Honoring History: Jewish Woman Built Vatican Photo Archive

L’Osservatore Romano Features Contribution of Hermine Speier

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ROME, APRIL 20, 2011 (Zenit.org).- An article Tuesday in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper honored the work of a Jewish German woman brought to the Vatican just before World War II, and entrusted with the task of building a photo archive for the Vatican Museums.

The author, Paolo Vian, draws from the «brilliant and well-researched article in the Italian daily, Il Foglio, of April 16,» by Paolo Rodari.

The newspaper tells a bit of the story of Hermine Speier (1898-1989), who studied archaeology under Ludwig Curtius at the University of Heidelberg.

She started her work at the Vatican in 1934, L’Osservatore Romano noted, asked by Pope Pius XI «to re-order the photographic archives of our museums.» It was Curtius who recommended her to the director-general of the Vatican Museums, Bartolomeo Nogara, to establish and organize a photography section of the Museum.

Speier was moved in with the nuns of the Catacombs of St. Priscilla on the via Salaria when «in October 1943, Nazi ferocity lashed out against the Jewish community of Rome.» This arrangement came about through the nephew of the Pontifical Master of Ceremonies.

«The hiding place was extremely secure: in the event the house was taken over, Speier and the other ‘evaders’ could escape through a secret tunnel near the catacombs, just as persecuted Christians did centuries prior,» the newspaper noted.

After the war, Speier would convert to Catholicism, and her family would cut off all ties with her.

Vian reflected that her story «can be read in different ways and through a variety of perspectives: as a page from the history of intellectual Jewish emigration from Germany, as a salient step in the affirmation of a feminine presence in the Vatican, or as an important moment in the work undertaken by the Holy See in the 1930s and 40s to aid a persecuted minority.»

«But it is the story of the archeologist which, on closer look, appears to be a parable rich in significance,» he proposed. «A German Jew, student of Classics, finds refuge in the Vatican during the dark nights of 20th century barbarism, and discovers in the shadow of St. Peter’s a place from which to shelter and witness a sense of that humanism which is the highest inheritance of the ‘most authentic German spirit.’ This meeting of German humanism, Judaism and Christianity is one for reflection and meditation.»

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