Vatican archives could open window to Jewish history

History is not only the actions of leaders. It is the actions of millions of "ordinary people." Studying history is not only examining the deeds of these leaders. It is learning about the activities of the everyday man or woman, for they provide the detail that fills in the canvas of a past era.

Repeated calls have been made to Pope John Paul II — and his predecessors — to open the Vatican archives. Researchers need full and unfettered access to those documents, so they can make an honest assessment of the role of the Catholic Church during World War II and the Holocaust.

Yet the files must be opened not only so historians can make a complete examination of the actions of the leaders of the church. They must be opened so we can get a fuller picture of what happened throughout Europe during those desperate years. The Jewish people live with a black hole of history, not on the level of what the leaders of Europe did during those years, but on the level of what happened in every European village before, during and after the Holocaust.

The recent call from Israeli Interior Minister Natan Sharansky was not the first unequivocal appeal to the Vatican to open up the past to us, but it was the clearest call to date and we fully endorse it.

Exactly how many Jews lived in every village before the war? What happened to them, on the individual level, when the German army invaded? What did their non-Jewish neighbors do? Did they help? Did they reveal Jews in hiding?

The Holocaust did not only murder more than one-half of prewar European Jewry. It also destroyed countless documents of Jewish life in Europe, as well as the opportunity to document that life more fully from the accounts of eyewitnesses. By the end of the Holocaust, many were no longer alive.

Our right to fill in this hole is no less compelling than our attempts to see the wrongs of history righted by reclaiming property, dormant accounts and insurance policies, and finding out what happened to lost relatives.

Eyewitness accounts of survivors, war criminals and non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews do fill in the hole for those villages and towns where Jews survived, where war criminals were arrested and brought to trial, where non-Jews did not stand by silently. But what about those villages to which no Jews returned, in which no war criminals were caught, in which there were no non-Jews who helped, or from whom no testimony was taken? Much is still not known.

There is every reason to believe that many of the missing details can be filled in by material that lies in the archives of the Vatican. Indeed, in many cases, the only comprehensive accounts of those fateful years are those compiled by the church representatives. They were present in all regions of Holocaust-torn Europe. In most cases they were not threatened by the actions of the German army, the SS and their local collaborators.

We must have access to the reports of village priests to their superiors and theirs to their superiors; they surely contain unique material for historians.

We must have the right to learn the truth. Examining the reports of eyewitnesses will not bring back those murdered, any less than it will right the wrongs of acts of complicity or of silent acquiescence in the face of the Holocaust. But it will provide information.

Moreover, it is only through full access to the Vatican archives that we can learn more about the silence of Pope Pius XII during World War II and the Holocaust. The documents that relate to this are vital to end, once and for all, this last bone of contention between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.

Only by studying the contents of the archives will we be able to find unsung Catholic heroes who helped save Jews and who must be honored for their actions. Conversely, access will also allow us to learn more about the involvement of the Catholic clergy in helping Nazi criminals escape to South America.

Our past is unbelievably scarred. The church must at least allow us a full examination of these traumatic events. Opening the Vatican archives will allow us to reclaim the black hole of history. There can be no more secrets from the Holocaust.