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At the Archives

FullTextImage/img/@altJoseph Predebon does research for his SURI project at the National Archives. --Photo courtesy of Maj. Houston Johson.

Cadet Consults Primary Sources for Honors Thesis on U.S.-Vatican Cooperation During World War II

LEXINGTON, Va., July 11, 2013 – For Joseph Predebon ’14, history textbooks alone are just a warm-up.

Predebon, a history major, has had the opportunity to do primary source research in Washington, D.C., this summer to prepare for writing his honors thesis on U.S.-Vatican relations during World War II. Specifically, Predebon’s work focuses on how the Vatican and the United States worked together to aid Jewish refugees displaced by Nazi persecution and the Holocaust.

Predebon’s summer research and writing are being conducted under the auspices of the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute. He also received a grant from VMI to fund a week in the nation’s capital, where he examined documents in both the U.S. Department of State Archive and the National Archives.

The seeds of Predebon’s thesis were planted during a spring 2012 study-abroad experience in Rome, arranged by VMI’s international programs office.

“I had an internship over there where I basically had to stroll through the Vatican,” explained Predebon. “I’ve always loved Rome and Italian history. It’s one of my favorite areas.”

Once back at VMI, Predebon began looking for a way to learn more about the Vatican and its role in history. Working with Maj. Houston Johnson, assistant professor of history, Predebon developed his thesis proposal and applied to participate in the SURI program as well. He is writing the first chapter of that thesis this summer.

In early June, Predebon and Johnson traveled together to Washington, D.C., where Predebon looked for and found documents proving that the World War II-era pope, Pius XII, worked undercover to aid Jewish peoples who were being persecuted in the Holocaust by funneling money through U.S. sources. The Roman-born pope was also able to use his influence to shut down concentration camps in Italy.

In the decades since World War II, Pius XII has come under fire for not condemning the Nazi atrocities more strongly, or doing more to stop the massive loss of life. Predebon explained, though, that the pope could do little overtly, because he was striving to be a peacemaker, as Pope Benedict XV had attempted to be in World War I, and he was also determined to maintain the Vatican’s neutrality.

That neutrality, Predebon said, was key to maintaining the Lateran Agreement, signed in 1929, which established Vatican City as an independent state. In Fascist Italy, preserving the Lateran Agreement was crucial. Without it, Predebon commented, “[The pope] could have lost the Vatican and been taken over by Germany.”

With his hands thus tied, Pius XII did what he could to let the United States know what was going on in Europe. In the nation’s capital, Predebon found documents proving that the pope sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to refugee relief efforts in Poland and other nations, by channeling the funds through the American Apostolic Delegation.

Predebon, meanwhile, hasn’t been the only one learning this summer. Johnson, whose areas of specialty include World War II and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s wartime administration, also said he’d learned new and surprising pieces of information.

“I was aware that the U.S. tried to help refugees, but the most famous examples of that are negative ones,” Johnson commented. He explained that the United States could not take large numbers of Jewish refugees during World War II because of the National Origins Act, passed in 1924, which set nation-based caps on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States each year. Because of this act, Johnson said, an entire ship full of Jewish refugees was turned away from U.S. shores in 1939.

Predebon has also found that the United States tried to get Latin American countries to take Jewish refugees during the late 1930s, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

“The extent of the cooperation and the effectiveness of that cooperation that Joe has found between the U.S. and the Vatican are really interesting,” said Johnson.

Johnson had high praise for both Predebon’s efforts and the opportunities provided by the SURI program.

“Being able to do real primary-source research at one of the biggest and most significant repositories in this country, he’s doing what any professional historian would be doing,” noted Johnson. “That’s a unique opportunity. It’s something I didn’t get to do as an undergraduate.”

Johnson continued, “If he finds himself in graduate school for history, he’ll be well ahead of the curve with the skills he’s developed.”

Predebon agreed that the thesis work has allowed him to learn in ways the regular classroom never could. He noted, “It’s a nice experience to use all of the skills you pick up over the years as a history major – how to find documents, how to find information, how to do citations – it’s a really good learning experience.”

–Mary Price