, that it is the Franciscans themselves, as for example Father Simic of Knin, who have taken part in attacks against the Orthodox populations so as to destroy, the Orthodox Church. In the same way, you destroyed the Orthodox Church in Banja Luka. I know for sure that the Franciscans in Bosnia and Herzegovina have acted abominably, and this pains me. Such acts should not be committed by educated, cultured, civilized people, let alone by priests." [6]

As anyone who has ever seen a English movie involving partisan activity in Europe knows, the BBC incessantly bombarded the airwaves with coded messages to freedom fighters and propaganda/news reports. Given the Catholic Church's widespread interests, I cannot believe that there was not someone in the Vatican monitoring these broadcasts and passing what they heard up the chain of command. What picture did these broadcasts paint of the goings on in Croatia? See for yourself. The following was transmitted on February 16, 1942:

"The worst atrocities are being committed in the environs of the archbishop of Zagreb [Stepinac]. The blood of brothers is flowing in (the) streams. The Orthodox are being forcibly converted to Catholicism and we do not hear the archbishop's voice preaching revolt. Instead it is reported that he is taking part in Nazi and Fascist parades" [7]

A report published by the United States Department of State in June of 1998 unequivocally states that the Vatican was aware of the atrocities in Croatia:

"The Vatican, which maintained an "Apostolic visitor" in Zagreb from June 1941 until the end of the War, was aware of the killing campaign, which started with the internment of most of the 35,000 to 45,000 Croatian Jews in the spring and summer of 1941, and continued with the flight of up to 5,000 Jews from the German-occupied areas of the Croatian state to the Italian portion of the protectorate, and the deportation to Germany of all remaining Croatian Jews beginning in July 1942. Croatian Catholic authorities condemned the atrocities committed by the Ustashi, but remained otherwise supportive of the regime. During his March 1943 visit to Croatia, German Interior Minister Heinrich Himmler demanded that the few remaining Jews be deported to Germany (including those who had been baptized Catholics or married to Catholics). Germany continued its efforts throughout the War to compel the Italians to deport those Jews who had found sanctuary in Italian-occupied Dalmatia. Many of them ultimately found safety on the island of Rab off the Dalmatian coast. The German occupiers boasted that the Jewish population of Croatia had been wiped out by early 1944 (except for those who managed to gain Italian protection or escaped to join the Partisans).[8]

The Catholic Ustashe were not content to merely brutalize, torture and murder Jews, Gypsies and Orthodox Serbs. They also looted their possessions, stealing gold, jewelry and other valuables worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Some of this plunder went to Germany, some of it was recovered after the war ended and some of it disappeared from sight. It bears mentioning that not a lot of the recovered loot was returned to the descendants of those from whom it was stolen. Most apparently went into the treasuries of the victorious powers and a few "neutral" nations. Not an inconsiderable amount of gold ended up in the Vatican.

Among the documents recently released by the United States government was a memo sent to Harold Glasser, Director of Monetary Research, U. S. Treasury Department. The memo, dated October 21, 1946, reads as follows:

"The following report has been recently received from a reliable source in Italy. It is sent to you in the belief that it may be of interest.

"The Ustascha organization (a Croatian fascist organization, headed by Ante Pavelis) removed funds from Yugoslavia estimated to total 350 million Swiss francs. The funds were largely in the form of gold coins.

"Of the funds brought from the former Independent Croat State where Jews and Serbs were plundered to support the Ustascha organization in exile, an estimated 150 million Swiss Franks [sic] were impounded by British authorities at the Austro-Swiss frontier; the balance of approximately 200 million Swiss Francs was originally held in the Vatican for safe-keeping. According to rumor, a considerable portion of this later amount has been sent to Spain and Argentina through the Vatican's "pipeline," but it is quite possible this is merely a smokescreen to cover the fact that the treasure remains in its original repository."[9]

Was the Vatican actually involved in hiding Ustashe fugitives and their plundered treasure? The Vatican, as is to be expected, denies any knowledge of such activities. Against Vatican denials of complicity stand a large number of American and other nations' intelligence reports that appear to prove otherwise. Many of these intelligence documents are referenced in the June, 1998 State Department report. Under Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, announcing the publication of the report, told reporters that it "reflects a solemn commitment by the United States and by the Clinton Administration to confront the largely hidden history of Holocaust-year assets after five decades of neglect."[10] The report implicates the Vatican in the disappearance of the treasury of the wartime Nazi puppet state of Croatia.

Early in 1998, a major weekly news magazine asked the question: "Did gold stolen by Croatian fascists reach the Vatican?"[11] The article points out that the Vatican absolutely refuses to grant investigators access to its secret archives. The folks at the Vatican may be keeping mum, but investigative reporters now have a wealth of recently-declassified intelligence reports to examine. Those reports have provided information concerning the priest the reporters call the "most significant player of all."

"The Rev. Krunoslav Dragonovic, a Franciscan, had been a senior official of the Ustasha committee that handled the forced conversion of Orthodox Serbs. In 1943, the Ustasha arranged for the Croatian Catholic Church to send Father Dragonovic to Rome. There he served as secretary of the Instituto San Girolamo, a seminary for Croatian monks that was in fact a center of clandestine Ustasha acivity. Dragonovic also became Ustasha leader Ante Pavelic's unofficial emissary to the Vatican, and de facto liaison to the Pontifical Relief Commission, a Vatican organization that aided refugees during and after the war." [12]

The State Department, drawing on American intelligence reports, also identifies the College of San Girolamo degli Illirici as center of Ustasha covert activity. The report declares that:

"British intelligence information of March 1946 also identified San Girollamo as the church for the Ustashi managed by a brotherhood of Croatian priests, the "confraternita di San Girolama." This brotherhood issued identity cards with false names to the fugitive Ustashi, allowing them to evade arrest or detention by the allies. [13]

"Monsignor Juraj Madjerec, identified in intelligence reports as an Ustasha supporter, was head of the College, but the prime mover behind this Ustasha activity in Rome was the secretary of the College, Father Dr. Krunoslav Stefano Dragonovic, who was also an Ustasha colonel and former official of the Croat Ministry for Internal Colonization," the agency responsible for the confiscation of Serb property in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

"Regarded by U.S. intelligence officers as Ante Pavelic's "alter ego," the Croatian-born Father Dragonovic had been Professor of Theology at Zagreb University. In 1943 he went to Rome allegedly as the representative of the Croatian Red Cross, but probably to coordinate Ustasha affairs in Italy. Taking advantage of contacts inside the International Red Cross and other refugee and relief organizations, Dragonovic helped Ustasha fugitives emigrate illegally to South America by providing temporary shelter and false identity documents, and by arranging onward transport, primarily to Argentina. U.S> intelligence reports make much of Father Dragonovi's role in helping the Ustashi who sought protection in Rome after the War.He was also reportedly entrusted with the safeguarding of the archives of the Ustasha Legation in Rome, which he hid somewhere in the Vatican, as well as with all the valuables brought out of Croatia by the fleeing Ustashi."[14]

Dragonovic may have been a devoted Catholic and committed to the Croatian cause, but he apparently was not unwilling to take advantage of the times and his own unique position to make a buck or two.

"Dragonovic may also have personally profited from his illegal activities, charging refugees as much as $1,500 for false documents and realizing $625 from each refugee he helped transport to Argentina.[15]

Some of the stolen money that remained under Catholic control – whether Ustashe or Vatican – was used to support Ustashe hiding in Rome and elsewhere. A U.S. intelligence agent reported, in a document recently declassified, that a Croatian priest living at San Girolamo dispensed a monthly allowance equivalent to about $2,700 today.[16] The money followed after fleeing Ustashe war criminals even after they had made their way out of Europe.

"Croatian Catholic officials were funneling money to war criminals even after they escaped to Argentina, documents show. According to cable intercepts cited in a 1947 U.S. diplomatic report, Pavelic excaped in November of 1947 to Buenos Aires, where he is said to have been met by a retinue of Catholic priests. Newly declassified documents salso show that Bishop Rozman was funneling money to South America from a Swiss bank account set up "to aid refugees of the Catholic religion." U.S. military attache' Davis Harrington reported on March 9, 1948, that Rozman "is going to Bern to take care of these finances. The money is in a Swiss bank, and he plans to have most of it sent to the Ustashas in Argentina."[17]

Many of the fugitives were able to evade capture and flee Europe by passing along a "rat line" operated by sympathetic priests. This underground railroad was established by the American Counter Intelligence Corps to facilitate bringing scientists, espionage agents and defectors out of nations under Communist control.

"According to secret reports from the U.S. Army's Counterintelligence Corps (CIC), written just after World War II and since declassified, Draganovic and his collaborators at San Girolamo provided money, food, housing and forged Red Cross passports for a number of Ustasha war criminals seeking to escape justice. Through an underground railroad of sympathetic priests, known as the "ratline," the Ustashas could move from Trieste, to Rome, to Genoa, and on to neutral countries – primarily Argentina – where they could live out their days unpunished and unnoticed. Along the ratline, virtually then entire Ustasha leadership went free. "All these people were escaping – and this at a time when just getting a meal in Rome was a major accomplishment," recalls William Gowen, a CIC officer in Rome after the war."[18]

The barbarous leader of the Independent State of Croatia, Ante Pavelic, emigrated to Argentina in November of 1948.[19] Where did Pavelic, a wanted war criminal, hide out between the end of the war and his departure from Europe aboard the Italian motor vessel Sistrire? Wherever he may have been before, he reached Rome in late 1946, disguised as a priest and carrying a Spanish passport. According to intelligence reports, he spent the next two years living in San Girolamo and other quarters in Rome.[20]

"Other quarters in Rome>" Don't you just wonder where those other quarters may have been? According to official British sources, one of those other places was the Vatican itself.

"Other reports mention Ustashas meeting with Vatican officials or even living in the Vatican. The British Foreign Officer reported in January 1947 that Pavelic himself was living "within the Vatican City." An earlier report by Gowen, in October, 1946, noted that Pavellic was in Rome and in contact with Draganovic.

"Documents include accounts of Ustashas being hidden at the pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and being seen driving around in Rome in cars with Vatican license plates."[21]

Reports from non-governmental agencies corroborate "official" accounts of Vatican involvement in helping war criminals escape from Europe:

"The Simon Wiesenthal Center says the Vatican set up 22 committees after the war to help Nazis escape from Europe, and claims the gold looted by the Croats may have been used to finance the operation, known as the "rat-line." Among those who escaped was Ustashe leader Ante Pvaelic, who made his way to Latin America using papers allegedly provided by the Vatican, and disguised as a Catholic priest."[22]

The survivors of Catholic-supported atrocities in Croatia and the Ukraine and their heirs have begun a court battle to recover property stolen from them. Chicago-based court reformer Sherman H. Skolnick reports on the lawsuit:

"In apparently the first legal action of its kind, the Vatican Bank has been sued by World War Two victims and their heirs and beneficiaries. Brought as a class action in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the initial plaintiffs are Ukranians and ex-Soviet citizens, but the affected class includes Serbians, Roma, anti-Fascist Croatians, and Jews."[23]

Easton & Levy, California lawyers representing victims and their organizations, filed the original complaint November 15, 1999 and the First Amended Complaint on January 21, 2000. The Franciscan Order was served on a Croatian Franciscan priest in Oakland, California on Tuesday, March 15, 2000. The Vatican Bank was served in Rome on Friday, March 17th.[24]

"The lawsuit is seeking restitution from the Vatican Bank, the Franciscan order and several unnamed private banks, all of which allegedly profited illegally from the Holocaust by accepting valuables stolen by the Nazi-backed Ustashe regime…"

"The suit alleges that gold and other assets worth about $170 million today, not including interest, were looted by the Ustashe and safeguarded by the Vatican after World War II. Vatican officials in Yugoslavia allegedly collaborated closely with the Croatian-led Ustashe, which also wreaked havoc in Ukraine." [25]

Is this lawsuit only about money? Money is a major issue, of course, but there is more to it. Families of victims and survivors of this "hidden" Holocaust want the world to know what went on in Yugoslavia during the years of Nazi domination. And they want closure. Thomas Easton, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, made that clear.

"Our lawsuit is basically about the loot, but the people who are plaintiffs are interested in some recognition of this hidden Holocaust, " Easton said. "It's a Holocaust that has been largely unreported in our history books."[26]

Additional information concerning this class action lawsuit and claim forms are available at the Easton & Levy website. [27]

End Notes:

1. Seán Mac Mathúna, The Vatican, Croatia and the Nazi Gold, Flame, Issue 3, Winter, 1999

2. Edmond Paris, Convert…or die: Catholic persecution in Yugoslavia during WWII, Chino, Ca (1993), p. 167

3. Seán Mac Mathúna, The Role of the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia's Holocaust, Flame, Issue 4, Spring, 2000

4. John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope:The Secret History of Pius XII, Viking Press:London (1999), p. 249

5. Avro Manhattan, The Vatican's Holocaust, Ozark Books:Ozark, Mo., pp. 100-104

6. John Cornwell, Op. cit., p. 259

7. John Cornwell, Op. cit., p. 256

8. U.S. State Department report: U.S. and Allied Wartime and Postwar Relations and Negotiations With Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey on Looted Gold and German External Assets and U.S. Concerns About the Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury, June 1998 Supplement to Preliminary Study on U.S. and Allied Efforts To Recover and Restore Gold and other Assets Stolen or Hidden by Germany During World War II

9. letter from Emerson Bigelow, Strategic Services Unit (SSU), to Harold Glasser, U.S. Treasury, October 21, 1946, RG 226, Entry 183, Box 29, 1946. The SSU was the postwar successor in the War Department to the Secret Intelligence (SI) Branch of the OSS. According to published sources, Emerson Bigelow served as a financial expert/consultant in pre-war years to the U.S. Government. During the War he was responsible for establishing and maintaining an operation to provide funds for both overt and covert OSS operations, and continued to provide financial advice to the Defense Department and the CIA for several years after the War. See in particular The American Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 53, pp. 184-185. In 1946 Bigelow was in the SSU, and was responsible for liaison with the Treasury Department. Bio data from: U.S. State Department report, Op. cit., footnote 11 to Chapter "The Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury".

10. Stuart Eizenstat, Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs, On-the-record briefing upon the release of the report, U.S. and Allied Wartime and Postwar Relations and Negotiations With Argentina, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey on Looted Gold and German External Assets and U.S. Concerns About the Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury, Washington, DC, June 2, 1998

11. Susan Headden, Dana Hawkins, and Jason Vest, A vow of silence, U.S. News (March 30, 1998)

12. Ibidem

13. British Public Records Office, War Office Files, WO 204/11574. The British intelligence file identified Croatian priest Dominc Mandic as the Vatican representative to San Girolamo.

14. U.S. State Department report, Op. cit.

15. U.S. State Department report, Op. cit., footnote 42 to Chapter "The Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury".

16. Susan Headden et al, Op. cit.

17. Ibidem

18. Ibidem

19. U.S. State Department report, Op. cit.

20. Information Report, Subject: "The Organization of Ustashis Abroad," November 4, 1946 (date of information is October 1946); Information Report, Subject: "The Vatican as an Asylum for War Criminals,"mAugust 8, 1947 (date of information is July 1947); Information Report, Subject: "Reported Arrival of Ante Pavelic in Argentina,: December 2, 1948, all in CIA Operational Files. Aarons and Loftus, The Unholy Trinity, pp. 77-78, indicate that Pavelic joined most of the former Ustasha regime in Buenos Aires, including nearly every surviving Cabinet Minister. Data from: U.S. State Department report, Op. cit., footnote 34 to Chapter "The Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury".

21. Susan Headding et al, Op. cit.

22. Patrick Goodenough, Vatican Faces Lawsuit for Alleged Nazi-Era War Crimes, Cybercast News Service , November 23, 1999

23. Sherman H. Skolnick, Vatican Bank Sued for Alleged War Crimes, © 2000.

24. Easton & Levy press release, Pope's Apology too little, too late for Victims of Roman Catholic Ethnic Cleansing, March 29, 2000

25. Andy Altman-Ohr, Vatican Bank faces S.F. lawsuit over looted Nazi gold,Jewish Bulletin News (February 4, 2000)

26. Ibidem



Additional reading: Ilija Ivanovic, "Witness to Jasenovac's Hell," Dallas Publishing Company (2002)

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