How a Wartime Vatican Agency Worked

Information Office Helped Family Members Contact One Another

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VATICAN CITY, JULY 15, 2004 ( A Vatican agency that helped family members contact their loved ones during World War II handled up to tens of thousands of inquiries daily.

The agency’s work is revealed in two volumes recently published by the Vatican Secret Archives.

In the introduction to the volumes entitled «Inter Arma Caritas,» Francesca di Giovanni and Giuseppina Roselli, historians and officials of the Vatican archives, explain the history of the Vatican Information Office (1939-1947). Pope Pius XII established the office to assist people who were seeking information on their loved ones.

From the two volumes, ZENIT was able to reconstruct a sketch of the history of the information office.

Initially, the Vatican Information Office headquarters was in the Vatican Secretariat of State, in the Ordinary Affairs Section, in St. Damasus Patio.

It was headed by Russian Bishop Alexander Evreinoff, assisted by a secretary, Father Emilio Rossi. It started with two employees.

Papal representatives in various countries were in constant touch with the office. These included nuncios, apostolic delegates and vicars — all of whom had organized information offices in their respective sees, following the Vatican model.

These offices received the dispatches sent by the Holy See. Replies were sent daily by messenger under diplomatic seal.

During periodic visits to internment camps, hospitals and other facilities, the papal representatives, in addition to offering spiritual help, distributed mail and aid among the prisoners, including books, medicines, food, clothing, tobacco and even musical instruments.

The activity of the Vatican Information Office changed greatly with the German invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium and France, beginning in spring 1940, and with Italy’s entry in the war on June 10.

The number of requests for information rose to hundreds a day, so the office had to increase its staff from two to 16.

Given the difficulties of communications in occupied countries, Vatican Radio was tapped for help beginning June 20, 1940 to request information, give information, or to answer queries regarding refugees and missing persons.

By 1944, Vatican Radio was broadcasting 63 weekly programs dedicated exclusively to providing this sort of information, transmitting 27,000 messages a month.

On established days and times, Vatican Radio transmitted lists of prisoners’ names, both civilian and military, and of refugees and missing persons. It also broadcasted news and messages gathered by nunciatures, papal delegations and diocesan curias, which tried to contact the families.

To expedite and increase the messages, conventional numbers were mentioned instead of phrases. For example, number 3 meant «I am well,» number 11 «I await your news,» and number 13 «my address is the following.»

At the start of 1941, about 2,000 requests were sent daily to the Vatican Information Office. The staff grew to 100, and the office had to change its location. On April 1, 1941, it moved to St. Charles’ Palace, within the Vatican territory.

The new headquarters were divided in two sections. One was for internal work, and the other was the reception for hundreds of persons who came to ask for information on their loved ones and to fill out forms.

Far higher was the number of requests that arrived by mail. A file card was filled out for each letter, and was assigned a protocol number. The inquiries were received with no distinctions made as to race, religion, nationality or civil status.

The records created by the various sections of the Vatican Information Office, divided in lots of a thousand, were put in wooden boxes at the end of the day. The records were updated daily.

To carry out this enormous work, an appeal was made to volunteers of Catholic Action and to numerous nuns in Rome.

Inquires were transmitted to papal representations worldwide. Forms with responses were classified in a special section, and the records were updated, noting information sent on to the families.

Every week, the substitute of the Secretariat of State, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Paul VI), called a meeting attended by Bishop Evreinoff, Father Rossi, and Monsignor Angelo Baragel of Vatican Radio, as well as other bishops and monsignors of the Roman Curia. The minutes of these meetings were later presented to Pope Pius XII.

Among its functions, the information office had to assist Jewish citizens living in territories occupied and controlled by Germany. Correspondence sent to Jewish Germans and Slavs was often blocked or rejected by the German censor.

St. Raphael’s Society looked after the Jews from Slovakia to Croatia. It was headed by Father Anton Weber in the church of the Pallotine Fathers in Rome.

To promote the spread of this news, in the second half of 1942 the Vatican Information Office published the monthly magazine Ecclesia, founded and directed by Monsignor Montini. It was the information organ of the office from September 1942 to December 1945.

In 1943, the office reached the peak of its activity, with tens of thousands of daily inquiries. During this period, some 600 people worked in the information office. The office ceased its activities on Oct. 31, 1947.

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